A Guide To Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford

Some Do Not…
No More Parades
A Man Could Stand Up–
Last Post

Ford’s tetralogy of novels, Parade’s End, is on most lists of great books about World War I and is the basis for a series now showing on the BBC to great critical acclaim. Benedict Cumberpatch plays the main character, Christopher Tietjens, and that immediately raises warning flags about the TV series. But that isn’t a reason not to watch. Look, I’m going to tell you what happens in the books, then you can pretend to have read it when the show hits NetFlix or PBS or wherever you can view it. Or, if so moved, you can read Parade’s End for yourself and tell me that I am full of it when I slag Ford’s characters.

Christopher Tietjens (pronounced TEE-jens) is the youngest son of English gentry. An ancestor came over with William of Orange and founded the family estate, Groby, in Yorkshire where the Tietjens family own a town — or so it is said in the first novel of the series, Some Do Not…, there is no further mention, later in the book, of the town, only of the great hall at Groby and Groby Great Tree that shades it. Now a Yorkshireman is supposed to be stubborn and so is a Dutchman, so we might well expect Christopher to be “obstinate as a hog” as his equally stubborn brother puts it — both of them are incredibly pig-headed to the point of self-destructive behavior. In appearance, Christopher is a large man, often described as looking like a meal-sack. Sometimes this is modified a bit: a “fat meal-sack”, for instance, or affectionately as a “dear, meal-sack elephant”, or even “as courteous as a well-trained meal-sack of the dix-huitieme” by Christopher’s French Sister-in-Law. Christopher is described as a meal-sack at least twenty times over the course of the four books. Now, I have seen meal-sacks and I have seen Sherlock and, hear me People! Benedict Cumberpatch is no meal-sack! He is a swell actor and all and photos from the BBC production indicate that he may have put on a few pounds, but I doubt that he is going to do a DeNiro and fatten up to meal-sack proportions. The fat, stubborn Yorkshireman is played by a slender southerner. Well, I haven’t seen it yet, maybe it works somehow.

Cumberpatch as Sherlock; French meal sack; Cumberpatch as Tietjens. Compare and contrast. (BTW, meal sacks are collectible. This one was on etsy.com.

Cumberpatch as Sherlock; French meal sack; Cumberpatch as Tietjens. Compare and contrast. (BTW, meal sacks are collectible. This one was on etsy.com.)

Some Do Not… begins with two young men “of the public official class” in a railway coach in the summer of 1912. One of these two is Christopher Tietjens who discusses his wife’s infidelity with the other young man, MacMaster.  Christopher tells MacMaster that he has had a message from Sylvia, Christopher’s wife. Sylvia has been in Europe having an affair, something she does fairly often, it seems. Will Christopher divorce her? No, he is too much a gentleman to ever divorce a woman, she must divorce him. Sylvia is a Catholic and unwilling to do that. So the couple is locked together. Sylvia is devious and nasty, dedicated to causing her husband pain — she can’t stand the stoic front that he presents (and, for that matter, I grew a little tired of it myself). Christopher doesn’t really believe in the value of the society whose standards he upholds, but he must, in his hard-headed stubborn way of thinking, uphold those standards because they are standards, his standards. Sylvia says that he lacks the guts to live by his own beliefs and that struck a chord with me, too, but the essence of the book is Tietjens finally coming around to living a life with meaning, rather than the sham existence — meaningless job, loveless marriage, irrelevant belief system, socializing with fools — at the novel’s beginning. Or at least that’s the best construction I can put on the narrative but actually, Christopher seems pretty lost at the end.

Tietjens, 26 years old, is “entitled to the best” but his friend MacMaster has Scots shopkeepers for parents and depends on Tietjens for cash and social entry. Tietjens can afford to neglect his own career as well as his appearance, MacMaster cannot. MacMaster is arty and latches onto the remnants of a pre-Raphaelite group (see Pre-Raphaelites) headed by Rev. Duchemin, one-time intimate of Ruskin, and Mrs. Duchemin, who lives in fear of her husband, who is completely nuts and may turn violent at any moment. MacMaster sizes up the scene and makes his move on Mrs. Duchemin, who succumbs to his charm. Also in this group is Mrs. Wannop, close friend of Christopher’s father, daughter of a famous critic and herself the author of a novel that Christopher thinks is pretty good. Mrs. Wannop’s daughter, Valentine, acts as a sometime housemaid for her mother and assists Mrs. Duchemin. She is twenty-two and a suffragette.

These characters, and some others, including General Campion, a family friend and Christopher’s godfather, entertain Christopher and MacMaster. This entire section is a venomous take on Edwardian society. The men play a round of golf first, some of them seeing if they can hit the party ahead of them with a drive, which is interrupted by suffragettes charging across the course. Some of the golfers chase after them shouting, “Strip the bitch naked!” One of the young women falls and sprains an ankle. Tietjens helps her and Valentine Wallop to evade the police and the girls get away.

Meanwhile, Christopher has refused to fake some figures for the Department of Statistics and has written a possibly insulting letter to his superior, something that upsets those around him a great deal. But Christopher wants to chuck the whole job. He winds up being lectured by his elders, frightening his good friend, irritating his co-workers, and, by the end of the golf match, is no longer on speaking terms with his golfing partner. Christopher meets each of these situations with the stolid, stoic visage of a gentleman.

Christopher and MacMaster have breakfast at the Duchemin house. Duchemin breakfasts are famous, once a main locus for artistic chat featuring Ruskin, Rossetti, and so on. The others are already at the table when Duchemin comes in, escorted by a muscular type that Tietjens recognizes as a champion prizefighter. And Christopher and the others understand that the boxer is there to restrain Duchemin if he becomes violent. A couple of times he seems building up to an explosion but MacMaster talks him down.

Anyway, by the time the golf/Duchemin visit is done, Christopher discovers an attraction to Valentine Wannop and is seen with her under circumstances that compromise the public perception of her virtue, which is a big deal here, partly because it has class implications. There is a fair amount of discussion among the male characters about when and where it is proper for a man’s mistress to make an appearance and how to deal with her financially — basically assigning her to a specfic class. A mistress is much higher in the social hierarchy than a servant but can never equal the status of a wife. This takes a fair bit of calculation and gentlemen consult one another in these matters.

Christopher and Valentine are in a horse-drawn cart during the early hours of the morning, having delivered the injured suffragette to safety. They discuss Latin, which Valentine knows very well, thank you. And they both yearn physically for one another but some do not embrace. Even so, when General Campion runs into them with his car — like a tea-tray coming out of the fog — it is assumed that they are having an affair. Christopher is also linked to Mrs. Duchemin. Sylvia piles on her own lies and Christopher is seen as a libertine and Sylvia, a wronged wife. Meantime, Christopher wonders if their son is really his child or not. Throughout, Christopher remains stoic and stolid and silent, though some detect a hint of suffering in his visage and seriously ask, “Is he trying to be Christlike?”

Cumberpatch and Rebecca Hall as Christopher and Sylvia.

Cumberpatch and Rebecca Hall as Christopher and Sylvia.

That is more or less the core story, the rest of the novel(s) will play out the ramifications of this first sequence over the next six or seven years. The War comes, Christopher finds himself facing “…death, love, and public dishonour…” — rare occurrences in the life of any man, we are told, but Christopher faces them all at once. Through it all, Christopher does not abandon his principles or his standards until toward the end of the War, by which time both he and Valentine have failed to embrace on several occasions, though each is dying to do just that. Sylvia continues on her nasty path of destruction, determined to make Christopher as unhappy as possible, possibly by warping their son, if she can find no other way.

All of this is worked out over the course of four novels that feature stream-of-consciousness, unreliable narration, and manipulated time lines. It is evident that the work is very structured but the nature of that structure is not immediately obvious.

Ford’s plan for Parade’s End seems to me like a musical composition. Once he has given us the opening story, the characters become themes, marked by recurrent words or images — meal-sacks, for instance. Sylvia is said to enjoy pulling the shower-bath strings — I think the meaning has to do with hot and cold water, but the string-pulling part of the image is evocative — she likes making trouble and she manipulates people like puppets. So “shower-bath strings” is the theme whenever she is mentioned and she is also shown pulling on actual strings, curtain cords, for example. In the musical piece, these themes would belong to specific instruments — a cello for Christopher going “I won’t. Won’t. Won’t.” and screechy violins for Sylvia with perhaps the addition of Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho bird calls, but maybe I am thinking too much about showers.

The titles of the individual novels are repeated throughout as well. “Some do not…” is given a number of different readings in the first book, just as A Man Could Stand Up and No More Parades are repeated over and over in those novels. In Last Post, the bugle call itself is played in the background from time to time. The repetitions — of titles, of character themes, of the same action performed by different people under different circumstances, of specfic words, (for example, “tea-tray” usually means violence, a crash or explosion, when you read it here — it may be instructive that someone remembers the name Tietjens sounding something like “tea-trays”) — all this repetition is intended, I think, as a sort of music meant to involve the reader. By the end of the work, just about every sentence is full of these repetitions so that words ring with the accumulated music. Or, I think, that is the way it is supposed to work.

Now one thing about turning these characters into musical themes is that it gives a certain license to ignore them as people, or rather, to ignore any aspect of their lives that is not part of the theme. Let’s check out these characters:

Christopher Tietjens: Our star meal-sack is stoic, stolid, and an asshole (see Scot-Jew). Benedict Cumberpatch says that he wishes he were as principled as Christopher. Oh no, Ben! These aren’t really principles being expressed by Christopher, they are positions taken by him and from which he will not be moved. “No one but a blackguard would ever submit a woman to the ordeal of divorce.” What principle is Christopher defending when he refuses to divorce Sylvia? The sanctity of marriage? Refusal to shame a woman who is shameless? Or is he just grabbing the moral high ground so that he can maintain an air of superiority to the entire situation? Certainly there is no Responsibility in Christopher’s position – neither toward his son nor his wannabe lover. Passive-aggressive Christopher is self-absorbed to the point of narcissism.

Sylvia Tietjens: Speaking of narcissism, let’s check out Sylvia. Sylvia screws around not because she enjoys sex, but because she enjoys being the star in her own little drama. She has allies in the form of besotted men and stupid cat’s-paw women. Her game is to disturb Christopher from his superior attitude:

Every speech he utters about everything… makes me want to stick a knife in him. …I can’t prove he’s wrong, not ever, about the simplest thing. But I can pain him!

She doesn’t mind being the villain, if she gets some choice lines, and boy, does she work for them!

Sylvia’s Scandals: The important thing is that the scandals are aimed at hurting Christopher, so any other result is just gravy. Christopher has been in England, recuperating (see Shell Shock) when he is about to be returned to the Front, His godfather General Campion has arranged for him to be as far behind the lines as he can manage, as a resupply officer. But Christopher has problems, too. Sylvia and her evil allies have created a situation where Christopher bounces a cheque or two, is crapped on by his bank, and booted out of his club. Christopher bounces back, demonstrating to bank and club that he was purposely put in the red by those aforesaid evil ones.

“Good God, Man! Your club membership is hereby reinstated!”
“In that case, I resign.” Never a crack in that stolid visage.

So Christopher is back in France having a not particularly good time though he does his job and does it well. But there are disturbing messages from the outside world. General Campion wants Christopher to make Sylvia leave him alone. It takes Christopher a while to realize that Sylvia is actually in France, at a nearby hotel, where he goes to meet her.

Now we learn, in fits and starts, that on the night that Christopher did not embrace Valentine and make her his mistress (see Non-Embraces), he went back to his London apartment and sat staring out a window into the darkness. Sylvia knows he is there and divines that he has not bonked Valentine (an event Sylvia tried to facilitate for evilness reasons of her own). She calls for a cab early in the morning to take her away; she is entering a convent retreat. Christopher, hearing her go, believes that their marriage is finally over.

Ha, ha. Silly boy! Sylvia spends three months in a nun’s cell before she becomes bored and decides to go back to torturing her husband. So, in France, at the hotel where she awaits Christopher, she flirts with a Major Perowne, who believes that he has the go-ahead to visit her room later that night. Now Perowne just happens to be the same guy that Sylvia shacked up with in Europe back in 1912 when Christopher came over to help her cover up any scandal. Sylvia sits, bored by Perowne’s chatter and contemplates hurting Christopher: “By the immortal saints,” she exclaims in an aside, “I swear I’ll make his wooden face wince yet.” Sylvia has more Asides to the Audience than Richard III; she turns into the camera and intones lines about the winter of her discontent and all, but let’s face it, she’s not a spectacular royal villain, she’s only Psycho-Bitch and a mature, adult male ought to be able to get shut of their relationship, not descend into the dysfunctional battle of “You hurt me, now I will stagger about and pretend I am not wounded. Then you can hurt me again!” Rebecca Hall ( Vicky Christina Barcelona) plays Sylvia in the BBC series, and it will be very difficult for her to avoid taking the role completely over the top.

This time Sylvia decides to seduce Christopher. So she dons a sexy negligee and sits at her dressing table looking alluring. Christopher comes to her room and is just about to be seduced — well, possibly, we hope, since after all these non-embraces the reader wants the boy to get his ashes hauled, every few years or so, anyway — when Perowne barges in. There is an altercation, attracting the attention of an officer that Christopher has antagonized and the whole evening becomes a shambles and a scandal. General Campion comes to see Christopher. The ramifications are that Christopher has to be transferred and, because Sylvia has cut off a number of possible posts and Christopher has antagonized himself out of others, he is to be sent to the Front. Christopher hears all this in a daze; he knows it is a death sentence. This was not what Sylvia intended, she just pulled one shower-string too many. Not that Sylvia is really sorry. She is never sorry.

This entire dysfunctional relationship bothers me. It’s as possible as anything else involving human beings, I suppose, but generally in these situations either the couple break up pretty quick or they are together forever, like George and Martha in Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf for instance. Now there’s a couple that can out-dysfunction any other relationship ever recorded or invented! They are far more interesting, in their hideous way, than Christopher and Sylvia.

Adelaide Clemens as Valentine. "What a jolly mistress she'd make," says Christopher. Sure, Chrissie, but first you have to embrace her.

Adelaide Clemens as Valentine. “What a jolly mistress she’d make,” says Christopher. Sure, Chrissie, but first you have to embrace her.

Valentine Wannop: The third side of this triangle is young suffragette Valentine. She is far more likable than the Tietjens couple mainly because she is healthy. Her father had her educated in ladies’ gym rather than academics because reasons of some kind or other. So Valentine is a vigourous type, sound in mind and body. Valentine is played by Adelaide Clemens, who is Australian and thus probably very healthy. Adelaide Clemens is a pretty blonde who can play Valentine very well, no doubt, but there is a slight glint in her eye that Valentine lacks. I cannot imagine Adelaide Clemens non-embracing all the time, there’s a girl with some life to her!

Christopher’s brother, Mark, thinks Valentine “has her head screwed on right”. Well, maybe. Here she is mooning after a married man for more than six years with nary an embrace. Something a bit off there, perhaps, but compared to Sylvia, a paragon of mental health. Let’s look at the thwarted romance of Valentine and Christopher:

Non-Embraces: The first non-embrace is during the long cart ride that results in scandal because it is thought that Christopher and Valentine actually did embrace. For five years afterward the two fantasize about one another, then Christopher decides it’s time to lighten up on this moral stance he’s taken.  It’s his last night in England before he heads back to the War. “Will you be my mistress tonight?”

Will she! Valentine has already made the bed! “Yes!” Here’s instructions on when and where to meet me.

Well, finally! But things happen. Christopher and Valentine fail to embrace again. They part, Christopher headed back to France, stoic as can be.

Christopher and Valentine meet again on Armistice Day. Christopher has actually been in London a for a while but hasn’t looked up Valentine, who he has sworn will be his mistress, because some reason or other. Anyway, she goes to see him and it looks good for an upcoming embrace. But Armistice Day is a raucous event. Valentine and Christopher are interrupted by a bunch of his old trenchmates who want to celebrate, which they do, and A Man Could Stand Up ends with Valentine and Chris dancing together. Soon, the reader anticipates, they will embrace.

It is a little while into Last Post before we discover that, no, things did not go well on Armistice Day. (By this point, the reader should not be surprised.) The evening of jollity that ended with dancing at the close of A Man Could Stand Up continues into a difficult, raucous night — one of Christopher’s war buddies dies in a cab — and when Christopher tries to take Valentine back to his place so they can, you know, embrace, who is there but evil Sylvia who tells Christopher that she has cancer and then throws herself down a flight of stairs. She picks up a few bruises and muses later that she is losing her touch, why a few years back, she could take such a fall and never suffer a blemish. Valentine is not taken in by this “good theater fall” and the couple leave Sylvia on the floor. (Hooray!) So, Christopher wants some cash so he can locate an embracing spot (I don’t know if he ever found one that night) and poor Valentine winds up discussing war policy with Mark at 3:30 in the morning and occasionally dashing into the next room to weep all over Marie Léonie’s shoulder. It’s about this time you want to say, Girl, get out of this mess!

Mark Tietjens: Christopher’s eldest brother, Mark, works in Ministry of Transport where he is very high up indeed. He and Christopher meet in 1917 to discuss the deaths of their other two brothers, their sister, their mother, and their father. Yes, five family members dead. The two brothers were killed at Gallipoli, the sister was a nurse who drowned, their mother died of grief, their father… Ah! The father died of a gunshot to his head suffered while he dragged his loaded, cocked weapon through a hedge. Both the surviving brothers think it was suicide. Perhaps it was suicide caused by his disgraceful son, Christopher, who is rumored to have a child out of wedlock by a mistress he set up with a tobacco shop, and who was reputed to have an affair with Mrs. Duchemin — Mrs. MacMaster now, able to re-marry since the death of her husband — and who was a wastrel who had gone through thousands of pounds somehow, possibly on pay-offs to loose women, and military reports say he is a communist, or maybe a Francophile, and not to be trusted, and so on. Old Tietjens did not leave Christopher any money directly but instructed Mark to dole out whatever cash he requires. Christopher finds that insulting and says, all right! Then I won’t take any of that money from Mark! Yes! That’s the way to get back at the old dead guy, I’ll embarass him! By not taking any money and exhibiting an expressionless face, I will demonstrate moral superiority! And by God, Mark admires his younger brother for taking this firm stance — actually he admires any unrelenting position on anything, he believes this a proper Yorkshire attitude.

Rupert Everett as Mark. No. Forty pounds heavier and much grayer, I might believe, but this is just... no. I am not putting up any pictures of Renee As Marie Léonie because she is not even this close to looking like her character. I blame the director for this: he could have made the actors less pretty and slim.

Rupert Everett as Mark. No. Forty pounds heavier and much grayer, I might believe, but this is just… no. I am not putting up any pictures of Lyne Renee As Marie Léonie because she is not even this close to looking like her character. I blame the director for this: he could have made the actors less pretty and slim.

Mark doesn’t like Sylvia, who he thinks is a bitch. And one wonders why more people haven’t come to that conclusion, for crying out loud! She does everything except bare blood-stained fangs at the reader. But, No! Here she is persuading people to screw up Christopher’s pay and his bank account and everybody is saying, “Poor Sylvia, married to that dissolute brute!” when they must know she’s shagged half of Britain’s male citizenry by this time not to mention a few foreigners who helped wreck her husband’s reputation. I mean, at this juncture, if only the men who have boffed Sylvia know how not-nice she is, that is still a significant portion of the population. So, it is difficult to see how she can flourish except that Christopher is always rubbing people the wrong way and making enemies — perhaps, like Sylvia, Christopher’s enemies just want to wipe that smug look off his stolid face. By the end of the tetralogy people believe that Christopher is turning out his wife to get money or favors from the many many men who have bonked her. In other words, every time Sylvia screws a new guy, Christopher gets blamed. AND he wins the contempt of his fellows for not getting enough money or favors for peddling his wife’s ass. Not only is he a pimp, he’s a poor businessman!

Mark becomes upset that the Allies will not advance into Germany at the end of the War. The English failure to occupy Germany means that the years of war have been for nought. And there is an argument you could frame that way, and that argument was a serious consideration for the Allies of WWII who determined not to fail to occupy Germany again — they wanted the German populace to understand that they had lost and not, as in 1918, conclude that their victorious armies had suffered a stab in the back. Perhaps Ford, too, thought this in 1925, but here it is just one more fringe concept, just one of many thoughts and interpretations of events floating through the present that may or may not be of value in the future. Anyway, Mark is upset and determines never to speak again. Yes! That’ll show ‘em! Hold your breath, too, why don’t you?

Marie Léonie: Mark has never married, but he does have a mistress. He spotted Marie Léonie in the second line of dancers at a show and was taken with her so much that he immediately looked her up and made a straight-forward proposition to set her up as his kept woman. Marie Léonie is from Normandy, which is France’s answer to Yorkshire, and was not offended by Mark’s blunt offer but accepted it. So, for twenty years, every Thursday and every Tuesday, except for a month during the summer racing season, Mark goes to the house that he rents for Marie Léonie. Marie Léonie prepares for Mark the same meal every time (see Meals), except during shooting season when pheasant are worked into the rotation, and the two have, so far as Parade’s End goes, a model relationship.

In October of 1918 (or thereabouts, Ford is purposely muzzy about the date), Mark has suffered a stroke and is mostly bed-ridden, Marie Léonie taking care of him. Christopher persuades Mark to marry Marie Léonie. No one asks her if she wants to be married; it is assumed that a woman of her class could want nothing more. Marie Léonie allows herself to be married. She is devoted to Mark, anyway, although she has looked ahead to her future and given some thought to going back to Normandy if Mark should die. Now, though, she is mistress of Groby, a member of the gentry. It doesn’t change her. She sees the possibility of a clash with Sylvia, who is living at Groby, and thinks, “Bring it on! I can handle her.” And, how exciting that would have been to read about! The clash between the stolid, firm Norman and the flaky English emotional cesspit! I’d buy tickets!

In the final novel, Last Post, Christopher has rented a Sussex farm where he lives with Valentine. Mark, completely silent and immobile, lies in a cot in a bower constructed for him. It is on this farm that we see Marie Léonie in her element. She runs that farm very well. Even though there is friction between herself and the local peasantry over Norman vs. English ways of doing things, it is not really an important issue: Marie Léonie and the local farmworkers understand each other very well. The best word for Marie Léonie is “grounded”; she grasps the fundamentals of life far better than any of the non-peasant characters in the book.

Meals: Every Thursday, every Tuesday, Marie Léonie cooks the same meal for Mark: two mutton chops, all but 1/8 inch of the fat removed, prepared without condiments, two floury potatoes, an apple tart with stilton cheese, and claret. Each book has a meal or food topic: there is the Duchemin breakfast where guests mumble iced caviar, peaches, and kidneys while wondering if a raving lunatic will swarm over the tablecloth at them; there is Christopher’s resupply officers’ lunch in France, with 1905 brut champagne that they buy themselves; there is Christopher’s luncheon at the front where the unit cook turns bully beef and other substances into mock pate — these menus underline the absurdity of Edwardian manners in a non-genteel reality. Mark’s chops are an attempt to preserve at least some order in the world. In the final volume, Marie Léonie makes cider, upsetting the locals by using a siphon (“a chube!”) while she bemoans the lack of decent, proper turnips in England. But these folks will get along and adjust to the new reality, the local peasants and honest, solid Marie Léonie are the foundation for a new order, unless they are meant as the backbone of the old; possibly they are both.

War: No More Parades is set in the trenches in France. Christopher works at putting together units and shuffling them back to the front. There are a number of Canadian Railway Service workers, for example, who present an amusing spectacle in their furry hats. And there are Welsh soldiers — the Welsh are always good for a chuckle — some with names like 09 Morgan. See, there are so few family names in Wales that groups of men with same last name are often found in military units and numbered somehow to tell them apart. But Ford undercuts all the humorous set-ups that he creates. The general mood in Christopher’s dugout is not laughter but lunacy. Take, for instance, Christopher’s fellow officer, Mackenzie, or maybe his name is McKechnie, who is muttering to himself and seems on the verge of suddenly shooting his mates. Then 09 Morgan is killed by a bomb and dies in Christopher’s arms, his blood spreading across the floor. The men have to be got ready to move out and Christopher oversees their writing of their wills. One fellow has a girl in each of three different countries and wants to leave each of them a bit of dosh, and we have another almost comic turn. Almost.

Ford was proud of writing about the Great War and hoped that his work would aid the cause of peace, or so he said. I think that what he was really proud of was giving an honest account of modern war — it is not so much the skill or valor of the individual warrior that counts any more; it is where he is standing when the stray shell drops.

In A Man Could Stand Up… Christopher is back at the Front. A great German offensive is expected at any time. Senior officers have been killed and Christopher is in command of his unit. He bustles about, preparing for the assault on his position due to start any minute. He is not completely mad, though a little strange — he obsesses about the angles of trench lines and toys with the idea of sticking his head up above the trench. Then there are these drainage pipes that he had run horizontally instead of vertically because that would better drain the trench, he thought, except that there are vast muddy areas in the trench. A German shell explodes and half-buries Christopher. He digs himself out. He tries to help one man, who may drown in a trench mud puddle, and pulls the man up, thus exposing a part of the man’s face to a sniper who takes out his eye. This mirrors a situation in No More Parades, where Christopher does not give the Welsh soldier, 09 Morgan, leave to straighten out his marital problems at home — the local police tell him that if the man returns, he will be murdered — so Christopher has him stay in France where 09 Morgan is killed. Christopher cannot even trust his own instincts, his best intentions may make things worse. Anyway, General Campion shows up and relieves Christopher of his duties because, oh, Sylvia and this and that. Campion has been living at Groby (in the house meant for Marie Léonie) while he considers a political career and Christopher discerns that he is shagging Sylvia. By the way, Campion is looking much younger than he did in the first book — I don’t know how that was managed — but he must be approaching sixty if not already far past it. Christopher is re-assigned to looking after prisoners-of-war, thus losing command pay. Later, someone does Christopher a favor and de-mobilizes him a little early, thus costing him army pay. Christopher is broke on Armistice Day when he and Valentine meet in his rooms.

Shell Shock: After the fateful evening in 1912 when Valentine’s honor is compromised, the next part of Some Do Not takes place five years later while Christopher, who has been shell-shocked, recuperates in London. When Ford says “shell-shocked” he means exactly that: this is a man concussed by a nearby explosion. In 1917 Ford himself was sent back to England after three years in the army, diagnosed with “shell-shock”. That term’s relation to what we now call PTSD is hinted at in the novel but not spelled out. There is a mention that there are sanitoriums for veterans like that – a concept that fills me with dread since I expect they are actually prisons meant to keep these men from embarrassing anyone.

Christopher’s concussion has cost him some of his memory. He is reading the encyclopedia to regain facts that have been lost to him. Before the War, Christopher sneered at people who use encyclopedias. I think Ford wants us to know that our boy has picked up a little humility — though it is hard to tell, what with that stoic, stolid visage of his.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, photograph by Lewis Carroll [ via lewis carroll.org ]

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, photograph by Lewis Carroll [ via lewiscarroll.org ]

Pre-Raphaelites: Ford’s hatred for the pre-Raphaelites is interesting because Ford Madox Brown, a leading painter connnected with the group, was his grandfather and Ford would have met the kind of people that enlivened the Duchemin breakfasts of the past. Christopher Tietjens says of Rossetti:

…it revolts me to think of that obese, oily man who never took a bath, in a grease-spotted dressing-gown and the underclothes he’s slept in, standing beside a five-shilling model with crimped hair or some Mrs. W. Three Stars, gazing into a mirror that reflects their fetid selves and gilt sunfish and drop chandeliers and plates sickening with cold bacon fat and gurgling about passion.

Don’t hold back, Christopher! Let it all out, let that bacon fat sicken, I can smell it from here reflected in your words. Mrs. Duchemin recalls Ruskin:

Fragments of all the worst stories that in his worst moods her husband had told her of [Ruskin] went through her mind. She imagined that the shameful parts of her intimate life would be known to [MacMaster].

The mad Rev. Duchemin talks about Ruskin’s marriage:

“When he drove away in the carriage on his wedding-day, he said to his bride: ‘We will live like the blessed angels!’ How sublime! I, too, after my nuptials…”

Mrs. Duchemin suddenly screamed: “Oh…no!

Now  Ford is perfectly aware that there are various stories of Ruskin’s wedding night — you prurient types can google — so the implication here is that Mrs. Duchemin’s  honeymoon was also some kind of horror. So much for sublime angel connubial bliss! Later, when Mrs. Duchemin thinks MacMaster has knocked her up, she curses him in such a way as to indicate she knows her way around the block. Apparently, she has an abortion. So much for all that angelic innocence and ethereal feminine sensibility!

And then there is the mad Rev. Duchemin himself, one of Ruskin’s road-builders. I think we are supposed to believe that Duchemin’s mental problems stem from venereal disease or alcoholism or both.

Rossetti courting Elizabeth Siddal from Rossetti and His Circle by Max Beerbohm [ Wikipedia ]

Rossetti courting Elizabeth Siddal from Rossetti and His Circle by Max Beerbohm [ Wikipedia ]

Christopher’s Intelligence:  Directly after the evening when Valentine and Christopher first fail to embrace, Christopher heads out to Europe creating a cover story that will allow for Sylvia to avoid scandal. Then (we discover later – Ford is always tucking little bits of information here and there in the narrative) …Then, they go on to East Europe for a little while where Christopher invests heavilly in Ukrainian bonds…

Now let me pause right there: Christopher is thought by everyone to be incredibly smart. He has a calculator brain that breaks things down to numbers. Watching ships he calculates the cost/value of building a certain vessel against that of building a log raft in Russia, because that’s how he rolls. Christopher also favors himself as a bit of a classicist and has an argument with Valentine, who knows a bit of Latin herself, over a quote from Ovid. And he writes critical essays for Mrs. Wannop that make her reputation as well as reports for the Department of Statistics (including one that MacMaster takes credit for which earns him a knighthood) which are always truth because a gentleman does not tell lies. Okay, but this Smart Guy also does some dumb things, like buy Ukrainian bonds in 1913. When he knows a War is coming. And he is supposed to be an expert on East European matters, too! Christopher’s superior remarks drilly: “You’re a perfect encyclopaedia of exact material knowledge, Tietjens.” And Christopher accepts this as tribute, though he does not acknowledge it because taciturnity is one of his principles.

Rumors of War: There are various odd notions aired throughout the four novels as characters try to make sense of world events. For instance, there is the notion, held by General Campion, that England is withdrawing supplies and troops from France and sending them to Turkey to fight for the Middle East and Empire. In fact, the exact opposite is happening: in 1917 England begins shipping resources from the Turkish front to France, leaving T.E.Lawrence to battle for the Middle East all by himself. But this is a wonderful example of the kind of rumor that troops turn into grand conspiracy theories: “Why don’t we have more Mills bombs?” ” They’re being shipped to Iraq along with reinforcement troops. It’s part of a plan to pressure the French.” Sure. I have heard World War II vets who, years later, would repeat similar theories about their war. This rumor is a bit of genius by Ford, and, however I feel about his character delineation, I have to concede the man’s insight into human affairs.

In book three we have the notion of the “Single Command”, a panacea for the lack of Allied movement: it’s all because of a lack of coordination between the Allies. Put everyone under the same leader and watch what happens! Of course, the English are concerned that it will be a Frenchman in charge and so that’s why we don’t have that and everyone is getting killed. That was the theory. In 1918, the French, in the form of General Joffre, took over the single command and the German Spring offensive failed, but what probably made more of a difference than the single command was throwing 300,000 American troops into the lines, with many thousands more to follow. These theories are Ford’s attempt at showing how we try to interpret events in a meaningful way, even in a state of chaos.

Furniture Business: Christopher has a rare talent: he can look at a piece of furniture and know if it is a fine antique or junk. This is one of two talents that Christopher possesses — the other one is a remarkable facility with horses — but horses are going out and motorcars are coming in, so Christopher sells furniture to Americans. His is not an Antiques Road Show skill, Christopher never looks on the bottom or pulls out the drawers, he just looks and knows, right away, this cabinet is a fine antique but this other piece is crap. I think this may be Ford’s way of saying that Christopher has exquisite taste honed by centuries of privilege or something like that. Anyway, Christopher is an idiot-savant of furniture, and is flogging every piece that he can locate. But he is not making much money. He has a partner in the United States who, everyone says, is ripping him off. But I can’t tell if Christopher is just a rotten businessman or what. The partner is a guy Christopher met when he was sorting German prisoners and he is a Jew (which deserves some more attention, see Scot-Jew).

Birds and Plants: Birds and local plants are repeated themes throughout the four novels, pretty much one major episode per book. Christopher recites English plant names as a mantra, he and the soldiers chat about the larks at the front, and so forth. Ford is pulling out an old trope here: the English countryside with all its humble lifeforms is a renewing, wonderful source of Englishness, and even as the country falls apart, well, nature is renewing, so England is renewing. Or something like that.

Christopher is particularly given to let his consciousness stream to Shakespeare and the list of flowers that float around drowned Ophelia, particularly the long purple flower which liberal shepherds have given a grosser name. It’s a little worrisome that Christopher tends to think of Ophelia when Valentine is on his mind.

"Ophelia" by Millais. [ via tate.org.uk ] There with fantastic garlands did she come Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples That liberal shepherds give a grosser name, But our cold maids do dead men's fingers call them" Hamlet Act 4. The model was Elizabeth Siddal who later married Rossetti. After she died of a laudanum overdose, Rossetti buried his unpublished poems with. Later, he dug her up and retrieved the poems

“Ophelia” by Millais. [ via tate.org.uk ] “There with fantastic garlands did she come/Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples/That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,/But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them” Hamlet Act 4. The model was Elizabeth Siddal who later married Rossetti. After she died of a laudanum overdose, Rossetti buried his unpublished poems with her body. Later, he dug her up and retrieved the poems.

Marie Léonie  doesn’t understand this English thing about giving every weed a name and, to her, all these sparrows are the same bird, but she is wonderfully appreciative of her chickens — there is a nice passage where she compares a rooster to Rodin, who she saw once in his studio, scratching about some young female visitors. If I was noting Good Parts of this work, that would be one for the list. Sylvia has her bird bit, too, she sees an eagle frightening seagulls and she immediately identifies with the eagle, not the screaming gulls, though I picture her as more screechy than soaring, myself.

Mental Health: I don’t think it possible to do psychoanalysis of a person if a) you have no psychiatric expertise or b) if that person is a literary invention. So, guilty on both counts, I will stand clear. I will hazard a guess that, if the BBC production has any traction, we will soon have a personality disorder named after Sylvia. And maybe one for Christopher. The person that is worrisome is Valentine — in Last Post she seems depressed and distraught and it looks like her pregnancy may not end happily, either miscarriage or post-partum troubles. She is already practically drooling over the thought of a bromide that the doctor may give her. Wait until she discovers the other drugs that were over-prescribed back in the day! And she was so healthy, too!

Scot-Jew: In the railway carriage scene that opens the first novel, MacMaster mentions that Christopher should be careful about how others in his civil service office see him.Tietjens agrees:

…a first-class public office is very like a public school. It might very well object to having a man whose wife has bolted amongst its members. I remember Clifton hated it when the governors decided to admit the first Jew and the first nigger.

What? Are you free-associating here, Christopher, or do you really think that a cuckold will be treated as a Jew? Or is this just an excuse to call people names? “Nigger” is used only once more and at a distance — blacks are hypothetical in Tietjens’ world — but Christopher really lays it on the Jews. Sometimes he remarks on the way they sneak into English life, but they can’t fool him — Christopher can spot the Oriental, or the Levantine, features that indicate someone is a Jew. Curiously, at one point in Parade’s End, Christopher is seen hanging about with a young woman who is Jewish — is he getting it on with her? Maybe he sets her up in a tobacco shop, which brings us back to just how much of what the characters say can be believed. Anyhow, the anti-Semitism is unrelenting. Mark, for instance, says that the only good thing about Sylvia is that she’s never had sex with a Jew — and he gives her credit for that.

Even so, Christopher has a number of relationships with Jews (not counting the young possible-tobacco-shop woman), officers, bureaucrats; he works with both and has a German-American Jew as a business partner:

That he was a Jew and an American did not worry Christopher; he had not objected to the fact that Macmaster had been the son of a Scotch grocer. …for a little shivering, artistic Jew, as of old for Macmaster, he was quite capable of feeling a real fondness — as you might for an animal.

Now if you thought I was a bit harsh when I called Christopher an asshole way back when, I ask you to consider the words from the novel quoted above: Christopher regards Jews and his friend MacMaster as pets, panting about his feet, waiting for their ears to be scratched.

MacMaster and Mrs. Duchemin are both Scots and each of them is very ambitious. Their union is a matter of using one another to climb the ladder of success and — mirabile dictu! — this works for them. MacMaster gets knighted, Mrs. Duchemin/MacMaster is a leading social light. These two grasping people are presented as Semitic, if you accept that Jews are constantly manuvering to enter English society and are grasping, greedy, etc. Scots are Jews-lite. You can indulge Scots and allow them into society (though they will always be on a lower rung than you) and perhaps, in a century or two, they will be as much English as Tietjens, who is three centuries past his own ancestors arriving in this green and pleasant land. Jews… Well, ask after a millenium has passed.

Last Post: Mark is lying in his bower which has been set up so that he will be entertained by the songbirds all around. He lies there and never says a word because he has made up his mind not to speak. That doesn’t mean that Mark is silent to the reader, no, we are treated to lengthy streams of conciousness. And, even though Mark pretends not be interested in small things, he does watch the birds. (Slow percussion for Mark, perhaps in cardiac time, with a snap on the snare for “No” when Mark blinks once, two snaps when he blinks twice for yes — that’s right, it takes less effort for Mark to say No than to say Yes which, I think, is a nice touch. So, some percussion with the flutings of birds all about.)

Besides Mark, who narrates most of the last book, Marie Léonie has a turn: stolid and Norman, France’s version of a Yorkshireman, she will bottle cider her own way, thus upsetting the Sussex locals, who also have a small section to narrate. This back-and-forth is amusing (woodwinds, mostly oboes, I think) and it happens at about the place where a symphony might also have a bit of lightness. Now the peasants scatter… Wait! I see. This should be opera!

Now the peasants scatter as a group of riders appear on the road overlooking the farm Tietjens is renting, one of them is the person Sylvia rented Groby Great Hall to, Mrs. de Bray Pape, an unsuitable American. This woman is here to talk about Groby Great Tree, that she has had taken down. Taking out the Groby Great Stump (with explosives) caused a Groby Great Hall wall to cave in, and there is now a Great Hole in Groby Great Hall wall, so this lady has quite a bit of explaining to do. Sylvia takes credit for getting Mrs. de Bray Pape to wreck Groby Great Hall, now she is using the woman to torment Christopher and Valentine. Mrs. de Bray Pape plunges into things in a heedless, reckless manner. She plows straight through the hay field, rather than go around. She is wearing an old-fashioned women’s riding get-up for side-saddle, with huge, sweeping skirts that devastate the hay. See, she pretends to be an English Lady, but she doesn’t know better than to trample the hay.

Also in this group are young Mark Tietjens and Sylvia. Sylvia has begun divorce proceedings, sort of, but she has yet to turn in the key papers and has still not decided if she will do so. The thing is, if Sylvia divorces Christopher, then she can marry General Campion who she believes will get a major posting to India as head of the Raj or whatever the deal is in 1919. Campion has already refused this proposal but Sylvia has reminded him of her own wealth and how rich Campion could be if he married it. We don’t know if that has changed General Campion’s mind but Sylvia is confident that she will have her own way whenever she decides what that is. Meantime, she enjoys fantasizing about the affairs she will have after marrying Campion. She pictures herself in stunning Orientalish costume while some young subaltern or other crawls at her feet begging for her precious love. Really!

Sylvia and General Campion played by Roger Allam. Now he looks right, but he is the guy that should have played Mark. Allam, if you don't recognize him, plays Morse's boss in Endeavour.

Sylvia and General Campion played by Roger Allam. Now he looks right, but he is the guy that should have played Mark. Allam, if you don’t recognize him, plays Morse’s boss in Endeavour.

Sylvia and young Mark come across old Mark’s bower. He reflects that this boy is definitely his brother’s son, no matter what the gossipers say. (In an earlier volume, Christopher told Sylvia that he spent a great deal of money on private detectives to ascertain that very fact. Sylvia may have been surprised. Anyway…) Mark does not speak and an awkward time is had by all.

(BTW, Ford’s disregard for young Mark begins in the first volume where Christopher’s son is named “Tommy”. When we finally meet the young fellow, he is called either Mark or Michael. Ford’s explanation for that? Sylvia. I think this is totally unfair — Sylvia is evil, sure, but it wasn’t her who forgot her son’s name, it was the author, and he has a lot of nerve, laying the blame on one of his characters like that!)

Mrs. de Bray Pape charges into Christopher’s house, confronting Valentine. Valentine is pregnant and not doing very well. Apparently she fears a miscarriage. “Too much horseback riding,” people mutter. The doctor is coming.  Valentine has always been proud of her strong, healthy body, but now finds childbirth may be too much for it.

Sylvia advances into the scene. She kicks out Mrs. de Bray Pape and confronts Valentine face-to-face. Young Mark comes in as well continually asking his mother if what she is doing is “sporting”. But what’s this? Sylvia’s eyes mist over, she almost apologizes to Valentine for screwing up her life, she says that she will give Christopher that divorce, she has already begun the process… She is crying and… No! No! NO! You’re telling me that this wicked person who combines the worst traits of Lucrezia Borigia with those of Cruella deVille, that this paragon of evilness is so moved by the sight of her husband’s pregnant mistress, that she weeps and gives up her terrible ways? I don’t believe it, not for a minute. Your fault, Ford, if you want me to believe that Sylvia has a soft center, then show her practicing a little humanity in the previous 800 or so pages. The only way to take this is that Sylvia has had a brain fart and may do something out-of-character for a day or two, but she has not reformed. No.

Mark Dies: Mark has thought of a day when he went hunting with his father and bagged four birds with one shot, It was all luck, but Mark’s father has the birds stuffed and mounted. “Mark’s Bag” stood in the nursery for the younger siblings to wonder over. It occurs to old Mark that the group of stuffed birds is the closest thing to a monument he will ever have. He naps a bit and when he opens his eyes, Christopher is standing there. He has been to Groby and flown back, then bicycled from the airfield to his brother’s side (which may be contrasted with Sylvia’s horseback riders who have invaded the place, 19th vs. 20th Century, etc.). Christopher tells his brother that Groby Great Tree is down, that a chunk of wall has gone, too, taking out the nursery, but that he has rescued Mark’s Bag from the rubbish heap. Meantime, Valentine has recalled a bit of poor business that Christopher concluded and rails at him because he has chosen to be poor and they have a child on the way and so on. Mark utters his first words in months, “Now, I must speak.” He recites a bit of a poem:

“”Twas the mid o’ the night and the barnies grat
And the mither beneath the mauld heard that…’

“An old song. My nurse sang it….Never thou let thy child weep for thy sharp tongue to thy good man.”

Mark takes Valentine’s hand and dies and Valentine mellows out and the book ends.

What! What is that last bit about? Mark recites a few lines about a dead mother — is this a foreshadowing of Valentine’s death in childbirth? Is this prophecy? Christopher thinks of Ophelia and Mark thinks of dead mothers when they consider Valentine. Ford, unconsciously perhaps, is letting us know that Valentine is doomed. Perhaps she’ll OD on laudanum like Elizabeth Siddal or chloral hydrate like Rossetti!

Anyway Mark chides (?) Valentine for attacking her husband because it will upset the children. And Valentine feels so good for having heard this! I have been over this ending quite a bit and still cannot make sense of it though some — many, in fact — claim they are moved to tears. I am completely befuddled here.

Happily Ever After: Now I have read that some folks, including scholars, believe Sylvia when she says she will get a divorce. This is part of her scheme to marry General Campion, who may just get a posting in India, where Edwardian manners still hold sway. But General Campion has already said No and anyway I trust Sylvia about as far as I can pitch a post-hole. Even if she does do the divorce and go off to India, she’ll be back. She still has a son she can use to torment Christopher and, what exactly is her position concerning Groby? Again, blithe souls claim that young Mark (the communist) will give up his claim on Groby, but I don’t see that necessarilly taking place. Perhaps Christopher will decide to move back to Groby and run the place and be rich. (I believe that Ford has hinted at this from the first novel.) That will give young Mark more time to give up his claim and become just another Cambridge Red waiting to be recruited by Soviet agents. Marie Léonie has a place on the Groby estate which old Mark figured she might move into, but if Christopher continues to rent this farm in the south, she may stay on there. Or she might decide to go back to Normandy. In other words, I don’t think that Ford means us to see any character as settled. There are lots of changes being made and all these characters will have to adapt.

Graham Greene said that Last Post doesn’t belong, that Parade’s End should be a trilogy ending with Christopher and Valentine dancing at the close of A Man Could Stand Up. Perhaps the fact is that Ford contracted for three books, squeezed out a fourth, but couldn’t get an advance to keep the series going. Maybe he wanted to do a Galsworthy/Forsyte Saga thing and pump out novel after novel for years and years. There are unfinished plot lines dangling like shower-bath strings all across the ending of Last Post. But that is sheer speculation.

Summary: Ford has created a very structured work, whether or not you accept my notion of music. There is some good stuff here, and I mean that. This post, long as it is, has been cut to half its original length and there is no way I could say so much unless there was something to talk about. But the characters! Ford and Joseph Conrad had discussed the idea of a novel taking place in a time of historic change which we see through the characters’ eyes. Fine. Good plan. But Christopher is such an unyielding asshole and Sylvia is such a rotten bitch, it’s a little hard to take them seriously. A writer who did accomplish the kind of historic novel that Ford and Conrad discussed was Joyce Cary. Cary’s characters embrace. All the time. But since, for me, the problem with Parade’s End is the characters, perhaps the TV version will be good — after all, there are some good actors playing these roles and Tom Stoppard writing their lines. So, we’ll see.

Notes:

I used a Signet paperback edition of Parade’s End published in the 1960s. I notice that there are certain differences between that edition and others cited on-line. In his last words, Mark says “child” in my book, “bairn” in others, for instance.

I know very well that King Edward VII ruled only from 1901, when Victoria died, to 1910, so that it may be an error to call any of this period “Edwardian”. Here I follow critics who are trying to champion Ford as the chronicler of a vanished era. Perhaps it would have been better to describe this era as Victorianism gone bad, but that opens a different can of worms.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Battle of Clontarf

On Good Friday in the year 1014, A man travelling in Caithness saw a group of twelve women ride to a women’s shelter and go inside. He peeked through a window and saw the women with a great loom set up before them. Men’s guts were strung on the loom as warp and weft and men’s skulls weighted the threads. The women used a sword to beat the woven fabric and sang:

Blood rains
From the cloudy web
On the broad loom of slaughter.
The web of man,
Grey as armour,
Is now being woven…

The tweve women wove their bloody cloth, each keeping a piece, and rode off. The man later discovered that he had witnessed the fateful weaving of the Battle of Clontarf that, at the cost of perhaps 10,000 dead, saw the defeat of the last Viking power in Ireland at the hands of its great king, Brian Boru.

One of twelve murals done by James Ward for Dublin City Hall depicting Brian Bru and his triumphs. Here Brian readies for the battle of Clontarf.[http://www.brianborumillennium.ie/brian-boru/]

One of twelve murals done by James Ward for Dublin City Hall depicting Brian Boru and his triumphs. Here Brian readies for the battle of Clontarf.[http://www.brianborumillennium.ie/brian-boru/]

Brian  had been the most powerful king in Ireland since the 980s but was now more than eighty years old. He no longer fought with his troops but directed them from behind the lines, from behind a wall of shields, says Njal’s Saga, lying on his cot in a tent, say his detractors.

Brian’s foe was Sigtrygg SilkenBeard, king of Dublin and son of Brian’s ex-wife, called Kormlod by the Norse and Gormflaith by the Irish. Daughter of the king of Leinster, she had married Brian after the defeat of her husband Olaf Slipper, or Amblaith Cuaran to the Irish. He was a descendant of Ivar, a Norse ruler of Ireland in the 9th Century. After Ivar and his brother Olaf died in the 870s, Ireland was free from the Norse for a time, but the Sons of Ivar began raiding the island again in the early 10th Century. Olaf Slipper managed to gain control of Dublin, but the Irish under northern king Máel Sechnaill, who was Olaf’s stepson, defeated his forces around 980 and the aged man retired to a monastery. Gormflaith married Brian perhaps around 990 but he divorced her sometime after 1000 and she retired to Dublin, ruled by her son Sigtrygg.

Coin issued by Sigtrygg during his Dublin rule. [British Nation Museum via Wikipedia]

Coin issued by Sigtrygg during his Dublin rule. [British National Museum via Wikipedia]

Sigtrygg Silkenbeard became king of Dublin after the death of his half-brother(s) and began fighting the Irish around 995. Máel Sechnaill battled him a few times and, in 999, joined with Brian Boru to defeat Sigtrygg decisively. Sigtrygg was allowed to stay on as Dublin’s king so long as he pledged loyalty and paid tribute to Máel and Brian. A few years later, though, Brian re-opened hostilities against Sigtrygg. All these people were related in various degrees.

Máel was heir to the claims of the Ui Nialls for the high kingship of Ireland. But Brian Boru’s strength in the south caused the two to make a pact to share rule over the country. Still, there was unfulfilled ambition on Máel’s part and suspicion of him in Brian’s camp. The war for the high kingship, which was more a national myth than a political reality, caused various Irish factions to ally with Norse raiders over the two centuries of Viking interference in Ireland.

In 1014 the Norse were at their high water mark. The Danes had conquered England, the Swedes held Russia, there were Normans in France, and the Norse had settled Iceland, the Hebrides, and the Orkneys.  Now, it is said, Gormflaith got her son Sigtrygg to ask Earl Sigurd of Orkney to aid him in defeating her ex-husband, Brian Boru. Sigurd agreed, on condition that Gormflaith marry him afterward. Sigtrygg accepted this, then he went to Brodir on the Isle of Man and asked him to join the alliance. Brodir agreed, on condition that Gormflaith marry him. Sigtrygg accepted this, too. To aid in the coming struggle, Sigtrygg made a secret pact with Máel: the Norse would not attack him if he stayed out of the battle. Máel saw the possibility of becoming the lone king, the high king of Ireland, and agreed. Of course, Sigtrygg had ambitions greater than Dublin, too. And the King of Leinster, kinsman of Gormflaith, also agreed to join the Anti-Brian force.

So, on Good Friday, 1014 the two armies faced each other at a site north of present-day Dublin called Clontarf. The Cogadh, the history of The War of the Irish with the Foreigners, says that Sigtrygg’s force was

…violent, furious, unscrupulous, untamable, inexorable, unsteady, cruel, barbarous, frightful, sharp, ready, huge, prepared, cunning, warlike, poisonous, hostile, murderous, Danars; bold hardhearted Danmarkians, surly, piratical foreigners, blue-green, pagan; without reverence, without honour, without mercy, for God or for man.

And that is only a part of the adjectives hurled at the Norse. Vikings usually had better armor and weapons than the Irish during their struggles and the Cogadh says that their body armor at Clontarf was heavy triple-plated double-refined iron. Further they had

barbed, keen, bitter, wounding, terrible, piercing, fatal, murderous, posoned arrows which had been anointed and browned in the blood of dragons and toads, and water-snakes of hell

and of other venomous critters besides, which were meant to be shot at the brave and valiant chieftains. So things might look black for the Irish except that they were

brave, valiant champions; soldierly, active, nimble, bold, full of courage, quick, doing great deeds

and so on. Further, they had glittering, well-riveted spears which were poisoned and “terrible sharp darts”, as well as beautiful shields and crested helmets. More important, perhaps, they had axes of Lochlann — Lochlann (or Lothlann) being either the Hebrides or Norway, in other words Viking axes in the hands of “heroes and brave knights, for cutting and maiming the close well-fastened coats of mail”. And they had keen swords “for hewing and for hacking, for maiming and mutilating skins, and bodies, and skulls.” The descriptions may be excessive but the nature of the coming conflict is clear: this was hard, nasty, brutal close combat.

Re-enactment of the battle of Clontarf durinf the millenial celebration, April 2014. [Irish Independent]

Re-enactment of the battle of Clontarf durinf the millenial celebration, April 2014. [Irish Independent]

So the two sides closed in combat. Máel kept his forces apart but the battle raged on without him. Sigtrygg watched from the walls of Dublin, Brian knelt in prayer in his tent, or lay on a sickbed, or watched from behind a shield wall. There are many tales of heroic deeds, especially of Brian’s son Murchadh, who killed fifty men with the sword in his right hand and fifty men with the sword in his left. But Murchadh himself was killed that day, as was his son, who drowned while pursuing the enemy into the rising tide. Sigurd, Earl of Orkney, was killed. Many great warriors of north Europe — Irish, Norse, Saxon, Scot — were amongst the thousands of corpses that fed the ravens at Clontarf.

The battle raged from dawn until after six in the evening, when Sigtrygg’s forces broke and ran for the forest or their ships, but now the tide was in and they could not reach either one and were slaughtered in the water. Brodir of Man saw the battle was lost but charged at Brian’s retinue and killed the old king there. Brian Boru was eighty-eight when he died. Brodir was seized by Ulf Hreda, Brian’s step-son. Ulf slit open Brodir’s belly and nailed his gut to a tree and forced Brodir to walk round it until he disembowelled himself.

Sigtrygg remained as king of Dublin. Máel remained as king of Ireland. Both these rascals survived for years but the Norse power in Ireland was broken forever. The death of Brian’s sons and grandson meant a leadership vacuum that was difficult to fill. So the dream of an Irish high king also disappeared. Still, the Irish were left alone for a century and a half until the Anglo-Norman incursions of the 12th Century. It was around that time that the Cogadh, written for an early 12th Century Irish prince, was circulated as a patriotic rallying text. The lessons were plain: unite and hate the foreigner, the Gaill. The Norman lords were more or less assimilated as England dealt with other problems, such as civil war, for the next few centuries. But when Henry VIII decided not to be a Catholic, Ireland suddenly took on importance as a serious strategic threat. For if a Catholic nation, Spain for instance, should gain a foothold there, England would be troubled indeed. The Cogadh gained a new importance as Elizabeth oversaw various adventures in Ireland and the Irish people revolted against their overlords until the English replaced the Norse as the Gaill, the heathen foe, the terrible foreign enemy. And so it has gone over the last thousand years.

Notes:

Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh: The War of the Gaedhil with the Gaill: Or, The Invasions of Ireland by the Danes and Other Norsemen is long out of print since James Todd translated it in 1867. However, various places come up with reprintings from time to time (mine was done in Germany in 1965) usually for about $50. This is a prime candidate for gutenberg.org or archive.org or some other Net book place.

Njals Saga is available in numerous editions. Quotes above are from the Magnusson/Pallson translation of 1960.

Donnchadh Ó Corráin is the current authority on the Norse in Ireland and has bits about Clontarf here and there on the Net and in The Vikings in Ireland, a collection of articles published by the Viking Ship Museium in Roskilde.

Wikipedia is your friend and also:

“The Battle of Clontarf in Irish History and Legend” from History Ireland
and the official millennium website for all things Brian Boru

 

 

The Saga of Colm the Slave

colm_cover2This is my new book. Colm is an Irish slave in 10th Century Iceland. He struggles to win freedom, the Welsh slave Gwyneth, and a place in society. This is a land where slaves might be sacrificed to the gods or killed on a whim. Violence is the foundation of social order and justice belongs to the strong. Some of this book first appeared as stories in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.

Available now for Kindle. Tablet users will have to download a free app from Amazon.

Ukraine On The Brink

About an hour ago, news sources began to report that people had been killed in the protests in Kiev. This follows the Ukraine government passing legislation that would ban all protests. Clearly, if people continue coming out into the streets, there will be more violence. A turning point has been reached in the Ukraine.

ukr_molo

A molotov cocktail hurled by a protestor going up in flames. Ukraine, January 23. [dailymail.co.uk]


Just to back up a bit, Ukraine’s was an “Orange Revolution” in 2004, when people took to the streets to protest an election rigged by Viktor Yanukovych. His main opponent, Viktor Yushchenko, was allegedly poisoned with dioxin but continued the electoral battle and ultimately triumphed. Yushchenko proved unable to deliver on the promises of democratic freedom that he had made — indeed, he was accused of graft and corruption — and was unable to repeat his success, his party falling to less than 6% in subsequent elections. So Yanukovych returned to power.
The other popular opponent to Yanukovych has been Yulia Tymoshenko, who is photogenic and attracted a great deal of support from non-Ukraine journalists who never bothered to examine her platform. Tymoshenko is an ultra-nationalist linked to xenophobic and anti-semitic groups. But, nationalist though she claims to be, her strength lies in Ukraine’s east which is pro-Russian in its stance. So, when Tymoshenko allowed a huge energy contract to Russia at a price much higher than Russia was charging other nations, she was charged and imprisoned. Her treatment in prison has raised questions about Yanukovych and she remains a thorn in his side.

That brings us to the critical issue of Russia, who supplies Ukraine with gas and petroleum, and the stated Ukraine desire to join the European Union. Russia wants Ukraine to join its own eastern customs union which should start up next year. Russia is not hesitant to use Ukraine’s energy dependence as a stick to beat it into line.

November, 2013. Riot police and protestors in Kiev after the announcement that Yuchenko's government would not sign the EU agreement. [Guardian]

November, 2013. Riot police and protestors in Kiev after the announcement that Yanukovych’s government would not sign the EU agreement. [Guardian]

So, last November, Yanukovych’s government announced that it would not sign an agreement with the EU to be receptive to advances from that organization. Immediately protests broke out in the western part of the nation. Russia has, several times, pressured Ukraine to steer clear of the EU by raising prices on gas and petroleum and by cutting off various aid incentives. This occurs quite quickly, since Putin gets what he wants without much need for debate or agreement of other government agencies. Last August, before the Ukraine/EU talks, Russia (according to Tim Judah):

…began withdrawing licenses for certain companies—especially those connected to oligarchs in Yanukovych’s eastern heartlands—to export to Russia; and Russian importers began to break contracts already signed for metal products, steel, and cars. In only a few months the level of trade between Ukraine and Russia dropped 25 percent; in eastern Ukraine, one source who asked to remain anonymous told me, production dropped between 30 and 40 percent between May and November.

This was brutal for a country undergoing the kind of economic stress Ukraine was already feeling. Meanwhile, the EU was only offering an ageement to agree on further agreements — nothing definitive that Yanukovych could take to the bank. So, he buckled and didn’t sign. Russia has repaired some of the broken contracts — Putin’s idea of a carrot is to restore part of the rewards beaten away by the stick — and has recently announced its intent to forgive some or all of Ukraine’s debt as well as reducing prices paid by Ukraine for petro-imports. Of course, these pronouncements can be reversed at any time.

Yanukovych at a meeting with Putin. Putin has kept Yanukovych waiting for hours at scheduled meetings and has generally treated him with contempt. [nybooks.org]

Yanukovych at a meeting with Putin. Putin has kept Yanukovych waiting for hours at scheduled meetings and has generally treated him with contempt. [nybooks.org]

Putin has made his personal contempt for Yanukovych very clear and western Ukraine has gotten the message: it is a subject nation meant to serve a Russian master. Eastern Ukraine shrugs and says, “So? What’s new?”
Spare a moment of empathy for Yanukovych, the corrupt politico who tried to poison one rival and has imprisoned another. He is caught in a terrible dilemma. He does not want to be subject to Russia any more than other Ukrainians but he has nowhere else to go. The EU showed very little political sense in dealing with Ukraine as it tried to play one power against the other. There is no middle path, no up the middle for Ukraine. Russia will win — though Putin may have the sense to play his victory down (Ha! Not likely.) Yanukovych, for all his faults, is the guy that Ukrainian democracy, for all its shortcomings, has chosen. He will go to his grave wondering if, after all, he should have signed those silly EU papers. Meanwhile, those using cell phones at a protest in Kiev received a government message : “Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance.” In other words, “We’re watching you. Back off or suffer the consequences.” Yanukovych is signalling that he will use whatever force is necessary to end the protests.
Mind you, all this depends on no out-of-the-blue happenings in Ukraine, such as Yanukovych telling Putin to take a flying jump into the lake, but that eventuality has such dire consequences for Ukraine that it is highly unlikely.

The Coffins of Arthur’s Seat

Arthur’s Seat is an extinct volcano just outside Edinburgh. The Seat and other peaks are located in Holyrood Park, a place for tourists and hikers now, but in 1836, sheep grazed here and locals hunted rabbits. Five boys were out after rabbits in the summer of 1836 when they opened up a recess in the rocks and discovered a stack of small wooden coffins, each less than four inches long by an inch wide. The boys threw the small boxes at each other, trashing some of them, but the next day one of their teachers made his way up the mountain and recovered those coffins that he could find. He took them home and pried off the lids to discover tiny wooden bodies. Over the next one and three-quarters centuries, people have speculated on just what these coffins are all about and why they were left where they were.

 

Arthur's Seat from Edinburgh. [Wikimedia Commons]

Arthur’s Seat from Edinburgh. [Wikimedia Commons]


Anthropologists came up with theories about voodoo dolls and the like, and folktale collectors began calling them “Fairy Coffins”, a name that has stuck. There is a notion that these might be in memory of dead children:

a mother carv[ed] them for stillborn or miscarried children: portraits of the sons she never got to raise, made from the toys they never got to play with.

Now, it is not unknown for a woman to have seventeen children, but to have them all die at birth or in childhood seems such cruel happenstance that my mind simply rejects it.

The eight coffins from Arthur's Seat. [National Museum of Scotland]

The eight coffins from Arthur’s Seat. [National Museum of Scotland]


Simpson and Menefee, authors of the key article on the coffins, put forward the notion that the coffins were related somehow to Burke and Hare, who had been convicted in 1829. Burke and Hare killed sixteen people and robbed one grave, so the number of corpses is right. But twelve of the victims were female and — so far as can be determined — all the figures in the coffins are meant to be male. Also, it is possible that the coffins were an on-going project, not meant to end with seventeen objects.
Accepting that their theory is problematic, Simpson and Menefee have suggested that investigators should look for tragedies of the era connected with the Edinburgh area that have seventeen victims — a shipwreck for instance. To date, no one has come up with a better idea and the Burke and Hare murders are given as the reason for the coffins by the Scottish National Museum.

arth_coffins2
Arthur’s Seat has certainly had more than its share of violent death: the slaughter of rebellious apprentices at Murder Acre in 1677, a murder-suicide at Hangman’s Crag in 1769, deaths accompanying various Scots attempts to rid themselves of English rule, a mutiny of local soldiers which had one direct death in 1778 and many indirect after the lads were shipped off to India. Corpses are found from time to time, some are possibly those of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s men, some are far more recent.
Once the site of a monastery, the area was considered by locals to be a place of sanctuary and various outcast individuals lived there on the fringe of society. A furnished cave from the 18th Century has been uncovered and explained as a smuggler’s hideout or an outlaw refuge, but any number of possibilities come to mind, a priest-hole, for instance, or a safehouse for Jacobite spies.
The first decades of the 19th Century, as Scotland modernized, were troubling to many locals. Horse-drawn railways constructed to bring coal into Edinburgh proliferated in the 1830s, and others were constructed to the harbors at Granton and Leith. Edinburgh residents were pleased to use the railroads for excursion purposes but were skeptical about the benefits of improving transport to the harbor towns. Leith opened its first harbor in 1806 and its second in 1817 — though it lacked effective city governance for a decade and became notorious as a hangout for thieves and ruffians. Some locals believed that the harbor towns were draining life from the region as they became embarkation points for New World emigrants.
Edinburgh was surpassed by Glasgow as Scotland’s largest city in the 1820s and there was a sense of decline in the city. The “Scottish Enlightenment” had ended before 1800 with the death of such luminaries as David Hume and Adam Smith and such soon-to-be-famous Scots as Sir Walter Scott had yet to make their mark. There was some anxiety about the great changes that were taking place.

Rabbit on Athur's Seat [via Crafty Green Poet]

Rabbit on Athur’s Seat [via Crafty Green Poet]


The Holyrood area was held by the Earl of Haddington whose ancestors had received it from James VI. But after the Earl was accused of non-payment of poor taxes and was found to be quarrying stone from the mountain and selling it in London, in 1831 the Crown removed the noble grant and turned Holyrood into a park, officially named King’s- or Queen’s-Park from that time forward. Locals continued grazing their flocks and hunting rabbits around Arthur’s Seat until recent times.
Modernization combined with a sense of lost importance — quite a bit of turmoil in a short period.
But, of course, the coffins might not be connected with any particular event, nor even the malaise that infected some of the populace; they might simply be the product of a person or persons who thought this a cool project.
Of the original seventeen coffins only eight are still preserved. These are on display at Scotland’s National Museum.

arth_closeup

Here’s what is known and unknown about them:
1– It is unknown exactly where the coffins were found. Various widely separathed places near Arthur’s Seat have been named. Whinny Hill, an eroded volcanic cone to the east, seems a likely candidate, though a place south-east of Arthur’s Seat is favored by some.
2– The coffins were in a niche (probably not man-made) in a hillside. Pieces of slate, perhaps three of them, were used to cover the opening. Reports that these were headstone-shaped are (I think) embellishments.
3–The coffins were arranged in two stacks of eight, and one coffin, possibly the beginning of a new stack, next to them. This description is apparently from one or more of the boys who discovered them but we have no first-hand reports, nor even the names, of these lads.

arth_clothed
4– The coffins are in different stages of decay. Whether this means that they were placed in the niche at different times or simply suffered different amounts of moisture and weathering is unknown.
5–There was no real examination of the niche nor the slate covers. It is possible that no one but the boys actually saw either of these.
6–The eight coffins that have lasted through the years are carved from Scots pine. A knife, possibly with a hooked blade, was used to cut away a recess in a 95mm/3.74inch by 23mm/.9inch block of wood. In one case the knife blade has actually cut through the coffin bottom. Since a woodworker would have (presumably) used a chisel or gouge rather than a knife, it is conjectured that the maker(s) was/were a leatherworker or practiced some other trade requiring a very sharp knife. The 19th Century Edinburgh directories on-line show a number of boot and shoemakers and there is a large saddlery warehouse as well. (The directory for 1835 is not on-line but is available at museums and libraries in the area.)
7– The coffin lids are decorated with pieces of tin. Since tin was used to make shoe-buckles, this points toward a shoemaker.
8– Some of the coffins have rounded corners while others are square. It is conjectured that two carvers were at work.
9– Two of the coffins were originally painted or stained red.
10– One coffin is lined with paper made after 1780.

Figure outside coffin. Note darkening (paint around feet. [National Museum of Scotland]

Figure outside coffin. Note darkening (paint) around feet. [National Museum of Scotland]


11– The wooden figures inside the coffins were not carved for that purpose. Some have had arms removed so that they will fit. Some show traces of black painted boots. Facial features include wide-open eyes. It is thought that the figures were orginally toy soldiers, possibly made in the 1790s.
12–Simpson and Menefee: “single-piece suits, made from fragments of cloth, have been moulded round the figures and sewn in place. With some figures there is evidence of adhesive under the cloth.” Some of the cloth is patterned or printed.
13–Some of the cloth on the figures has rotted away but what remains is in such good shape that it is thought that it could not have been buried long.
14– Cotton thread, used to sew the burial suits, replaced linen thread after 1800. Thread used to sew one of the suits is three-ply which came into use about 1830.
15– No DNA could be recovered on the dolls, cloth, or coffins. Scientific tests that might show age by analyzing paint or cloth have not been done.
So, the best conjectures are that: the coffins were carved by one or more individuals, possibly engaged in a trade that required a very sharp knife; who repurposed a group of toy soldiers for this project; and that at least one of the coffins was made within five or six years of their being discovered, though they may not all have been deposited in the niche at the same time.
That’s it. The mystery of the fairy coffins is likely to remain unsolved, barring the discovery of a pertinent old letter or manuscript in an attic trunk in Edinburgh. Meanwhile, your theory is as good as anyone else’s.

Notes:
The best article on-line is this one by Mike Dash, originally published at Fortean Times.
Article in the July 16, 1836 Scotsman (“The Logic-chair”) describing the discovery of the coffins is available on-line, but it costs..
The 1994 study by Simpson and Menefee is in the Book of the Old Edinburgh Club, available for £4 plus postage.

The Man Who Walked Through Walls: Marcel Aymé

The movie poster below is for a 1951 film version of Marcel Aymé’s story “The Man Who Walked Through Walls”, first published in 1943 while German forces occupied France. No doubt a great many people wished they had the ability to pass through walls then.

Poster for the 1953 film version of The Man Who Walked Through Walls. Poster by surrealist Felix Labisse.

Poster for the 1951 film version of The Man Who Walked Through Walls. Poster by surrealist Felix Labisse.

Before the War, Marcel Aymé had written several novels set in rural France. These were disdained by the snobbish Parisian literary establishment as was Aymé’s style, which incorporated Anglicisms and the patois of the Franche-Comte, where he was born in 1902. Even his children’s stories, collected as Stories from the Perching Cat [Les Contes du chat perché], were savaged by these critics. It didn’t help that Aymé often satirized the bourgeoisie and their hypocrisy. He ignored the critics and kept on writing.
Aymé was apolitical. He had tried to escape conscription but, at the age of eighteen, was taken into the army where he served as part of the French occupation of Germany in 1920. Before 1935, Aymé was considered a leftist, but in that year he signed a petition opposing French action against Italy for the invasion of Ethiopia. The petition was essentially a pacifist plea but contained troubling words that called the Ethiopians a “pack of tribes” and suggested that Italy was bringing Western civilization to savages. More to the point, the petition noted that France had a large empire of its own and had no business criticizing other nations until it cleaned up its own house.

Marcel Ayme, 1940s.

Marcel Ayme, 1940s.

The petition was signed by a number of right-wing intellectuals, including many connected with Action française, an extreme right publication that had begun life as an anti-Dreyfus journal. Other signatories included many French fascists including Robert Brasillach (of whom, more later). The petition was denounced by many on the left as a document of “fascist intellectualism”. It should be noted that, at this time, there were pacifists on both the left and the right (yes) and that anti-bourgeois sentiments were common to both. The left tended to be secular and republican with Marxism the core philosophy; the right was Catholic and royalist with a philosophical bent toward fascism.
France had a great many outright fascists who admired Mussolini’s model and there were many more who shared certain principles — nationalism, militarism, anti-semitism — with them. After the collapse of the French army in 1940, many of these became supporters of the Vichy puppet regime. Some openly proclaimed their satisfaction with the German conquest. “A divine surprise,” Charles Maurras called it.
German occupation of France was intended to be a soft affair, one that wouldn’t upset the citizens too much, and for a while, it was. Independent France still existed — on paper — in Vichy, which gave people an excuse to go along with the Germans, since it meant protecting France. The Germans put Francophiles in charge of occupied Paris – some were married to Frenchwomen — and they were quite sensitive to French feelings. French artists in particular had freedoms not known in other parts of occupied Europe.
Some French residents, such as Gertrude Stein, actively took up the cause of Marshall Pétain, “the savior of France” and head of the Vichy regime.  Stein translated a work of Petain’s into English. This book, which included long anti-semitic diatribes, was meant for publication in America. Stein wrote a foreword in which she compared Pétain to George Washington and Benjamin Franklin — in other words, the Nazi collaborator was the moral equivalent of America’s founding fathers. Stein took up residence in Vichy territory. Her Paris apartment, full of priceless artwork, was sealed. When the Gestapo decided to open the seal, Picasso warned Bernard Faÿ, director of the Bibliothèque Nationale, who was unofficial Vichy Minister for Culture and Stein’s protector.  Faÿ ordered the Gestapo away. The Pétain book was never distributed in America.
Some others, like Louis-Ferdinand Céline, intensified the expression of their thoughts. Céline, who was about as nasty an anti-semite as could be found anywhere, continued a series of anti-Jewish books that he had begun before the War. André Gide, by no means a fascist, defended the first, pre-war, volume as over-the-top black humor. And it may be possible to read Trifles for a Massacre [Bagatelles pour un massacre] that way. But, in 1941 when Céline was still openly calling for the elimination of all Jews, the joke was hard to find:

Beating up Jews (by Jew I mean anyone with a Jew for a grandparent, even one!) won’t help, I’m sure, that’s just going around in circles, it’s a joke, you’re only beating around the bush if you don’t grab them by the strings [tefillins], if you don’t strangle them with them. [via Tony Judt in the NYRB]

"Tefillen" are the straps used to attach phylactery prayer-boxes, as on this Israeli soldier. Cocteau is saying that they should be used to strangle Jews.

“Tefillen” are the straps used to attach phylactery prayer-boxes, as on this Israeli soldier. Cocteau is saying that they should be used to strangle Jews.

Céline was a friend to Aymé who had championed his work in the past. Both satirized the bourgeosie, both played with language, though Aymé was a humanist who tended to smile at human foibles while Céline seemed to desire the kind of dark destruction that appealed to fascist romantics. But Aymé was loyal to his friends.
Meanwhile, others determined to resist. Albert Camus saw a friend shot by the Germans and came to the conclusion that sometimes one had to make a choice, a decision about which side you were on. And he wrote in his journal about Vichy, “Now the only moral value is courage, which is useful here for judging the puppets and chatterboxes who pretend to speak in the name of the people.”
Jean Texcier wrote his pamphlet “Advice to the Occupied” which gave instructions on dealing with the Germans: “Have no illusions. They are not tourists, they are conquerors…” Don’t deliberately insult these conquerors to their face, give them a light if they ask for it, but do not befriend them, don’t invite them into your home.
There were incidents — violent confrontations — in the countryside from the beginning of the occupation, but these were unorganized. By the end of 1940, a number of groups of resistants had formed across France, some were Communist, some ex-army, some criminals, some adventure-seekers, and some were ordinary folk, unwilling to put up with an occupation that was becoming, outside Paris, more and more bloody. In early 1941, these groups began to cooperate and function as a united Resistance.

Combat office in 1944. Camus at left, Andre Malraux in uniform at right.

Combat office in 1944. Camus at left, Andre Malraux in uniform at right.

The Resistance published its own journal, Combat, which was staffed by many of the leading lights of French literature, in particular Albert Camus, but also Jean-Paul Sartre, André Malraux, Raymond Aron, and others. At the same time, the right-wing Je suis partout [I am everywhere -- scary, right?], with Robert Brasillach as editor, displaced Action française as the main organ for Vichy collaborators. Aymé wrote four articles for this journal in 1942. None were political.
The resistants’ war became more and more bloody. German troops were killed in the streets of Paris, resulting in the kind of reprisals already familiar in the countryside. The occupation became more onerous to ordinary citizens: France had to pay the costs of the German occupation and currency values were rigged to favor the deutschmark. Most of France’s gross domestic product flowed back to the Third Reich. Young Frenchmen were drafted into the Labor Corps. And the arrest and transport of Jews began in July of 1942, with more than 70,000 French Jews murdered by the War’s end.

Arno Breker sculpting Cocteau.

Arno Breker sculpting Cocteau.

As things became more serious, the casual disdain for political affairs displayed by certain artists dissolved into fear. Picasso became afraid and begged Jean Cocteau for help. Cocteau was a fascist sympathizer who contacted Arno Breker, “Hitler’s favorite sculptor”, on Picasso’s behalf. According to Breker, he kept Picasso from being shot. Meanwhile, the Resistance had become popular and Jean Marais, Cocteau’s lover, begged to be allowed to join. No one trusted him, though, either because of his connection to Cocteau or because he was a blabbermouth, and Marais never found a resistant willing to recruit him.

Jean Marais, Cocteau at rear, 1939.

Jean Marais, Cocteau at rear, 1939.

In 1943, Marcel Aymé published a book of short pieces titled  The Man Who Walked Through Walls [Le Passer-muraille]. The stories are mostly fantastic and satiric. Aymé’s method is to take a single fantastic situation and then push it to a climax.
“The Man Who Walks Through Walls” is the story of a civil servant named Dutilleul who, at the age of 42, discovers that he can walk through walls. This power does not interest him, in fact it bothers him, so Dutilleul goes to a doctor who prescribes medication that will take away this unwanted talent. Dutilleul takes one tablet, then shuts the rest of the pills away. He continues using doors and ignoring walls until his boss is replaced by someone disagreeable. Eventually, Dutilleul is driven to use his power to bedevil this new boss to the point of madness. After he is driven from the scene, Dutilleul finds himself with a taste for more devilment. He becomes a thief and eventually reveals himself to the police, who, of course, cannot hold him in a cell. Dutilleul relishes his notoriety. He takes a lover whose husband locks her in at night, and his life is going well until, one day, he has a headache and pops a pill he finds in the cupboard. It is one of those that the doctor prescribed for him. He goes to meet his lover and winds up stuck in the wall, unable to move.
But the most interesting story in the collection is “The Ration-Card”["La Carte"]. It is presented as a diary:

There’s an absurd rumor going around the neighborhood about new austerity
measures. In order to ward off shortages and insure a greater output from the
laboring element of the population, there will supposedly be executions of
non-productive consumers: the elderly, the retired, those of independent means,
the unemployed and other non-essential persons. Deep down, I feel that this
measure would be quite fair.

But the diarist discovers that:

…putting all the non-essential to death is out of the question. The plan will
simply cut back on their time alive. Maleffroi explained to me that they will be
entitled to so many days of existence per month according to their degree of
uselessness.

So people thought to be useless will have less time alive. The narrator is allowed only fifteen days a month of life. He is indignant, but is told that, after all, writers are useless. The narrator goes to pick up his ration card:

I waited three hours in line at the 18th district city hall to get my time
ticket. We were there, lined up in double file, around two thousand unfortunate
souls dedicated to the appetite of the laboring masses. And this was just the
first little batch. About half of the number looked to be elderly. There were
pretty young women whose faces were languid with sadness and who seemed to sigh:
“I don’t want to die yet”. … In the waiting lines, I recognized, not without emotion, and, I must admit, with
secret satisfaction, comrades from Montmartre, writers and artists: Céline, Gen
Paul, Daragnès, Fauchois, Soupault, Tintin, d’Esparbès and others. Céline was in
a dark mood. He said that it was just one more maneuver of the Jews, but I think
that on this particular point, his bad mood led him astray. As a matter of fact,
in the terms of the decree, it allows Jews, without distinction for age, sex, or
activity, one-half day of existence per month. On the whole, the crowd was
irritated and tumultuous. The many officers assigned to security duty treated us
with great disdain, clearly considering us the scum of the earth. Again and
again, as we grew tired of this long wait, they appeased our impatience with
kicks in the ass.

By now the reader must recognize this story as an allegory of current events. The Nazis called those they condemned to death — cripples, the insane, the old, the feeble-minded –  “useless eaters”. As for the artists, well, we have met Céline, the painter Gen Paul was not a fascist, and Soupault was on the run from the Gestapo, arranging a Resistance radio network. So, one must ask, how did this manage to get published in occupied Paris in 1943? Presumably, because the Nazi censors nodded when presented with fantasy. There may be an answer in the French Gestapo files for 1943 but these are sealed for several decades yet.
Anyway, the ration cards and the life they represent begin to turn up on the black market. Some can buy extra days of existence. The narrator adds five days to June, existing to the 35th. Eventually, with the wealthy buying up all existence and extending their days for many months, the authorities concede that the plan has not aided the economy one bit and they discontinue the cards.

People rummaging through scraps at a market in occupied Paris. [photo by André Zucca, who took pictures for the Germans.]

People rummaging through scraps at a market in occupied Paris. [photo by André Zucca, who took pictures for the Germans.]


Another story deals with the entry into heaven of an evil man. There are so many dead soldiers waiting to get in that St. Peter just waves in the lot. The wicked person hides in the crowd.
One tale is not fantasy but a bitter description of life in rationed France. People waiting for food talk about their harsh lives. One says simply, “I am a Jew.” He need say nothing more, everyone recognizes that he has the hardest life. Once again, all this went through German censorship.
By now, everyone could see that the tide had turned against the Germans. Some Vichy officials, like François Mitterrand, became surreptitious resistants.
After D-day, some collaborators and sympathizers, Céline for example, fled the country. Others hung around, trusting in the concept that Vichy had saved France to save them. But the “Purification”, l’épuration, spared no one. Pétain and many members of his administration were imprisoned to await trial for treason. In the countryside, justice was more summary. Resistants took over villages and killed many who were suspected of collaboration or who, one way or another, offended them.
When the trials began, one of the first was that of Robert Brasillach. He was found guilty of aiding the enemy and sentenced to death by a judge who had once served Vichy. Marcel Aymé took up the task of saving his live. He asked numerous artists and writers to sign a petition asking for clemency. Some agreed. It is unlikely that Cocteau’s signature was of value in this instance but François Mauriac was a hero of the Resistance. Sartre and Picasso refused to sign, possibly because the Communist party advocated revenge. Albert Camus answered Aymé’s request with a letter. During the War, Camus had called for justice for the collaborators and Vichyites. He said, no one could forgive them except the families of those who had been killed. He wrote to Aymé:

I have always been horrified by the death penalty, and I have judged that as an individual the least I could do was not participate in it, even by abstention….This is a scruple that I suppose would make the friends of Brasillach laugh. And as for him, if his life is spared and if an amnesty frees him as it probably will in one or two years, I would like him to be told the following as concerns my letter: it is not for him that I join my signature with yours, it is not for the writer,  whom I consider to be worth nothing, nor for the individual, for whom I have the strongest contempt.

Mauriac took the petition, with Camus’ signature, personally to De Gaulle. But, in January, 1945, Brasillach was shot. His last words: “Vive la France.” He was the only writer to be executed during the Purification. A number of other Vichyites were sentenced to death, although de Gaulle commuted Pétain’s sentence to life imprisonment. Aymé was widely attacked and accused of collaboration. The Ethiopian petition and the articles in Je suis partout were mentioned, but the real crime was  Aymé’s friendship with fascists like Brasillach and Céline. The charges were not pressed. Still, Aymé was labeled with the quasi-official term “blame without [overt] display” (“blâme sans affichage”), which I take to be something like “thought crime”.
In 1945 many claimed to have been resistants or anti-Vichy, whose resistance was, at best, minimal. Gertrude Stein, for instance, claimed to have aided the Resistance, though evidence for that is difficult to find. She was certainly, at minimum, a Pétainist. Some felt that the best way to proclaim their own resistance to the Germans was to attack anyone else who might be suspected of any kind of collaboration.
Aymé was disgusted with this kind of hypocrisy, which, at that time, might mean a matter of life and death. His politics were personal and extended to those around him. He despised grand organizations and causes. You not betray a friend or, for that matter, any human being for the sake of an ideology.
In 1948 he published Uranus, a novel describing the events in a newly liberated village. Young Communists murder  social democrats and Trotskyites in the street, and sometimes they kill other people for reasons that have nothing to do with politics. In one scene, townspeople who had been prisoners of war return. The Marseillaise is played and the mayor makes a speech while five Communists locate a man in the group that they call a Pétainist. They throw him on the ground and begin to beat him. Everyone stands aside and the mayor continues his welcoming speech as the man is beaten to death. At the novel’s center is an alcoholic tavern-keeper, Leopold, a sympathetic character who winds up being executed.

Gerard Depardieu as Leopold in the 1990 film version of Uranus.

Gerard Depardieu as Leopold in the 1990 film version of Uranus.

Uranus is the third novel in a trilogy that depicts life in a French Village from the late 1930s to 1944. Neither of the first two, published in 1941 and 1942, has the harsh bitterness expressed in Uranus. (Although the first, Travelingue, contains sharp satire of leftists during the Popular Front.) Tony Judt calls Uranus hard-bitten and cynical, and puts it in company with the writing of others at the time who said much the same sort of thing.
Even a non-cynical person could not fail to find something corrupt in the offer of the Legion of Honor to Aymé in 1949. He turned it down, warning against “the extreme lightness with which [this honor] was thrown at the head of a bad Frenchman like me…”
In that same year, Aymé took up the cause of another writer, Maurice Bardèche, a scholar of 19th Century literature and Brasillach’s brother-in-law, who was accused of excusing war crimes. Bardèche was definitely a fascist sympathizer before the War and after it, but was not an active collaborator. He was sentenced to a year in prison, something that made him more defiant, and he became a Holocaust denier and Nazi apologist.
In 1950, Céline was convicted in absentia of “acts harming the national defense”, a much less damaging charge than treason. He was sentenced to a year in prison, which he served in Denmark, where he was living. In 1951, his lawyer negotiated an amnesty for Céline, and he returned to France. During this period, Aymé wrote pleas and letters and circulated petitions  to aid his friend.

Celine, at left, with Ayme in 1955.

Céline, at left, with Aymé in 1955.

As Camus had foreseen, the harsh treatment of collaborators had diminished to the point where pardons became the norm. But who could have predicted, in 1945, that eight years later it would become a crime to label anyone a collaborator? By the end of 1951, more than 50,000 French citizens had been charged with various offenses under the Purification Acts. After that, the French government came to think that there was more harm than good to be found in continuing the program, so the official position was completely reversed. Anyway, France had more immediate problems: inability to form stable governments, a stuttering economy, relations with the U.S., the Cold War, and the collapse of the French empire, first in Indo-China, then in Algeria. Men and women who had been united in Resistance found themselves split on these new questions.
It is very wrong for anyone, who has never had to face something like occupation by invaders, to make easy judgements on the actions of those who underwent this experience. Still, it is necessary to examine such historical events for whatever lessons and moral instruction may be taken from them. One may believe, with Camus, that sometimes a person must take sides, with all the moral complications that may ensue from acts of resistance and rebellion. Artists are not immune to criticism because they are artists, they still have a duty to act. But Camus himself came under fire for his position, or lack of it, on Algeria. Algerian-born, he decried the use of indiscriminate violence to spur revolution. He said that, if a bus were bombed and his mother killed, then he would be on his mother’s side, not the bombers’. This runs close to Aymé’s personal politics.
Texceira’s instructions on how to deal with occupation forces boiled down to: don’t befriend them but don’t antagonize them for no reason except to make yourself look good. In fact, that (IMO) is the program followed by most of those in occupied France. This approach does not rule out resistance or armed rebellion, but it does try to apply some common sense to the situation faced by ordinary people.

The Ayme memorial by Jean Marais in Montmarte. [photo: Andre Derain via philibert.sportblog.fr]

The Ayme memorial by Jean Marais in Montmarte. [photo: Andre Derain via philibert.sportblog.fr]


Aymé died in Paris in 1967, at the age of 65. In 1989, a memorial was commissioned near his home that was sculpted by resistant-wannabe, Jean Marais. It depicts the final bit of “The Man Who Passed Through Walls” when the hero, depicted here as Aymé himself,  finds himself unable to pass through to one side or the other but is immured in the wall itself.

Notes:

The only English translation of the collection, The Man Who Walked Through Walls, is this one.
Two of the stories (and one from another collection) with the original French versions, are available on-line here.
The 1951 film version of Passer-muraille is a slapstick comedy with little relation to Aymé’s story. You can watch the entire movie here.
Les contes du chat perché is not available in English. The stories concern two girls spending time at a farm. They speak to animals and have adventures. Some of the stories have been adapted into stage plays, animated movies, and comic books.
Uranus is unavailable in English. The 1990 film is good but also has no current DVD version with subtitles. A subtitled version sometimes plays on television, though. Watch for it.

An excellent account of artists in occupied Paris is Alan Riding’s And the Show Went on: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris

This article by Tony Judt surveys several books about France from the thirties to the fifties.
Gertrude Stein’s Vichy role is summarized here.
Céline’s anti-semitic work is reviewed here.

Remembrance Day: Crucified Soldiers

In May of 1915, a brief news story appeared in the London Times reporting that some Dublin Fusiliers had seen a Canadian soldier crucified with bayonets before being “riddled with bullets”. The story was reprinted in Canada and was brought up in the UK Parliament. Before long, various versions of the story were circulating: the soldier was one of a number of wounded left by retreating troops in a barn, the Germans bayoneted all except a sergeant who was tied to the large cross from a village church before being killed; the sergeant was pinned to a church wall with four bayonets before a fifth went through his throat; it was eight bayonets; it was many bayonets; he was dead when pinned to the wall/fence/tree/barn door; he was alive, and so on. The soldier’s name was given as Thomas Elliott of Brantford, Ontario. Elliott himself wrote to his pastor to say that he had not been crucified. Canada set Albert Kemp, Minister for Overseas Military Forces, to investigate and he found three soldiers, one of them a Victoria Cross winner, ready to testify. But: One claimed to have seen three soldiers, all crucified to a church wall; one was not in Europe at the time of the alleged crucifixion; and one claimed to have seen the crucifixion in a place that the Germans did not occupy. Sir Arthur Currie, commander of the Canadian Corps said that he could find no evidence of the event.

Ad for Bonds, Calgary Herald, November 2,1918

Ad for Bonds, Calgary Herald, November 2,1918

But Allied propagandists jumped on the story, printing posters and including the incident in a propaganda movie, The Prussian Cur. There is speculation that General John Charteris, chief of “Black Propaganda” and author of the German Corpse Factory myth and possibly the Angel of Mons story, may have been involved in promoting the story of the Crucified Canadian.

Still from The Prussian Cur, propaganda movie made 1918. The film is now lost.

Still from The Prussian Cur, propaganda movie made 1918. The film is now lost.

The Canadian soldier was said to have been crucified April 22-24 in the Ypres salient, perhaps at, or near, St. Julien. This was the extreme allied flank and the Germans meant to break through the defense and, perhaps, turn the Allied flank. But a direct assault seemed impossible of success until the German High Command came up with a new tactic: gas. On the 22nd, the Germans let loose a cloud of chlorine gas toward the Allied lines. Many troops ran from this new horror, but some 4000 Canadians stood their ground and kept the assault from victory. Some say that the Canadians may have killed Germans, including prisoners, after that as payback for the gas attack. Some say that the Crucified Soldier was German revenge for Canadian war crimes. Few speak of the crime of chemical warfare, possibly because the Allies were developing that very same weapon, using it for the first time in September, 1915. Crucifixion was an atrocity with more resonance for people — not many have been gassed but everyone has seen a crucifix.

"Canada's Golgotha" by Francis Derwent Wood on display at the Canadian War Museum. [via MelbourneBlogger]

“Canada’s Golgotha” by Francis Derwent Wood on display at the Canadian War Museum. [via MelbourneBlogger]

In 1918, Francis Derwent Wood cast a bronze image, less than a meter high, titled Canada’s Golgotha that depicted the incident. The bronze was to be exhibited in January, 1919, but Germany protested, demanding to see evidence that the event had occurred. There was none and the sculpture was withdrawn. Germany also requested that they have a representative on the Canadian commission under Albert Kemp investigating the claim. Shortly afterward, Canadian authorities pronounced that the story was “not proven”.

But while all this was going on, a nurse in France heard a wounded man tell her of a Canadian soldier whose body he had seen bayoneted to a barn door. He identified the man as Sergeant Harry Band. Band’s family, then living in Kelowna, B.C., had received letters from members of his outfit that also claimed that he had been crucified by German troops. Iain Overton investigated the incident and became convinced that Harry Band had indeed been crucified by German troops. [see a documentary here].

Sergeant Harry Band

Sergeant Harry Band

Band was born in Scotland and had seen service in the British Army before moving to Canada. In September, 1914, he signed up with the 48th Highlanders, an Ontario unit composed largely of Scots immigrants and people of Scots ancestry. A thousand strong, the unit was reduced to 300 men after the fighting at Ypres. Band listed his father in Kelowna as next of kin and directed that his pay be sent to a Miss Isabella Ritchie in Dundee, of whom nothing is known. Band was well-thought of by the men who served with him.
Many who studied this story mention that Belgium, around Ypres, is full of crucifixion imagery. There are statues by the roadside everywhere, not just churches. Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory: “The image of crucifixion was always accessible at the front because of the numerous real physical calvaries visible at French and Belgian crossroads, many of them named Crucifix Corner.” Fussell and others think that exhausted men fed their imagination with the everpresent imagery. But British soldiers hardly needed hallucination to see one of their own crucified, it was a rather common event.

Field Punishment No. 1. British War Office contemporary illustration.

Field Punishment No. 1. British War Office contemporary illustration. Note the pencilled instruction at left: “make the post look entirely unlike the cross”.

Crucifixion was the name given by British troops to Field Punishment No. 1. Men who were accused of petty crimes — losing a piece of equipment, for instance — would be bound to a post or caisson for hours at a time over a period of days, sometimes under conditions which resulted in fatalities. The War Office instructed that the post was to “look entirely unlike the cross” but the troops could see a resemblance. The Canadian War Museum helpfully notes that military punishment had little to do with justice but was intended to instill discipline. This concept of “pour encourage les autres” was carried to the extreme during the War as British officers ordered more than 300 troops to be executed for various infractions without any meaningful investigation. Canada honored its twenty-three executed soldiers in 2001, England gave a posthumous pardon to these executed soldiers in 2006.
One vet, at the age of 105, recalled the War and said he doesn’t know if posthumous pardons for those executed was a good idea, but he did remember feeling sorry for one man who was crucified:

One day I was ordered to stand guard over a chap who had been tied to a wheel, without food or water, as a punishment for something. I can’t remember what he’d done. But I felt sorry for him so I put my fag up to his lips so he could have a smoke. It was a very risky thing to do because if anyone had seen me they’d have tied me to the wheel as well!

"Ecce Homo" by George Grosz, 1924. Grosz was charged with blasphemy.

“Ecce Homo” by George Grosz, 1924. Grosz was charged with blasphemy for making this drawing.

After the War, German artist George Grosz produced a drawing which summed up the experience of all those men who had served in the Great War: “Ecce Homo”, subtitled “Shut Up and Do Your Duty”. Other artists echoed this theme. William Faulkner’s A Fable has a Christ-like doughboy as central character who winds up interred as The Unknown Soldier. Paul Gross’ film Passchendaele references the Crucified Canadian several times and has its hero undergo his own Calvary.

Paul Gross in Passchendaele, 2008.

Paul Gross in Passchendaele, 2008.

Many men died at Ypres. Some are buried in marked graves but other corpses simply disappeared in the mud. Those whose bodies were not recovered are memorialized at Menin, their names inscribed on the walls of the Gate. Occasionally a farmer will turn up bones in his field and, once in a while, these can be identified. When that happens, the remains are interred in a proper cemetery and a name is removed from the wall. More than 54000 names remain on that wall; one of them is Band, H.

Inside the Menin Gate Memorial near Ypres.  The names of more than 54000 men whose bodies were never identified are carved on the wall. Tens of thousands whose remains are identified are buried in the surrounding cemeteries. Five battles were fought at the Ypres salient with over a million casualties.

Inside the Menin Gate Memorial near Ypres. The names of more than 54000 men whose bodies were never identified are carved on the wall. Tens of thousands whose remains are identified are buried in the surrounding cemeteries. Five battles were fought at the Ypres salient with over a million casualties.

Notes:
The evidence that Harry Band was crucified is presented in this documentary.
Story from The Ottawa Citizen with Iain Overton’s remarks.

Various blogs and web pages exist on this subject. These may be useful:
Wikipedia
Spartacus (John Simkin)
Above Top Secret (links are dead)

Paul Gross’ Passchendaele

The Executioner: His Pride and His Shame

In 1553, a wood-cutter named Heinrich Schmidt was standing amongst a crowd in the Bavarian town of Hof, listening to the Margrave detail a plot to assassinate him. The Margrave had arrested three men and accused them of the crime. Now it was time to execute them. There was no official executioner handy, so the Margrave invoked a local custom: he pointed at Heinrich and ordered him to do the deed. The wood-cutter was reluctant but was told that if he refused to carry out the order, then he would be executed instead as well as the men standing on either side of him. So Heinrich Schmidt picked up a sword and cut the heads off the three men.

Having killed these men, Schmidt became a social outcast, like a gravedigger or a slaughterhouse worker, the kind of workers that are called burakumin in Japan and shunned to this day. So Schmidt turned to the only job opening available for a man like himself — he became an official executioner. Two years later, his son, Frantz, was born and, when he was old enough, became his father’s apprentice.

“Leonardt Russ of Ceyern, a thief. Executed with the rope at the city of Steinach. Was my first execution.” So begins the diary of Frantz Schmidt which details his life’s work as an executioner and torturer, first under his father, then in Nuremburg. Over the course of forty-five years, Frantz Schmidt executed 361 people and tortured hundreds more. These acts were all noted in his diary. He was proficient in using the noose, the wheel, fire, and drowning besides the sword, which was considered the most merciful of execution methods.

The only known picture of Schmidt. "Execution of Hans Fröschel, 1591". This drawing was made in the marguns of a court record book. Note Schmidt's collar and curved moustache. [WikiMedia Commons]

The only known picture of Schmidt. “Execution of Hans Fröschel, 1591″. This drawing was made in the margins of a court record book. Note Schmidt’s collar and curved moustache. [WikiMedia Commons]

Each of the methods required a certain knowledge of the human body and its capacity for injury. Executioners had to know how to break a prisoner’s limbs on the wheel in such a way that he would survive for a time. They had to know how to torture without killing. They had to be able to cut out a tongue or perform other judicial maimings without having the prisoner bleed to death. They had to know the proper angle for a waterboard (yes, they had them then.) Sometimes executioners had to heal their prisoner’s broken limbs or other wounds before they could participate in the ritual of public execution. So Schmidt operated as a healer on the side, a trade he found much more congenial and one that he studied. In order to learn more about the human body, he dissected quite a few. Schmidt later estimated that he had treated over 35,000 patients and he was proud of the fact.

Five years after hanging his first man, Schmidt took up work in Nuremburg. He first served as assistant to Nuremburg’s chief executioner, then succeeded him. He also married his master’s daughter — both husband and wife being tainted by association with one of the nastier trades, they would have had difficulty finding a spouse elsewhere. But the post of chief executioner was well-paid and the Schmidt family lived in an upscale part of the city.

A public execution was staged as a morality play. In the first act, the prisoner — whose guilt had already been determined — was allowed a last meal, including alcohol, then was dressed in a white blouse. The executioner then entered and asked the prisoner’s forgiveness before sharing a traditional drink with him. During this time the executioner would be assessing the prisoner’s state of mind and health, judging when he was ready to proceed.

Dungeon under Nuremburg's Old City Hall. Here is where prisoners were held before their execution. Now it's a tourist destination.

Dungeon under Nuremburg’s Old City Hall. Here is where prisoners were held before their execution. Now it’s a tourist destination.

Now the prisoner was brought before a “blood court” consisting of a robed judge holding a rod and a sword, and twelve jurors. The judge would read out the death sentence, including the method of execution, then poll the jurors for their assent. “What is legal and just pleases me,” each would reply. Next the judge asked if the prisoner wished to speak. This was an opportunity for the prisoner to forgive those who had condemned him to death and possibly express his thanks, especially if the sentence was for a merciful beheading. Some prisoners might curse the court, others were too dumb with fear or stupefied by drink to make a coherent speech. When the prisoner was finished speaking, the judge would order the executioner to carry out the sentence and snap in two the white rod he was holding.

The second act of this drama was a procession to the place of execution, which might be a mile or two away. The judge led the way, followed by the prisoner, a couple of soldiers, a chaplain or two, and the executioner and his assistants. Sometimes, if the prisoner was violent or was sentenced to be tortured on the way, he would be carried in a cart. Tortures might include having pieces of flesh torn out with red-hot tongs. The number of these “nips” were spelled out in the sentence. Sometimes the prisoner would have a few more drinks along the way.

The procession route would be lined by crowds of people, who might themselves be drunk and unruly and sometimes threw things at the prisoner. If he could, Schmidt would hurry the prisoner along to avoid problems. The prisoner might pray along with the chaplains and bless the crowd or he might curse his audience or break down in tears.

Execution by wheel. The man's limbs are being broken with heavy wheels. This is opposed to execution on a wheel, where the limbs were broken by a rod or weight after the victim was strapped to a wheel.

Execution by wheel. The man’s limbs are being broken with heavy wheels. This is opposed to execution on a wheel, where the limbs were broken by a rod or weight after the victim was strapped to a wheel.

The final act was the execution itself. The condemned prisoner would mount a scaffold or a platform. There, it was expected that a final prayer would issue from his lips as the noose was placed around his neck or as he sunk to his knees and awaited the executioner’s sword. The executioner would perform the deed then turn to the judge:

“Lord Judge, have I executed well?”

“You have executed as judgment and law have required.”

“For that I thank God and my master who has taught me such art.”

Then the executioner and his assistants would clean up and dispose of the remains.

The idea of the public execution was to make a statement. On the one hand it was supposed to be reassuring—a reminder that people get caught and punished. On the other hand it was a statement about state authority, because the state’s authority was not unquestioned. One of the things government officials were concerned about was private punishment—like lynch mobs and private justice. So it was meant to establish their authority.

No executioner wanted to make a mistake that would sully the grand pageant of death. Though messy executions were frequent at this time, Frantz Schmidt seldom took more than one stroke of the sword to remove a head. Out of 187 decapitations, only four needed more than a single blow. Schmidt was unforgiving to himself for these four, writing in his diary that he had botched the job and did not try to excuse himself. He was proud to practice his trade well. His headsman skill was at least partly due to the fact that he did not drink — at this time executioners were often as drunk as their prisoners when they wielded their sword.

German executioner's sword. The inscription: “I have to punish crime as the law and judge tell me”. [Weapons Universe]

German executioner’s sword. The inscription: “I have to punish crime as the law and judge tell me”. [Weapons Universe]

Traditionally, the executioner was allowed three sword blows to remove a head. If he needed more, the audience might turn into a mob that attacked him. Only once did Schmidt require three strokes with his sword. This was the execution of a woman who was calm before the blood court and said she was happy to leave this world of woe, but on the way to the place of execution her happiness turned to fear and she had to be restrained. Prisoners who were unable to stand were strapped into chairs before being hanged or beheaded, now this prisoner was carried in the procession strapped to a chair. Instead of holding her head steady, so that her death might be quick, she wobbled it around on her neck making it difficult for Schmidt to properly behead her.

Women were not executed as often as men but repeated offenses might well wind up with a capital sentence. So, Marie Kurschnerin, a prostitute, was pilloried in the stocks and driven out of town. Further offenses brought the punishment of having her ears cropped. Finally, in 1584, Schmidt’s wrote in his diary:

…the thief and whore Marie Kurschnerin, together with thievish youths and fellows, had climbed and broken into citizens’ houses and stole a mighty quantity of things. It was an unheard of thing for a woman to be hanged in this city and it had never happened before. Such a dreadful crowd ran out to see this, that several people were crushed to death.

An entry from Schmidt’s diary for 1617:

November 13th. Burnt alive here a miller of Manberna, who however was lately engaged as a carrier of wine. Because he and his brother, with the help of others, practiced coining and counterfeiting money and clipping coins fraudulently. He also had a working knowledge of magic… This miller, who worked in the town mills here three years ago, fell into the town moat on Whitsunday. It would have been better for him if he had been drowned, but it turned out according to the proverb that “What belongs to the gallows cannot drown in water.” This was the last person whom I, Master Frantz, executed.

Frantz Schmidt served the city of Nuremburg for forty years. He successfully petitioned the emperor to allow his children to have the executioner stigma removed from their names so that they could pursue other trades. After his retirement in 1617, Schmidt served as a healer for the last seventeen years of his life. Ironically, during that period most of his children and grand-children, that he had saved from practicing his deadly craft, died. When Frantz Schmidt himself followed them in 1634, Nuremburg honored him with a grand funeral. Social outcast though he was, Schmidt was also well-respected.

Notes:

The main source for all the above is Joel Harrington’s The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century, a really interesting book. An except may be found here and an earlier article about Schmidt by Harrington is here.

Some odd points were picked up from an interview with Harrington and a few items from this article on medieval executions of women which includes an interesting account of the execution by Schmidt of Elizabeth Aurhaltin, aka Scabby Beth.

Schmidt’s original diary long ago disappeared but at least four copies of it were made. Harrington used the earliest copy known as the basis for his book. A 1928 English translation from another copy is a prime candidate for the Internet Archive or Gutenberg.org. Somebody out there hear me.

Also, in this context, I can’t help recommending Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun tetralogy featuring Severian, apprentice to the Seekers for Truth and Penitence, which is to say, the Torturers’ Guild.

Duel of the Outsiders

At Carlton House in London, on April 9, 1787, A duel took place between two interesting characters of the era. The duel… Well, look for yourself:

Painting by Robineau, who was present, apparently, at the match. [Royal Collection, copyright owned by Queen Elizabeth II]

Painting by Robineau, who was present, apparently, at the match. [Royal Collection, copyright owned by Queen Elizabeth II]

The person on the left is the Chevalier de Saint-George, son of a slave from Guadeloupe and her white master. The person on the right is the Chevaliere d’Eon, diplomat and spy who claimed to be a woman and wore only women’s clothing from the age of forty-nine. These two were renowned fencers and had agreed to a swordfight at the behest of the Prince of Wales, wearing the big hat and standing at the center left. This was a major social event, attended by many friends of His Royal Highness.
D’Eon was born male — he later said that this was a fiction concocted by his father who stood to lose his estate if he lacked a son. This was the reason, he said, that he bore both the masculine name of George and the feminine one of Geneviève, one name was genuine, the other, not. At some point in his life, d’Eon began dressing in women’s clothes. He was small, fair, and apparently quite fetching. Although he was one of the lesser nobility, his family was not wealthy and d’Eon, like other courtiers, had to depend on wit and charm to make his fortune.

Portrait by Maher Brown derived from the official fencing academy portrait. This version, 1788. [Wikimedia Commons]

Portrait by Maher Brown of Saint-George derived from the official fencing academy portrait. This version, 1788. [Wikimedia Commons]

The Chevalier de Saint-George was born Joseph Boulogne to a Guadeloupean slave owner in (probably) 1745. His father fought with a man in 1747, giving him a bloody nose which became infected so that the man died. Boulogne was charged with murder and fled Guadeloupe with his wife, his daughter, his black mistress, and her son, Joseph. A few years later, after receiving a pardon, the Boulogne family returned to Guadeloupe and Joseph began studying music under the tutelage of his father’s estate manager, a gifted violinist who was also the product of master-slave miscegenation. The family, including Joseph’s mother, Nanon, returned to Paris in 1759. Boulogne’s father was in a state of financial embarrassment, as they say, and hoped to find funding to buy more slaves for his sugar plantation. Joseph had been declared a member of the nobility, even though the title was supposed only to go to those born in wedlock. He was given the name Saint-George from his father’s holdings in France. The young chevalier learned fencing and horsemanship — he was very good at both — and continued to study music, particularly the violin. In 1761, he was named a member of the Royal Military Household. At one point, a man called Saint-George “Laböessière’s mulatto” (Laböessière was the fencing master then teaching Saint-George, among others) and his father insisted that the young man challenge the fellow who insulted him. Saint-George reluctantly did so and thoroughly defeated his opponent. He began to develop a reputation as a great fencer.
D’Eon had charmed enough people to be accepted at court. He served as an assistant in the treasury department and wrote a book on France’s finances. In 1756 he became a member of the Secret du Roi — the King’s Secret — the royal spy network.
Louis XV wanted to invade, or at least pass troops through, the small kingdom of Hanover but George II, Hanoverian king of England, had joined with Prussia in promising to send troops to defend the place and requested Russia to also provide troops. Louis did not want to take on both England, Russia, and Prussia all at once. He dispatched two of the King’s Secret — d’Eon and another man — to St. Petersburg to bring Russia onto his side. According to d’Eon — or at least in words attributed to him — he crossed the border in drag, since, he said, only a woman could get past the guards. Once in Russia, he cosied up to the Empress Elizabeth and revealed himself to her as a man. Elizabeth was delighted at his wonderful imposture and had him live among her retinue for six months or more. Perhaps this is why Russia allied with France and Austria against Prussia and England — or perhaps it was because Elizabeth despised Prussia and she owed a debt to the King’s Secret who had helped install her as empress after a palace coup in 1741. Anyway, for d’Eon, a successful mission. D’Eon returned to France but almost immediately was sent back to Russia, where he was a man in the French embassy and a woman in the Russian court. This duplicity was much admired by his peers in the espionage game. The Seven Years War — England and Prussia against France, Austria, and Russia, soon began. In 1761, d’Eon enlisted as a dragoon and fought in several battles. He was wounded at Ullsdorp. In 1762 he returned to diplomatic service. It was at this time, at the age of thirty-five, that d’Eon was made a chevalier.
The Chevalier Saint-George lost his French violin teacher and patron, Jean-Marie Leclair, in 1764 when LeClair was murdered outside his house. The young man was distraught of course, but soon reconciled himself to moving into his former master’s position as France’s premier violinist. The murder was never solved but suspicion has gathered round LeClair’s estranged second wife.
Saint-George was now lauded for his virtuoso violin playing and had begun composing. in 1769 he became first violin of

1787 portrait by Robineau who painted duel. [Wikimedia Commons 9French)]

1787 portrait by Robineau who painted duel. [Wikimedia Commons 9French)]

the Concert des Amateurs formed by the master, Francois-Joseph Gossec. In 1773, Saint-George took over direction of the company and began publishing his compositions. At first, his works were written for string quartet but soon expanded to full symphonic pieces. The Concert des Amateurs was his testing ground for this music. His father died in 1774 and Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier Saint-George, had no share in the estate which all went to his mother and sister. He was on his own but, at this point, the future seemed bright.
In 1762, d’Eon was dispatched to England to investigate terms the English might find acceptable to end the Seven Years War. D’Eon was sent as a man, but he claimed later that, as a woman, he charmed many a secret from the English military establishment. Louis XV was considering an invasion of England and he wanted to know about that country’s defenses. D’Eon pretended to be two people: himself, when dressed as a man, and his sister, Lia, when dressed as a woman. He may have been lover to many noblewomen, including queens — or at least so he said, or was said to have said to his earliest biographer whose work falls on the veracity scale somewhere between unreliable and complete bullshit. Later, more sober biographers have suggested that d’Eon never had a sexual passage with anyone, male or female — but what do they know?

Portrait of d'Eon circa 1775.

Portrait of d’Eon circa 1775.

Soon after helping negotiate the Treaty of Paris in 1763, d’Eon sensed a turning against him by the French court, possibly because he incurred the displeasure of Madame de Pompadour, possibly because he  was running up huge debts and begging the foreign ministry for cash. When he was ordered back to France at the end of 1763, d’Eon refused, claiming that the new French ambassador, Guerchy, had tried to poison him. Guerchy sued for libel. Although Guerchy was arraigned for murder, he was not convicted. D’Eon, on the other hand, was found guilty of libel. Now he launched a counter-attack against his enemies. For some time d’Eon had quietly amassed a collection of secret documents about such projects as the possible invasion of England. In 1764 he published some of these documents in a book that became an international scandal and upset both the French and the English governments. But d’Eon did not publish the most important papers, such as the plans to invade England; these he kept back as a threat not to cross him further. In 1766, the French court capitulated and d’Eon was granted an allowance and returned to his work as a spy.
It became well-known that d’Eon and Lia were the same person and some individuals insulted whichever persona was presented before them. D’Eon challenged several of these men to duels and won them all. The sporting classes of London began now to speculate on d’Eon’s true sex and, in the 1770s, great betting pools were set up where one could gamble on the spy’s gender. Thousands of pounds were offered to anyone who could prove that d’Eon was either male or female. D’Eon claimed to be upset about all this activity but didn’t help matters by publishing another book, Les Loisirs du Chevalier d’Eon, in 1774. In this book d’Eon was rather ambiguous about his sex, thus fueling the gambling frenzy. He also wrote letters — stacks of them — to everyone in sight protesting that he was a man and offering to cross swords with those who said otherwise, but his denials of being female always left room for doubt. Some of the gambling concerns — insurance companies as they were called — became anxious and one sued for a settlement of a wager. The case came before the King’s Bench in 1776 where the presiding judge ruled that d’Eon was female. D’Eon himself did not testify since he had returned to France to repair his fortunes there.

English satiric engraving of d'Eon, 1770s.

English satiric engraving of d’Eon, 1770s.

After Louis XVI came to the throne in 1774, the French began pressing d’Eon to return the documents he had stashed away. D’Eon responded with threats to publish them all and demanded that the king pay him an enormous sum of money. In 1775 Louis sent an agent, Pierre Beaumarchais, author of The Barber of Seville, first performed that year, to negotiate d’Eon’s return of the papers. Louis could not risk the publication of the papers. On the other hand, he had to punish d’Eon in some fashion. Beaumarchais believed, or said he believed, that d’Eon was indeed a woman and begged His Majesty to think of the poor, frail woman, so besieged by fate and cruel enemies: “When it is considered that this creature, so persecuted, is of a sex to which all is forgiven, the heart is moved with sweet compassion.”
In other words, you can forgive d’Eon because she is a woman. Your enemies cannot say that you lack the will to punish them if you are merely forgiving some female foibles. A novel solution to this dilemma was worked out: d’Eon would return the papers, the French government would pay off his debts and restore his pension, but on condition that d’Eon pass as a woman for the rest of his life.  Should he ever put on man’s clothing, d’Eon would be imprisoned and possibly executed. The Comte de Vergennes, Louis’ minister, wrote to Beaumarchais:

I require, absolutely, I say, in the name of the King, that the phantom Chevalier d’Eon shall entirely disappear, and that the public mind shall forever be set at rest by a distinct, precise, and unambiguous declaration, publicly made, of the true sex of Charles-Geneviève-Louis-August-André-Timotheé d’Eon de Beaumont before she returns to France — her resumption of female attire settling for ever the public mind with regard to her…

Certainly, if he ever dared reveal French secrets to the English, “consequences will be terrible to d’Eon” wrote Vergennes. So, at the age of forty-nine, d’Eon took on a permanent role as a woman, which now, according to the English courts and the French king, she was. In 1779, d’Eon published an autobiography but the book was ghost-written and rather untrustworthy. Still, it has served as the basis for much of the myth surrounding d’Eon.
The Chevalier Saint-George was at the top of his game when, in 1776, he tried for the position of head of the Royal Opera, now a perogative of Louis XVI. According to Gabriel Banat, three of the female performers wrote to the king that they could never take orders from Saint-George because: “their honor and their delicate conscience could never allow them to submit to the orders of a mulatto.” Perhaps Saint-George became a bit embittered toward the upper classes at this point. He continued composing and directing. By 1778 he had written symphonies, concertos, string quartets, and musical comedies. In 1779, he became a court favorite of Marie Antoinette, a situation that was, perhaps, displeasing to some. In that year he suffered his first assassination attempt. A group of eight or nine men attacked Saint-George in the street, one of them had a gun to his throat when help arrived. The gunman claimed that he was only defending himself against Saint-George’s sword. There were rumors that the entire affair had come about because Saint-George had cuckolded the pistoleer. Later, another man paid child support to that man’s wife.

Saint-George, circa 1789.

1847  engraving for a book about dueling that featured an heroic Saint-George.

If the attacks on Saint-George and LeClair sound like something out of Les Liasons Dangereuses, it might be worth mentioning that Choderlos de Laclos was a friend of Saint-George and, in his novel, was describing a milieu he well-knew. The attempt to kill Saint-George may have arisen because of his reputation as a great lover. His biographer, Gabriel Banat, suggsts that Saint-George’s fame as a bedtime swordsman was the same kind of racist attribution that is well-known: blacks are bigger, better, and once you go there you don’t go back. At any rate, after this, Saint-George seems to have made an effort to play down his reputation as a lover — a sort of reticence not at all common in this era — though his friends made it quite clear that they thought Saint-George a great lady-killer.

d'Eon portarait made by the English painter, Thomas Stewart, but copying a French portrait by Mosnier made 17??. [Wikimedia Commons]

d’Eon portrait made by the English painter, Thomas Stewart, but copying a French portrait by Mosnier made 17??. [Wikimedia Commons]

Marie Antoinette showed favor to d’Eon also and sent her own dressmakers and corsetiers to supply her with proper costume. D’Eon appeared at court and at various salons as a woman, though she generally wore lower heels than was fashionable. When the American Revolution broke out, d’Eon asked that he be released from his promise to the King so that he might travel to America and fight the English. The King responded by threatening to cut off d’Eon’s support and enjoined him from ever wearing a military uniform. That did not stop d’Eon from sometimes dressing in men’s clothes. The first time this happened, d’Eon was arrested and thrown into a dungeon for several weeks. If this was meant to frighten him into obeying the royal will, it failed. From time to time, d’Eon would dress as a man. Each time soldiers were dispatched to forcibly clothe him in women’s clothing. Each time, d’Eon signed an agreement not to do it again. Finally, the game grew tiresome and d’Eon retired to family property at Tonerre, where she lived with her mother.
Even though the Royal Opera was barred to him, the Chevalier Saint-George had advanced his career, performing with Marie Antoinette at Versailles. He joined a French Masonic lodge and, when the Concert des Amateurs closed in 1781, took up leadership of a Masonic-sponsored group, The Olympic Lodge Orchestra. This group performed Saint-George’s clarinet concerto in 1782 and, in 1784, introduced six works by Hayden that Saint-George had commissioned.
The Chevaliere d’Eon, meanwhile had grown restless and, perhaps, apprehensive about the situation in France. He had been caught riding about his estate dressed as a man and warned again about this impropriety. So d’Eon applied for, and received in 1785, permission to go to England. Perhaps another blackmail threat helped pave the way. From this point on, d’Eon was never seen to dress as a man. Nor did she ever return to France.
D’Eon had joined a Masonic lodge on her earlier mission to England and perhaps it was through cross-Channel Masonic links that the Prince of Wales managed to set up the great duel at Carlton House in 1786. Both the Chevalier Saint-George and the Chevaliere d’Eon were highly regarded fencers — Saint-George had once been called the finest swordsman in Europe, but in 1784 he blew out an achilles tendon and lost quickness in his movements. In 1750, Saint-George’s fencing-master, Laböessière, had developed the modern fencing mask as a means toward non-fatal duels, but no masks were to be worn at the Prince’s fencing exhibition.

Engraving made from the Robineau painting by Victor Marie Picot in 1789. Picot has caricatured the audience. [Princeton University Library]

Engraving made from the Robineau painting by Victor Marie Picot in 1789. Picot has caricatured the audience. [Princeton University Library]

Of course, this was a spectacle, a kind of freak show — there were other matches between famous swordsmen that day, but this was the novelty act – but both Saint-George and d’Eon were used to being on display and both knew how to deal with royalty. So the tall, slim, forty-year-old Saint-George fought the short, stout, fifty-nine-year-old d’Eon. According to Saint-George’s loyal biographers, although he was prinked once, he won the match. D’Eon’s camp say that their woman hit Saint-George at least six times and was the winner. Of course, this might be gallantry shown the weaker sex. A newspaper of the day reported that d’Eon had hit Saint-George with a coup des temps, that is, in the midst of his preparing a move against the woman. D’Eon exclaimed at the time that Saint-George had allowed the coup out of courtesy, but Saint-George replied that, on the contrary, he had done what he could to avoid it. So, gallantry all round.
The swordfight was a topic of coversation for a few days, then faded. Saint-George returned to France to write an opera about a boy disguised as a girl; d’Eon entertained and dined out where he hobnobbed with the rich and curious. Gary Kates:

…James Boswell… talked with d’Eon at a party one evening in 1786. “I was shocked to think of her a kind of monster by metamorphosis. She appeared to me a man in woman’s clothes.” Horace Walpole “found her loud, noisy, and vulgar… The night was hot, she had no muff or gloves, and her hands and arms seem not to have participated of the change of sexes, but are fitter to carrying a chair than a fan.”
What is amazing about the reactions of Boswell and Walpole is that they did not follow their instincts and declare that d’Eon was actually a man dressed as a woman. Rather, despite what they perceived, they identified d’Eon as an Amazon, a thoroughly masculinized woman. They assumed female in what they could not see; they perceived male in what they could see. To them, d’Eon was anatomically female, but socially a man: this is what came across so appalingly to these conservative Englishmen.

If d’Eon’s difference was such that he could hide it with a change of clothes, Saint-George’s was inescapable and written on his skin. His biographers claim that he could not marry because no white Frenchwoman would risk the ignomin y of a mixed marriage, but the fact is many of them did. Is it possible that he was gay? Or did he, like d’Eon, choose a celibate path? At any rate, he and d’Eon were odd men out. D’Eon traded on his difference, Saint-George endured his. Slavery was illegal in Paris and its environs, so Saint-George had been free since his arrival there. Now he determined to do something of value to all colored peoples: he joined with the abolitionist movement in England.
In France, Saint-George formed the Society of Friends of Blacks. In England, where he often travelled in order to perform, he became friendly with the major abolitionists of the day. One night, in 1790, accompanied by co-abolitionist the Duc d’Orleans, Saint-George was walking through Greenwich Park to a house where he was to give a performance. A man wielding a gun attcked the pair. When Saint-George proved equal to the task of defending himself, four more gunmen emerged from the bushes. The great fencer used his walking stick and his violin to defend himself and his companion, driving off his assailants. It is thought that these were toughs hired by pro-slavery interests to attack the abolitionists.
Now the French Revolution had begun. Saint-George quickly declared himself a Republican and offered himself for military service. He was brought into the National Guard with the rank of captain. An organization promoting Black/White friendship had been formed by Julien Raimond, a planter and slave-owner of part-African ancestry. Raimond’s group wanted to promote the friendship between free blacks and whites so that, together, they might make slavery work better — which is to say, with lower possibilty of slave revolts. This was completely opposite to Saint-George’s abolitionist Society of Friends of Blacks. But now Saint-George joined Raimond in petitioning the National Assembly to raise a black regiment. In 1792, the Assembly had passed its Edict of Fraternity, which promised to aid any republican uprising that asked for assistance. The edict also allowed for “free legions” of non-nationals who would fight for the French Republic. The Assembly still held much of the racist attitude of the Ancien Regime, which had passed Black Codes that were more and more restrictive as the 18th Century progressed. A free legion of blacks could be excused, somehow, under the Edict of Fraternity, although the Assembly was still dithering over the abolition of slavery. So was formed the French Legion of Americans of the South, also known as the Black Legion, but more generally as the Légion de Saint-George.
Saint-George immediately set out to enlist a fellow student of Leböessière, Alexandre Dumas. Dumas was born a slave to a noble who had a sugar plantation in Saint-Domingue. The nobleman, through a stroke of fortune, came into great wealth from the family holdings and took his son with him back to France. Dumas was given a first rate education and lived the life of a wealthy playboy until his father began cutting back on his allowance. Then, he enlisted in the army. Although, in theory, he could have been commissioned as an officer, he joined up as a private. His father, now the Marquis de la Pailleterie, was horrified that his son might drag the family honor through the lower ranks, insisted that he use a name other than de la Pailleterie. So, the young man enlisted as Alexandre Dumas. Two weeks later, his father died but Dumas never attempted to become a marquis — a fact that probably served him well during the Revolution. He proved an excellent soldier and worked his way up through the ranks. Along with most of the French Army he declared as a republican and joined the National Guard after the storming of the Bastille. Dumas was at the forefront as the Revolutionary National Guard fought the armies of Europe. Already lauded as a military hero. Dumas was the man to lead Saint-George’s legion. In 1793 he was named Lieutenant-Colonel, under Colonel Saint-George, with two hundred cavalry and eight hundred infantry under his command.

Dumas in action against Austrian troops. Color engraving probably from 1800 or so. Note other members of the Saint-George Legion in the background.

Dumas in action against Austrian troops. Color engraving probably from 1800s. Note other members of the Saint-George Legion in the background.

The unit was stationed at Lille where it soon engaged in combat with Austrian forces, defeating them. Officially, the legion was part of the Army of the Centre of General Dumouriez. Dumouriez had politicked against the execution of Louis XVI, had quarreled with the Assembly over supplies for his troops, and otherwise made himself unpopular. When the Assembly sent a delegation to Dumouriez to examine his conduct, he arrested them and then tried to persuade his troops to march on Paris. Saint-George and his legion refused and revealed the attempted coup to the Assembly. Dumouriez fled to Belgium and Saint-George was, briefly, hailed as a hero.
There were complaints about the way Saint-George handled his command, including some from Dumas, who claimed that Saint-George was responsible for the chronic supply shortages. Saint-George was already under suspicion for his ties to the nobility. He dropped the “Chevalier” title and began signing his name as “George” but no one forgot that this man once played music with the despised Marie Antoinette. Ironically, the exposure of Dumouriez’ treachery had helped to create the political fury that soon became the Terror. Saint-George was arrested and incarcerated. He remained in prison for eighteen months, until the fall of Robespierre brought in a new political order and he was pardoned in late 1794, the same year that the French Assembly abolished slavery. Julien Raimond, ironically, was the person sent to Haiti to help that nation adapt to freedom.
Saint-George was not allowed to rejoin the army, so began trying to repair his musical career. But this was a difficult matter without arts-funding by the nobility and Saint-George struggled to make a go of it. In 1799, he suffered a bladder infection that soon proved fatal.
After the Carlton House duel, d’Eon fought a number of other exhibition matches — at least six staged by the Prince of Wales, now Prince-Regent. The French Revolution ended d’Eon’s pension and she spent some months in debtors’ prison. In 1792 d’Eon wrote the French Assembly, offering to raise a company of women, a légion of Amazons, to fight for the Revolution. This offer was declined. D’Eon had a small fencing school that gave various show matches around Britain. In 1796, at one of these duels, d’Eon’s opponent broke the tip of his sword and the fractured blade pierced d’Eon under the armpit. D’Eon was two years recovering from the wound and announced that there would be no more fencing exhibitions. For the last fifteen years of her life, d’Eon lived in the house of a Mary Cole where, in 1810 she died at the age of 81. A crew of doctors now demanded to examine d’Eon’s body. They pronounced d’Eon anatomically male in all respects. Mary Cole was shocked, shocked do you hear, and many women who had met d’Eon under circumstances not suitable for mixed company, were scandalized.
Dumas continued to rise as an officer and was a general when the Assembly called him to return to Paris in 1794, probably to stand trial for treason. Dumas delayed his departure until after the fall of Robespierre, when the matter was forgotten. Dumas served under Napoleon in Italy and was a member of the ill-fated Egyptian expedition. Returning from Egypt in early 1799, Dumas’ ship foundered and he wound up a prisoner in Taranto, part of the Kingdom of Naples. While in prison he suffered terrible privations, losing the sight of one eye and becoming partly paralyzed. In 1801, Napoleon, now in power, took the Kingdom of Naples and Dumas returned home. There he died of stomach cancer in 1806. His prison diaries helped inspire his son, Alexandre Dumas, in the writing of The Count of Monte Cristo.

The actor LaFont costumed as Saint-George in an 1840 production. [Wikimedia Commons]

The actor LaFont costumed as Saint-George in an 1840 production. [Wikimedia Commons]

The Saint-Charles Legion was slowly broken up after 1793 and turned into the 13th Hussars. In 1802, Napoleon re-introduced slavery in the French colonies — or tried to. He was usuccessful in ending the Haitian Revolt of the newly re-enslaved but settled the matter on terms that Haiti would pay a huge indemnity to France for many years, the repercussions of which still mark that country. Black Codes were re-introduced in France, including a mandatory registration of all people designated as black. Blacks were expelled from the army in 1802. In 1806, inter-racial marriage was made illegal.
Saint-George’s music fell into obscurity, not being performed for two centuries, but Saint-George himself was remembered as a hero and various places in France are named after him. His life, as a fencer and military man, was romanticized and by 1840 there were plays or shows about him, the lead actor wearing blackface. In the 1960s, the American Civil Rights movement brought about a new awareness of black contributions to history and culture and Saint-George was re-discovered. In 1990, Saint-George’s work began to be performed and recorded, though It is feared that a great many compositions have been lost over the years.
The Chevaliere d’Eon was the subject of at least six biographies after his death. The sexologist Havelock Ellis proposed the term “eonism” for what later became known as transvestitism. D’Eon has also been featured in several movies. In the film Beaumarchais she is played by a beautiful blonde actress, much younger than the character she portrays. D’Eon has attracted the attention of contemporary investigators into the matter of gender and there is a fair amount of new writing about this person, hampered somewhat by the fact that d’Eon told so many different versions of whatever the facts may have been — but, of course, by profession, spies are great dissemblers.
Both d’Eon and Saint-George were outsiders in their society who managed to find a place through their own great talent and skills. Probably they would be outsiders today: trans-gendered people are struggling to find a place in a world where many places make it illegal for them to live their lives. And, even in the most advanced nation on earth, the commander-in-chief may find himself facing charges that he is, after all, an African.

Some Sources:

Chevalier Saint-George:
Gabriel Banat,The Chevalier de Saint-Georges: Virtuoso of the Sword and the Bow
The recently-published The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss is a life of Alexandre Dumas which contains info about Saint-George and his Legion.
AfriClassical.com has a biography as well as a partial discography and a few audio samples. More performances may be found via Google and YouTube. The violin concertos are possibly the most-played pieces.
The CBC documentary,The Black Mozart/Le Mozart Noir is available on DVD and there is an accompanying set of CDs with a great many pieces by Saint-George.
Another on-line biography page.

Chevalier(e) d’Eon:
A biography, The Strange Career of the Chevalier D’Eon de Beaumont by Buchan Telfer, published 1885, is available on-line and is pretty good on d’Eon’s spying and the Beaumarchais mission.
This page is very sober and claims that d’Eon did very little cross-dressing and especially, emphatically Not, during the mission to Russia.
This page takes from a number of sources and sees d’Eon as a cross-dresser, especially on the Russian mission. There are a lot of pictures of d’Eon.
Gary Kates, Monsieur D’Eon Is a Woman: A Tale of Political Intrigue and Sexual Masquerade examines some trans-gender issues but its conclusion — that d’Eon was moved by religious notions to become a woman — seems fanciful to me.

Thomas Quick and Sture Bergwall: What Next?

Yesterday, a Swedish judge dismissed murder charges against Thomas Quick aka Sture Bergwall. This is the eighth murder conviction that has been overturned against Quick/Bergwall, who has been incarcerated since 1994 when he confessed to a number of crimes. Now he is petitioning for release from the psychiatric facility where he has been held.

But even if Quick did not commit all or any of these murders, he is a pedophile, bank robber, and once stabbed a man and left him for dead.

Thomas Quick aka Sture Bergwall [YVONNE SELL/SVD/SCANPIX]

Thomas Quick aka Sture Bergwall [YVONNE SELL/SVD/SCANPIX]


Thomas Quick was born Sture Bergwall in 1950 in Korsnäs, Sweden. He and his twin sister were the fifth and sixth of seven children in the family. Quick says his earliest memory, at the age of four, was his father fellating him. His pregnant mother walked in on the pair and collapsed. She suffered a miscarriage. Later Quick and his father bicycled to nearby Lake Runn where, Quick says, his father disposed of the stillborn infant’s remains at a place called Främby Point. Quick says that his mother grew to hate him and, a year or so after her miscarriage, tried to drown him in Lake Runn. Years later, Quick said that he buried a body nearby. Police have thoroughly searched Främby Point and found no sign of a body, infant or otherwise. Nor is there any record of Quick’s mother being pregnant in 1954, nor of a miscarriage.

When Quick was fourteen, he discovered that he was gay. He was ashamed and afraid to tell his parents. His first victim was killed at this time, he claims. Quick killed him in a shed, leaving his face bloody and his clothes ripped. But witnesses say that Quick was at Communion with his sister when the crime took place four hundred kilometers away. Photographs bear out the witness statements. Next, Quick said he killed another boy in a distant town in 1967. Quick’s sister said that he was nowhere near the town where the murder occurred, also distant from their home. By the time Quick confessed, the statute of limitations had run out on the crimes and, anyway, he was a juvenile at the time of the alleged killings. The first victim’s name was Thomas and was combined with Ms. Bergwall’s maiden name of Quick to create the pseudonym by which he wanted to be known. It was in his teens that Quick began using drugs, mainly amphetamines.

Quick/Bergwall, 1993. [T-online]

Quick/Bergwall, 1993. [T-online]


When Thomas Quick was nineteen, he claimed to have met the only love of his life, an older man named Tom (!). After Tom committed suicide, Quick says that he became deranged. He sexually assaulted an eleven-year-old boy. Two more such incidents followed, then Quick assaulted a nine-year-old patient at the hospital where he worked. He held his hand over the boy’s face to quiet his screams. When he took his hand away, he saw blood and thought he had killed the boy. Quick was apprehended and the witness/victim statements are enough to show that these attacks were no fantasy. Quick was committed to a mental hospital, received residential treatment, and went in for a stay at the Säter mental institution, where he is incarcerated today.

Released from care, Quick was twenty-three when he picked up another man at a gay bar in Uppsala. There was an argument in the man’s apartment and Quick wound up stabbing him. Quick says that he had been sniffing trichloroethelyne which sometimes produces hallucinations. He hallucinated that the man was a monster and so, he had to defend himself. The victim, alive today, disputes this version. He says that they were talking and drinking, maybe fooling around a little when Quick suddenly attacked him. He remembers Quick calmly cleaning his fingerprints off the knife, then walking out to leave his victim — stabbed twelve times in the liver, guts, and lungs — to bleed to death. When he was arrested, Quick claimed innocence for a while, then switched stories and said that he had become enraged when a third man left the apartment. The victim says that there was no third man. Quick was sent back to Säter where he remained until 1977.

Once released, Quick went back using amphetamines. He was involved in some petty crimes — a fake hold-up, an arson attempt — then, in 1990, he and an eighteen-year-old companion, wearing Santa Claus masks, broke into the home of a bank manager. The pair was armed. Quick raged about the house, stabbing the walls, claiming that he had AIDS and would infect the bank manager’s wife and ten-year-old son unless the man cooperated. The manager and Quick’s companion then went to the bank to get money, leaving Quick with the terrified woman and child. Later that afternoon, Quick was apprehended and once again sent to Säter.

Quick/Bergwall at Säter.[guardian.co.uk]

Quick/Bergwall at Säter.[guardian.co.uk]


Over the next year or two Quick began seeing psychiatrists and found that he was an uninteresting patient — until, that is, he told about being sexually abused by his father. That made the doctor sit up and take notice. After a time, he confessed to a murder, though his account was too confused for anyone to take seriously. Every now and again, Quick was allowed a day trip to the library where he began researching murders, including that of the boy named Thomas. Then he would come back to the hospital with grisly new details to give his interviewers. During this period Quick was being administered drugs, a lot of drugs: Xanax, Halcion, Treo, Rohypnol, Panacod, and heroic amounts of Valium. Quick discovered that confessing to murder got him more drugs, so he began confessing to more murders.

Psychology professor Sven Christianson now took an interest in Quick and began lengthy interviews with him. Christianson had police connections and told them he had located a man who could clear many unsolved murders. The police were delighted. They took Quick to the areas where murders were supposed to have occurred and Quick re-enacted them. Christianson helped in this process. One officer, Jan Olsson, was involved in two later reconstructions and was dismayed by the procedures. Crime scenes were already set up before Quick got there, rather than having him tell the investigators where things happened. It seemed to Olsson that Quick was being coached, too. No one listened to Olsson and he quit the investigation. By the way, before these re-enactments, Quick was allowed doses of Xanax.

In 1993, police informed the parents of Johan Asplund, who had gone missing at the age of eleven in 1980, that a mental patient had confessed to killing their son. The parents, who had divorced when Johan was three, did not believe it. They thought they knew who had abducted their son and told the police: a man who Johan’s mother had broken up with was their suspect. The police were convinced otherwise. The Asplund parents became convinced that the police were feeding evidence to Quick and were careful what they told them. For instance, they didn’t mention a birthmark on Johan’s backside until pressured by the police. A few days later, the birthmark appeared in Quick’s testimony.

Quick piled on the confessions. The same psychologist interviewed him,the same police officers investigated, the same police sniffer dog was sent out to search for remains. No remains were found, although the sniffer dog did give positive responses at several locations. Then a single piece of charred bone that had been cut by an edged tool was identified by one forensic expert at a place where Quick said that he had burned a chopped-up body. Although he is homosexual, Quick claimed that he had raped one of two women he claimed to have murdered and semen was found in her body. Eventually the police began charging Quick with murders, eight altogether. Prosecutions proceeded and Quick was found guilty eight times between 1994 and 2001.

Quick with police at an allleged crime site, 1997. [viaNettavision]

Quick with police at an allleged crime site, 1997. [viaNettavision]


In 1998, Quick wrote his life story including the tales of abuse, miscarriage, and secret burial. Quick’s older brother, Sten-Ove Bergwall, had also written a book, My Brother, Thomas Quick, in which he refuted these tales. Quick began sending him hate mail. He wrote one letter to Sten-Ove’s wife accusing her new husband of child abuse. Just in case Sten-Ove was destroying the letters unopened, Quick began writing his messages on the outside of the envelope. When Sten-Ove was in hospital awaiting cardiac surgery, Quick called him and said, “I hope your heart explodes.”

Sten-Ove Bergwall and Pelle Svenson, lawyer who acted for the Asplund parents. Picture taken 2009 [Wikicommons]

Sten-Ove Bergwall and Pelle Svenson, lawyer who acted for the Asplund parents. Picture taken 2009 [Wikicommons]


By 2001, Quick had confessed to thirty or so killings and might have admitted more except that a new psychiatrist at Säter, appalled by Quick’s drug intake, cut down his supply. Coincidentally, perhaps, Quick stopped confessing.

Everyone knew that some of the thirty killings had never happened because the victims turned up alive. But Psychologists, police, judges, and Quick’s own lawyer were unwilling to give up on the eight prosecutions, two of them without bodies. Still, many people had questions. One author identified Quick as a serial hoaxer. The Asplunds sued the man who they believed had taken their son and won, although the decision was later overturned. The semen in the dead woman was found not to be Quick’s but he was convicted anyway. The charred bone turned out to be a piece of wood. The Chancellor of Justice reviewed the trials in 2006 and decided that the convictions would stand.

Then, in 2008, film-maker Hannes Råstam, looked at the police re-enactments and noticed that Quick seemed to be dazed or stoned. He began interviewing Quick and, after three months, Quick admitted that he had never killed anyone. Råstam made a television documentary that, on top of efforts made by many other people, caused re-examination of the murders. Quick’s new lawyer pressed to have the convictions overturned and, one by one, they have been.

Claes Borgström being questioned by reporters about his defense of Quick. [Fredrik Sandberg/Scanpix]

Claes Borgström being questioned by reporters about his defense of Quick. [Fredrik Sandberg/Scanpix]


The Ministry of Justice has ordered a review of the entire Quick matter. There are a great many people facing humiliation. As might be expected, many of them are convinced that Quick really did kill those people, or some of them anyway. The police investigators are the ones going to get the really tough questions, including the handler of the sniffer dog. The prosecutor of six of the Quick murders is still convinced of his guilt and even claims that the fragment of wood is bone, after all. Sven Christianson, the psychologist who first got the case going, is also convinced that Quick is a violent sex criminal. He points out that he is still regarded by the police and the courts as an expert in these matters. Quick greatly enjoyed his attention — a real professor coming to interview him! And he also enjoyed having a famous attorney, Claes Borgström, who was a political star and was, for a time, Sweden’s Ombudsman in charge of gender equality. Borgström is under investigation by the Swedish Attorney’s Union for what one lawyer has described as “the worst defense counsel job in modern Swedish history”. He is also counsel for the two women accusing Julian Assange of rape.

So, probably, the man who now calls himself by his birth name, Sture Bergwall, will soon walk the streets. For a while he will be famous and important but, as this matter winds down, as eventually it will, fewer people will care about him. And my question is, what will Thomas Quick do then to re-assert his importance?

Notes:

Much of the above, including info about Sten-Ove Bergwall, is from this article by Chris Heath.

Some points were gotten from an article for The Observer by Elizabeth Day.

Sture Berwall/Thomas Quick has a blog; it’s in Swedish but translation devices abound. Here is a 2012 post on his lawyer Claes Borgström.

Hannes Råstam’s book, Thomas Quick: The Making of a Serial Killer, was published posthumously last year.