Bag Girl Reviews: Marie Antoinette, Princess of Versailles by Kathryn Lasky

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Due to my interest in history and childhood obsession with princesses, one of my favorite series of books growing up was The Royal Diaries. I scoured my elementary school and middle school libraries for every book in the series I could get my hands on and checked them out over and over again. The one that I checked out the most was Marie Antoinette: Princess of Versailles by Kathryn Lasky. My first reading of the book probably predates my first viewing of the Sofia Coppola film Marie Antoinette, but my subsequent Marie Antoinette obsession lead me cracking it open many more times. The book and I encountered each other again after many years last fall at Wicked Good Books in Salem and I just had to finally own a copy of it for myself.

As a fictionalized diary, it follows Archduchess Maria Antonia (later Marie Antoinette, Dauphine of France) as she prepares to marry Louis Auguste, heir to the French throne. The free-spirited and somewhat scatterbrained teenager chafes under the high expectations of her formidable mother, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, and the rigid etiquette she is supposed to follow as future queen of France, and enjoys more simple pleasures such as sledding trips and moon-lit wadding in the palace fountains. Upon her arrival at the glittering but cut-throat court of Versailles, she finds that her future husband, Louis Auguste, is not the fairytale prince she had hope for but soon develops a deep fondness for the awkward young man. The young and inexperienced dauphine quickly sparks a rivalry with Madame du Barry, King Louis XV’s greedy and arrogant mistress and struggles to find her footing at court. 

Being a book intended for children, Marie Antoinette: Princess of Versailles glosses over the sexual failings which marred the first seven years of Marie Antoinette’s marriage to Louis Auguste (later Louis XVI). Due to Louis’s awkwardness and lack of knowledge about reproduction, the royal couple failed to consummate their marriage for a number of years. The sexual debauchery for which Versailles was notorious for and the obscene mockery which was heaped on Marie Antoinette for most of her sojourn in France, are also left unmentioned. 

I have to admit that I’ve grown beyond books like this, them being written for kids. The language and plot are simple, almost juvenile and has little to offer an adult reader aside from nostalgia. But I would recommend it to little girls who, like me, had a taste for history, pretty dresses, and royal pomp and splendor. 

 

Bag Girl Reviews: My Cousin Rachel (2017) ****Warning: Spoilers***

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A couple of years ago, my Aunt Suzie bought me a copy of  the book My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier she had found at a flea market, mostly because it had the name Rachel in the title (Rachel happens to be my name). It was a happy accident that Daphne du Maurier is the author of one of my favorite books, the superb romantic thriller Rebecca. I read My Cousin Rachel later that summer during a trip and enjoyed it, and read another of du Maurier’s books, Jamaica Inn, the following year. Of the three books by Daphne du Maurier that I have read, Rebecca is my favorite, My Cousin Rachel comes in second, and Jamaica Inn makes up the rear. Despite an interesting premise, an unlikeable heroine and a plot twist that is either amazing or shark-jumping depending on your tastes make Jamaica Inn less enjoyable than I was expecting. I was excited to hear about a film adaptation of My Cousin Rachel coming to theaters this summer and when it started getting good reviews, I was anxious to see it.

The orphaned Philip Ashley (Sam Claflin) has been raised by his cousin Ambrose, the quintessential english confirmed bachelor, to see women as disruptive interlopers. When ill health brings Ambrose to Italy, Philip is shocked to learn that his woman distaining cousin has suddenly gotten married to the mysterious and enchanting Rachel (Rachel Weisz). After a series of startling letters and Ambrose’s sudden death of a brain tumor, Philip begins to suspect Rachel of foul play. But when he finally meets the woman herself, Philip falls under her spell. Desire turns to suspicion and paranoia when more details about Rachel’s past come to light and Philip begins to fall ill in the same way that Ambrose had. 

My Cousin Rachel is a master class in ambiguity. Each reveal in the plot poses more questions than they answer, leading to a fascinating story. The main conflict, Rachel’s guilt or innocence, allows the reader or viewer to come up with a large number of possibilities. Did Rachel poison Ambrose using her special tisane to get as his fortune and is doing the same to Philip, or did Ambrose become unhinged due his brain tumor. Rachel could have simply been giving Ambrose medicine to ease his suffering and if she did poison him, maybe it was to spare him from a longer and more painful death. The film leans towards the Rachel was giving him medicine or trying to put him out of his misery theory. At a number of points in the story, Rachel mentions to Philip that his increasingly hostile treatment of her is almost identical to Ambrose’s behavior prior to his death. The ending gives the impression that Philip has the symptoms of a brain tumor, similar to the one Ambrose died from. 

Rachel Weisz was a brilliant choice to play the dramatic and elegant Rachel, and contrasts well with the earthy, tomboyish Louise (Holliday Grainger), Philip’s other love interest. I think Holliday Grainger is better suited to wholesome girl-next-door roles rather than devious femme fatale parts, so she was a good fit for Louise. A nitpick I had was that in one scene, Louise describes the shabby state of Philip’s manor house as smelling like “every dog in the county has taken a shit here.”  I have a hard time believing that Louise would have used a word as crude as “shit” but I gave it a bit of leeway because she was shown as being somewhat tomboyish and treated as “one of the boys” by Philip.  I am definitely “Team Louise” because I tend to sympathize more with the less favored romantic option who stands little chance against their more dazzling rival, so I was pleased by the addition at the end where after Rachel’s accidental death, Philip marries Louise and has a family with her. 

One problem I had with the film was that it was a little confused as to which time period it was set. The costumes worn by Rachel and Louise were in the fashion of the 1840s while the rest of the women shown on screen were dressed for the 1830s. Other than that, I loved the clothing worn by the two female leads, Rachel’s striking blacks, reds, and blues and Louise’s more natural browns and pastel florals. The film is visually beautiful with its shots of the stunning Cornish landscape and shadowy, candlelit manor houses.

I would recommend My Cousin Rachel, both the film and book, to those who love a good mystery and periods costume dramas with an edge.

 

Bag Girl Reviews: The Handmaid’s Tale (2017)

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I saw a lot of hype for Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, a 1985 dystopian novel written by Margaret Atwood. The production was praised for being timely as well as high quality and the premise sounded interesting, so when I signed up for hulu, I decided to watch it.

In the wake of a series of terrorist attacks, a religious inspired military dictatorship has taken over North America, which is now called The Republic of Gilead. Offred (Elisabeth Moss), a member of a class of women known as “handmaids” who are forced to bear children for barren families, lives with Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes)  and his jealous and vicious wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski). She once had a husband, a daughter, and a job but now lives in world where women’s rights have been taken away and she is treated as breeding stock.  Despite being a world where men have all the power, it is the women who steal the show. Elisabeth Moss is brilliant as the relatable everywoman, Offred, who decides that she has had enough (as one of the show’s slogans says “she will bare no more”). Yvonne Strahovski is both frightening and sympathetic as the ice queen Serena Joy.  Alexis Bledel and Madeline Brewer play the small but haunting roles of Ofglen and Janine: a lesbian handmaid who receives a genital mutilation because of her sexual orientation and a mentally unstable handmaid who finally loses it after her child is taken away. Both are two of the shows most resonant scenes.

Part of the reason why the story is so scary is because it taps into fears women have: having their children taken away from them (the reason why Offred and the other handmaids have been chosen is because they have been able to bare children in the past) and being stripped of all their rights and self respect. I agree that this series is timely in a climate of terrorist attacks and conservative backlash. Offred’s “we didn’t wake up” speech is particularly chilling.  It is not a great series but also, perhaps, and important one.

Bag Girl Reviews: The Poems of Anne Bradstreet

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The puritan poet Anne Bradstreet holds a special place in American literature as not only its first female writer but also as its first published author. Her book, The Tenth Muse, was the first literary work created in America. I had read some of Bradstreet’s poems in my American lit. class this year in school and I bought of a book of her poetry in the giftshop at the Rebecca Nurse Homestead.  

The poems of Anne Bradstreet focus on subjects appropriate for a puritan woman: love, family life, and religion and the hardships which women like her faced in 17th century Massachusetts such as such as childbirth, lose of and separation from loved ones, and reconciling these hardships with their religious beliefs. The puritans who colonized New England dealt with a combination of a harsh and difficult landscape and similarly harsh and difficult religious beliefs. The puritan psyche was characterized by a struggle between the flesh, material things of the world, and the spirit, the soul and spirituality. Bradstreet’s poem, The Flesh and the Spirit, deals with this struggle, presented as an argument between two sisters, personification of these two forces. The flesh argues that the spirit can never be sure if what it believes is actually true. One of the most difficult parts of being a puritan is just that, cannot you be sure that your strict religious observance is worth it in the end. The Spirit’s rebuttal to her sister is that she will avoid being troubled by doubt and rely on faith because the rewards given in heaven are far greater than anything on earth. The needs of the flesh distract you from the needs of the spirit and keep you from living a godly life, according to puritan thought.

Another tenet of puritan thought is to dismiss hardship and tragedy as “god’s will.” In her poem, Here Follows Some Verses upon the Burning of Our House, July 10th, 1666, takes the typically puritan view of misfortune. In describing a fire which destroyed her home, she tries to tell herself that such a tragedy is God’s will and that worldly goods are meaningless. But the reader gets a sense that this only a half hearted way of trying to make herself feel better after losing her home and everything she owns. A difficulty which comes with being a person of faith is reconciling their belief in a just and loving god with the terrible things that can happen to them, and the idea that they “God’s will” is perhaps a way of dealing with profound sorrow.

Bradstreet wrote the poem, As Weary Pilgrim, Now at Rest, towards the end of her life. She compares herself to a traveler who has been on a long and difficult journey and longs for rest For a puritan with strict religious beliefs living in the harsh climate of New England, life would seem like a long and difficult journey. Puritans saw their earthly life as filled with hardships and the only rest they could hope for in heaven after death.

The puritans came to the New World seeking religious freedom, which has become a belief upon which America was, supposedly, founded. But what the puritans meant by religious freedom was religious freedom for themselves and no one else. They were notoriously intolerant of other religious groups and had the protestant fierce hatred of catholics. Bradstreet’s poem, A Dialogue Between Old England and New, is pretty much a long rant against popery. As a confirmed, if not necessarily practicing, catholic, I felt a little bit offended.  Puritans such as Anne Bradstreet are fascinating to study because in them, we find the seeds of so much of what makes up the American psyche: our idolization of a strong work ethic (our reality is perhaps less noble), our sense of exceptionalism and curmudgeonly independence, our tendency towards bigotry, and our penchant for literal and figurative witch hunts. Perhaps our modern culture of consumerism, excess, and hedonism is perhaps a reaction against our puritanical roots.

I would recommend reading Anne Bradstreet to anyone interested in American history and literature, specifically of the puritan era.  

Bag Girl Reviews: Helen of Troy by Bettany Hughes

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Bettany Hughes is an historian whose documentaries I adore. My favorite documentaries of her’s are the episodes about Helen of Troy and the ancient Minoan civilization from her Ancient World series. The Mycenaeans and Minoans are two ancient civilizations whose culture and aesthetics I am fascinated with; Greece, specifically the island of Crete, are on my bucket list of places I want to visit. 

The definitive account of the life of Helen of Troy comes from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey but there are a plethora of, often conflicting, other sources from the ancient world which provide details of her life.  Many of these details, her conception via Zeus’s rape of her mother Leda in the form of a swan, being the protegee of the goddess Aphrodite, seem fantastic but are there kernels of truth in her story? Bettany Hughes presents Helen’s world, late bronze age Greece, as one where a superbly beautiful and high born woman like her would have wielded great power. Reports of a stunning and powerful queen and her misadventures may have been exaggerated over time. Helen was also perhaps a high priestess, officiating over religious ceremonies or a vestige of some long forgotten bronze age goddess.

A fascinating thing about Helen of Troy is that she refuses to conform the madonna/whore dichotomy of  later civilizations. She is an adulteress whose extramarital affair and elopement with the trojan prince, Paris, started the Trojan War but was also worshiped by young virgins on the cusp of womanhood in her hometown of Sparta, who hoped to gain some of her famous sexual allure.  Helen has been loathed as everything from a scheming seductress to a vapid bimbo and yet people have fascinated by her for thousands of years.

I have to admit that I had a hard time getting into this book, mostly because of the difficulty I have with reading non-fiction. Anyone with an interest in the ancient world, and an easier time reading non-fiction, will get something out of reading this.  I would recommend looking up Bettany Hughes’s documentaries on Helen of Troy and the ancient Minoan civilization on Youtube for those without the time or patient to crack open a scholarly book. I have a major girl crush on Bettany Hughes, the Nigella Lawson of ancient history, and Greece is a country rich in natural beauty and historical sites. You can relax on a beach and then explore a Minoan or Mycenaean ruin, my dream vacation destination.

After I finish college, I’m going to spend a few years taking classes at North Shore Community to get my library degree and to learn Italian and Greek  and working to save money. Then I’m going to spend some time traveling in Italy and Greece.