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


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***


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)


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


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


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.


Bag Girl Reviews: The Homeric Hymns


Perhaps my favorite Greco-roman myth is the tale of Hades and Persephone. I remember reading it during my fourth grade mythology unit and we read its definitive version, Hymn to Demeter by Homer, in my reading broadly course in college. Hymn to Demeter comes as part of the Homeric Hymn, a collection of poems both long and short addressing a number of Greek deities.  

Several of the hymns are fairly long, taking over a half hour to read aloud, and tell full stories. Hymn to Demeter is maybe the longest and tells of how Demeter, goddess of agriculture, become depressed and restless after the abduction of her daughter, Persephone, by her brother Hades, god of the underworld. Zeus, king of the gods, had promised Persephone in marriage to Hades without Demeter’s knowledge, and Demeter is, quite rightly, upset by this and neglects her duties as goddess of agriculture. A compromise is struck between the gods where Persephone spends a third of the year with her husband/uncle Hades and the rest with her mother Demeter, which explains why the earth is blooming and fruitful in the spring and summer and gloomy and barren in the fall and winter. 

The myth of Hades and Persephone is problematic to modern audiences as it contains abduction, incest, rape, and may-december relationships. The implication given is that the only thing wrong with Hades’s marriage to Persephone is that it was without Demeter’s knowledge or consent. Incest was common among the greek gods, as it was with royals for many centuries, because, though the gods and goddesses had many affairs with mortals, the only person good enough for a deity to marry is another deity. Even the age difference was not much of a problem to the ancient greeks, considering the average greek woman married around thirteen while the average man married around thirty. Although this tale being problematic, it is one of the best known and most popular of the greek myths and Hades and Persephone are among mythology’s favorite characters. Despite the dubious start to his marriage, Hades is the only one of the greek gods who is what you would consider a good husband, at least compared to his womanizing brother, Zeus.

Other stories which feature in the Homeric Hymns include the conception and birth of Apollo and the founding of the oracle at Delphi, the humorous tale of Hermes’s theft of Apollo’s sacred cattle, and the romance between Aphrodite and Anchises, which results in the birth of the Trojan hero Aeneas.

Ancient Greek mythology is packed with enough drama for a long running soap opera and it’s little wonder than they have endured over the millennia.  It often reads as a supernatural version of General Hospital or One Life to Live, two shows which my roommate Jasmine got me into, due to the tangled up web of characters, and the constant infidelity and backstabbing.  If I was going to recommend a book that gives an overview of greco-roman mythology it would be Ovid’s Metamorphose, which has a wider array of stories and is more narrative in character, rather than the more lyric Homeric Hymns.



Bag Girl Reviews The Witches by Stacy Schiff


One of the most endlessly fascinating episodes in American history is the Salem Witch Trials, perhaps it’s best known unsolved mystery. What made the citizens of an upstanding puritan community turn against itself with friends, family, and neighbors accusing one another of the worst crime they could think of: witchcraft. There is no shortage of books describing the events of 1692 Salem and providing theories as to why they happened, but The Witches by Stacy Schiff is a welcome addition.

Schiff provides a detailed and nuanced depiction of the Salem Witch Trials, going beyond the American History class stereotypes. She gives context to these events as well as possible explanations, without resorting to the typical conspiracy theories: these range from political divisions to ergot (a mold which is what LSD is derived from ) laced rye bread. It all began with a group of adolescent girls, a disenfranchised section of the community who were both largely ignored and highly scrutinized, it is possible that a combination of strict puritan religious beliefs and societal expectations and the repression of teenaged impulses and desires caused them to act out. What started off with youthful rebellion snowballed out of control, fed by the divisions and suspicions in their society.

Early New England lived in fear of attacks from Indians and the French, disease and other natural disasters as well as interference from the British crown. It was divided between a number of different political and religious factions. Salem village itself was split between those supported the minister, Samuel Parris, and those who resented having to pay his salary. A top of that were various land disputes and personal grudges.

Schiff puts the Salem Witch Trial against the larger backdrop of the 17th century ( the period which saw the greatest number of witch trials worldwide) as well as World History in general, specifically the McCarthy Trials of the 1950s and  the fairly recent Patriot Act/ War on Terror era, which we are (arguably) still going through. Both of these events and those like them are often referred to as “witch hunts.” The Salem Witch Trials are invoked whenever a climate of fear and suspicion cause us to turn against one another.

The Witches by Stacy Schiff provides fascinating context to the much discussed Salem Witch Trials and is a must read for anyone who is interested in these events.  I found it dry at points but that is due to the difficulty I have with non fiction. 

Bag Girl Memorial Day Special: Remembrance Day at the Rebecca Nurse Homestead


The Rebecca Nurse Homestead in Danvers MA hosted a World War I themed event in honor of Memorial Day Weekend. I have a somewhat Edwardian looking dress and hat and decided to wear them. Dad and I arrived in Danvers a few minutes before ten o’clock a waited a few minutes in the car before going in.


A local group that reenacts World War I had set up a camp on the grounds of the Rebecca Nurse Homestead and there were also reenactors portraying British sailors and French soldiers. Dad was disappointed to find that there would not be any drills or demonstrations that day. To see that, we would have to come back the next day. The first part of our visit involved poking around the event to see what was there and then looking around in the Rebecca Nurse house. While looking in the wing of the house with display cases filled with artifacts dug up on the site, we met a volunteer named Don, who gave us a tour of the second floor of the house, which I have never seen before. The meeting house was set up for crafts and coloring; I made a poppy out of tissue paper and pipe cleaners.


Dad and I were hungry by this point, so we went to the concession stand for snacks: We both got cokes. I got a bag of popcorn and a bag of candy; Dad got a donut. Afterwards, I went to the gift shop and bought and a volume of poems by Anne Bradstreet, who we studied in my American Lit. class, and a couple of postcards. I donated my last dollar to a fund to build a World War I memorial in Washington D.C. My donation allowed me to take a packet of Flanders Poppy seeds, which I later planted in a pot on my deck. We will see how well they turn out.

The reenactors had brought a great deal of interesting things to look at. A table displaying weapons had a rifle bayonet which could be detached and used as a  knife.


Another table, which had books and other paper goods from the period, had a romantic postcard of an American soldier kissing his girl before going off to war and a basic french book, as well as a book of “naughty poems.” I wonder what people in 1917 considered naughty.


There was also a table set up with rations which a World War I era soldier would have eaten and a fire for cooking bacon. Another table which displayed period communications devices such as radios and cameras.



The British encampment had cigarette cards of King George V, Queen Mary, and other members of the royal family. The French encampment had an actual Croix de Guerre medal. An adorable little boy tried on a helmet at the British encampment and appeared to be having a ball. I love seeing people bring kids to these type of events.


We left around noon and I put my postcards and poppy in my scrapbook.

Bag Girl Reviews Harlots

*** Warning: Spoilers***

Harlots is a Hulu series that I have been hearing a lot about through the period drama related social media I follow, mainly the blog Frock Flicks. My interested was piqued but since I did not have Hulu, I got a late start in watching it. This was what made me give in and finally subscribe to Hulu. 

The series follows Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton), an upwardly mobile brothel owner in 18th century London trying to provide for her two daughters: Charlotte (Downton Abbey’s Jessica Brown Findlay, London’s most sought after courtesan, and Lucy, whose innocence attracts a number of sadistic men. Margaret’s social climbing provokes a feud with Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville) a high class madam and Margaret’s former employer, who steals the entire series with her bird-like menace. Manville’s performance as Lydia Quigley is something watching a vicious parrot.

One interesting thing about the series is that it includes elements usually missing in your typical costume drama: lesbianism and mixed race relationships. The slums and brothels of 18th century London are shown as a diverse place which caters to all tastes. Margaret Wells is in a common-law marriage with William North, a free black man, and they have a mixed race son. Amelia Scanwell, the daughter of a puritanical religious campaigner, has a lesbian romance with a local prostitute. It is also noteworthy for its depiction of prostitution, one of the few professions available to an 18th century woman where she could rise to wealth and prominence but at the risk of abuse and condemnation. The prostitutes in the series are not portrayed as pathetic victims or vice-ridden jezebels but rather as women using the few opportunities offered them to try to survive and get ahead. Whoredom is both glamorous and degrading.  

The rivalry between Margaret Wells and Lydia Quigley is the most interesting part of the series. Other storylines such as Charlotte’s romance with an Irish gigolo named Daniel  (Jessica Brown Findlay in another relationship with a hunky irishman), and the murder of a noble client in Margaret’s brothel do not grab you as much. You do not really care about what happens to Charlotte and Daniel but you want to see Margaret take Quigley down. I love where the character of Lucy, who starts off as a reluctant prostitute and is afraid to go off as the kept woman of a wealthy man, is going. In the last episode, she is taken under the wing of  Nancy (Kate Fleetwood) a friend and neighbor of her mother who works as a dominatrix and taught the art of flagellation. Lucy returns to her mother and tells her “I’m ready now.” My prediction is that in the next season, Lucy, who serves as one of the series’s defactio ingenues, will become a dominatrix like Nancy.

Harlots has little of the stodginess which people all too often associate with period dramas but does not feel historically inauthentic or untrue to the time period. There is a fine balance between  “this is a different time period” and “and these are understandable and relatable people.” It is accessible and appealing to the general audience but does not feel dumbed down.

Bag Girl Goes to Morristown or In Search of Alexander and Eliza


Today, we went for a drive to Morristown to see a couple of old house: the  Schuyler-Hamilton House and the Ford Mansion. Before we set out on our trip, we had lunch at Camillo’s, a restaurant in Sayreville. The drive was about  forty-five minutes long and we got to the Schuyler-Hamilton House around 3:00. I took a photo of a sign on the garden fence which explains what happened there: this is where Alexander Hamilton met and courted Eliza Schuyler. We were lead into the parlor, where a member of the D.A.R told us about the Battle of Trenton and how George Washington’s army ended up in Morristown and how the owner of the house at the time, Dr. Cochran, inoculated the men against smallpox. Dr. Cochran’s wife, Gertrude, was the sister of General Philip Schuyler, whose daughter Elizabeth (known as Eliza or Betsy) came to stay in 1780. Her parents hoped that she would marry one of the Continental Army’s eligible officers but she ended up falling in love with Alexander Hamilton, George Washington’s dashing aid-de-camp. Though Hamilton was a bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks, her parents allowed the marriage because he was brilliant, ambitious, and destined for greatness. The gift shop sells peg dolls of the two love birds which were too cute for me to pass up.


Then we were shown around the house. Upstairs is a bedroom known as Betsy’s room, which is filled with dolls, including a rather unsettling life-sized doll tucked into the bed. On the dresser were some items which a woman like Eliza Schuyler would have used, such as a curling iron, hair combs, and a corset busk. In closed in a special case is a ruffled widow’s cap, lace collar, and a lock of hair belonging to Eliza herself.


Our next destination was Ford’s Mansion, which served as George Washington’s head quarters when the Continental Army was stationed in Morristown. We arrived too late for the final tour of the mansion, and only got to poke around in the visitor’s center. In the little museum exhibit, there were some beautiful articles of clothing and furniture as well as copy of a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington. I was disappointed with this part of the trip, but hopefully we can come back again next time I’m in New Jersey.

Another disappointing part of the trip was when my grandfather proposed that we get ice cream on our way home, but when we got to the place where my grandparents like to go for ice cream, we found that the line in front was too long. It is what it is, as my mom would say.