Book Review: Sex with Kings

Book Review: Sex with Kings by Eleanor Herman

One of the advantages of being a king is that the rules don’t apply to you the same way as they do to commoners.  For centuries in Europe, this also extended to tolerance of extramarital affairs, to the point that many kings had maitresse-en-titre, the “official mistress.”  This book is about those mistresses, their lives and times.

Sex with Kings

Rather than a strictly chronological list, the book is divided into topics from the actual act of sex, through relationships between the mistress and queen or princess, to kings who actually married their mistresses.  (The book was published in 2004 and thus just missed out Prince Charles marrying Camilla.)  This means jumping back and forth between different countries and historical periods; quite a few of the mistresses get discussed multiple times.

One thing the book makes quite clear is that while the mistress job had a lot of perks, it was no  bed of roses.  Unlike the wife, who was usually hard to get rid of for religious and political reasons, mistresses could be replaced at the snap of a finger by the next favorite, and there were always plenty of women vying for the job.  This meant that the king had to be kept happy at any cost.  There’s a particularly painful story about a mistress who had to hold urine in for six hours on a carriage ride because until the king needs a potty break, no one needs a potty break.

Mistresses were also often the source of much emotional misery for queens, as the wife was often chosen for bloodlines or political alliances rather than having compatible personalities with the king, beauty or even good personal hygiene.  They’d often see the mistress get better personal rooms, finer dresses and jewelry, and the king favoring his out of wedlock children more than his lawful offspring.

Even the kings themselves were sometimes less than happy about the arrangement, having mistresses not because they wanted to fool around, but because all the other kings had them and the people would question their virility if they didn’t.

The book is Eurocentric, and primarily focuses on the British and French courts as those have the most accessible documents.  The way the topics are divided up, the story of any individual mistress is scattered about the different chapters, and you will need to use the index heavily if you are interested in just that one person.  There are also terse endnotes and a bibliography, a section of colored illustrations in the center (Not Safe For Work), and some end matter by the author, including her autobiography and a comparison of royal mistresses to modern pop stars.

The material covers salacious matters, and I would not recommend this book to readers below senior high school level.  (I imagine some parents might object even then.)

People I would recommend this to are those interested in the role of women in history, and those who enjoy reading about other people’s sex lives.

 

Book Review: Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror

Book Review: Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror edited by Stefan Dziemianowicz

While the term “penny dreadfuls” proper belongs to a particular type of inexpensive newsprint periodical, as explained in the introduction to this volume, the twenty stories chosen here can all be described as lowbrow sensationalist literature written for those seeking thrills in their fiction.

Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror

Of these, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley (1818 edition), The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, and “The Pit and the Pendulum” by Edgar Allen Poe are so famous that it hardly seems worth discussing them.  Suffice it to say that they are classics, and well worth reading at least once, especially if you’ve only seen the movies.

“The Adventure of the German Student” by Washington Irving is a ghost story set against the backdrop of the French Revolution.  It stops where a lot of current horror tales would end the first chapter.

“The Wehr-Wolf: A Legend of the Limousin” by Richard Thomson does in fact feature a werewolf.  Most of the story space, however, is taken up by comic relief character Antoine Du Pilon, a quack doctor who is full of knowledge…most of which is wrong.  This kind of dulls the tragic twist ending.

“Sawney Beane: The Man-Eater” by Charles Whitehead was based on a folk story that might have been loosely based on a real incident.  It concerns a cannibal clan near Edinburgh during the reign of James VI.  The story is written in the “true crime” style, regardless of its actual veracity.

“Aurelia; or, the Tale of a Ghoul” by E.T.A. Hoffman has a doctor tell his patient that it’s perfectly normal for a pregnant woman to have strange food cravings, and she shouldn’t feel ashamed of that.  In fairness, she hadn’t told him what her cravings were for.

“Wake Not the Dead!; or, The Bride of the Grave” by Johann Ludwig Tieck is about a man whose first beloved wife dies and he gets remarried.  But it turns out he still isn’t over his first love.  A passing sorcerer finds this obsession unhealthy, but mentions that he could in fact bring the first wife back to life.

The husband insists on having this done, despite being repeatedly warned that this is a bad idea which will have catastrophic consequences.  (Honestly, I think the sorcerer only went along with this for the chance to say “I told you so” later.)  Predictably, catastrophic consequences follow.  The ending comes out of left field and is jaw-dropping in its non-sequiturness.

“The Dream-Woman” by Wilkie Collins is about an apparently prophetic dream, and the effect it has on the dreamer.  Is it a warning of the future, or did he shape his life to fulfill the dream?

“A Night in the Grave; or, the Devil’s Receipt” by Anonymous is a comedic tale told in Scots dialect.  Highland piper Steenie tries to pay his rent, only to have his landlord die before giving Steenie the receipt.  The new landlord claims there’s no record of the payment and no sack of silver to be found, so Steenie must pay the rent again.  The piper must find that receipt, even if it means braving the gates of Hell.  I found this one hilarious, but I like Scots dialect stories.

“The Case of Lady Sannox” by Arthur Conan Doyle was a strange read for me as there’s no Sherlock Holmes in it.  A surgeon is called for a life-saving operation, only to learn the true nature of the veiled patient.  This one has some period ethnic and religious prejudice, which is not mitigated by the fact that one of the characters is deliberately playing into it.

“The Diary of a Madman” by Guy de Maupassant is the journal of a respected judge who starts to wonder what it would be like to commit murder.  Chilling.

“George Dobson’s Expedition to Hell” by James Hogg concerns a coachman’s dream (or was it a dream?) of driving his coach into the netherworld.  This story didn’t work for me, a bit too thick in dialogue that is “yes I will” “Oh no, you won’t.”

“The Apparition of Lord Tyrone to Lady Beresford” by Anonymous is a tedious ghost story that turns out to be a propaganda piece for Anglicanism. “Deism is wrong!”

“Lost in a Pyramid; or The Mummy’s Curse” by Louisa May Alcott is one of the tales she penned anonymously  before hitting it big as a children’s author.  Arrogant white explorers get lost in a pyramid, burn a sorceress’ mummy for fuel, and suffer the consequences of looting the corpse.  The plot requires two separate people not to catch on to the symptoms of slow poisoning.

“In Kropfsberg Keep” by Ralph Adams Kram, two ghost-hunters spend the night in a ruined castle, reputed to be haunted.  One of them doesn’t survive.  A real ghost may or may not be involved.

“The Buried Alive” by John Galt is a premature burial story.  The protagonist suffers an attack that leaves him awake but paralyzed and apparently dead.  His friends and family fail to have an autopsy done, and he is buried alive.  There was apparently a time when this narrow subgenre was hugely popular, to the point that Poe wrote a parody version.

“The Dualitists; or, the Death-Doom of the Doubleborn” by Bram Stoker is about a game of Hack that goes too far.  (In Hack, two similar objects are smashed against each other to see which is superior in strength.)  This story is dead baby comedy, and also includes animal abuse.  You’ll either love this story or be completely repulsed by it.

“The Executioner” by William Godwin is the confession of a hangman who’s become involved in a years-long and highly elaborate revenge scheme.  But is he the revenger or the revengee?

Finishing out the book is The String of Pearls; or, Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street by James Malcolm Rymer (probably.)  This is a true penny dreadful serial, full of twists, murder and unlikely coincidences.  (You may have seen the musical.)

In the 18th Century, a man named Thornhill comes to London to deliver a pearl necklace to pretty maiden Johanna Oakley from her lost love Mark Ingestrie.  But being a gentleman, he doesn’t want to look scruffy for the visit, so decides to get a shave at the shop of Sweeney Todd.  Mr. Todd says Mr. Thornhill left his shop hours ago, but Mr. Thornhill’s dog is sitting right outside, and the man never arrived at his next destination.  Although they can prove nothing, Mr. Thornhill’s friends become suspicious.

Across the square, Mrs. Lovett’s pieshop is doing land office business, selling the most delicious meat pies in town.  How does she manage to sell them so inexpensively and still make a profit?  And why does she run through so many cooks in the underground bakery?

And on another side of the square, parishioners at St. Duncan’s are beginning to notice a peculiar smell in the old church, a smell that is decidedly…unholy.

This is a fun, if not always coherent story told with a lot of verve.  (And, alas, some excess verbiage.)  The narrator has fun with the reader, reminding them that while all the clues seem to lead up to Sweeney Todd murdering his customers, we’ve never seen him murder anyone on-page.  And while the secret of Mrs. Lovett’s pie-shop (not just a hole in the wall eating establishment, but a distribution center delivering all over London) seems obvious enough, the narrator points out he hasn’t actually said it yet.

While the story stops every so often to give the history of this minor character or that (warning: one character’s backstory involves child neglect and abuse), we never do find out how Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett formed their eight year partnership, or why.  One of the peculiarities of the story is that while Mr. Todd knows a woman who will bake his victims into pie, and a crooked mad-house operator who will imprison any of Mr. Todd’s young apprentices who get too nosy, he doesn’t know any fences, and is completely unfamiliar with the normal criminal life of London.

So Sweeney Todd has a houseful of loot he’s taken from victims and not found a way to sell, and has a dickens of a time trying to dispose of the string of pearls at anywhere near their real value.

Johanna comes close to the damsel in distress stereotype, but never quite crosses over into that territory, even while dressing as a boy to infiltrate Mr. Todd’s barbershop.

A couple of characters just get dropped between chapters, and domestic abuse is played for laughs in one scene.

This is not great literature, true, but if you’re in the mood for this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you will enjoy.

Overall, a good collection of a certain type of story, with a handful of mediocre entries.  The Barnes & Noble edition has a handsome red leather cover and would look good on a bookshelf, or in your hands as you read it late at night by the light of a guttering candlestick.

Now, here’s a look at the “Penny Dreadful” TV series, based on the same source material.

 

Anime Review: The Rose of Versailles

Anime Review: The Rose of Versailles

In the Year of Our Lord 1770, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria and King Louis XV of France decided to seal an alliance between their countries with a political marriage.  Thus it was that Louis-Auguste (later Louis XVI) and Marie Antoinette were married.  So it was in our world too.  But in this story, the commander of the Royal Guards, protectors of the young princess, was Oscar Francois du Jarjayes, youngest daughter of General Jarjayes, who had been raised like a boy.

The Rose of Versailles

Soon Antoinette, Oscar and Oscar’s faithful servant Andre, were plunged into the swirling politics and complicated romantic relationships of the court.  Thus begins the ultimately tragic tale of the Rose of Versailles.

This popular and highly influential 1979 anime was based on the best-selling shoujo (girls’) manga Versailles no Bara by Riyoko Ikeda.  The manga had started out as a biography of Marie Antoinette, with Oscar as a supporting character to be involved in combat scenes where the ruler could not be placed, but the princely woman was immensely popular with readers and eventually became the star of the story.  (Especially once the queen retired from public life to raise her children.)  The anime therefore expanded her role at the beginning a bit.

The series is highly dramatic, often melodramatic, with shocked expressions, flowing tears and glittering roses.  Some modern viewers might find this all a trifle overdone, especially as many newer anime series have homaged famous scenes and effects from this one.  Romantic tension is high.  At least initially, Marie Antoinette and her young husband do not get along well, and she develops an interest in the Swedish Count Axel von Fersen, who reciprocates.  Oscar also has a thing for von Fersen, but is not reciprocated, while her childhood friend and servant Andre pines for Oscar but knows that a commoner can never marry a noble.

In addition, while Oscar is known to be a woman by most of the nobles, her handsomeness and chivalry cause her to be admired in an almost romantic fashion by various ladies, most notably a young woman named Rosalie, who turns out to have a secret of her own.

While the broad historical outlines of the series are accurate, many of the details are fictionalized or exaggerated.  For example, the Duke of Orleans was probably not directly behind every plot against Marie Antoinette.

In addition to the standard sword-fighting and the horrors of the French Revolution, there’s an attempted sexual assault at one point (the man stops when he realizes what he’s about to do) and a twelve-year-old commits suicide rather than submit to an arranged marriage.  (It’s pretty clear that her much older intended husband intends to consummate the marriage immediately.)  Towards the end, the narration specifically tells us two of the characters get it on.  The imagery is tasteful, but the content may be too much for younger or more sensitive viewers.

The series switched directors about halfway through; the earlier part has much more incidental humor, while the later half is more somber, befitting the way events get worse and worse for both Oscar and Marie Antoinette.

This is a classic, and now legally available in the United States with subtitles.  Recommended for French history and romantic tragedy fans.

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