April 1, 2012
I’ve been trying to avoid the subject since I started to write on this blog regarding various interesting and undoubtedly eccentric historical characters but it clearly seems that my resolution wasn’t meant to be accomplished: I just have to tell you about my utter obsession with the fair Empress Elisabeth Amelie Eugenie of Austria you most likely know under her familiar nickname also used as the title of the Romy Schneider adapted biographic movie and for the popular cartoon, Sissi.
As a child I was tremendously mesmerized by the richness of the ancient Greek Pantheon whose artful reflection could be admired in the two major literary works of pre-christian times, Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey” which were, coincidentally, as I was to find later on, Sissi’s favorite reads (we also shared the same infatuation with the legendary Achilles). No wonder I instantly fell in love with her character once I happened to catch some further information related to the Bavarian beauteous royalty depicted galore in the epoch novels I had barely begun to relish. We’ve so much in common despite being a century apart, from stylistic tastes to the hair color (chestnut with golden tints) and the day we were born in (Sunday…) that I couldn’t refrain avidly searching for more juicy anecdotes, stories, journals, poems and news papers columns to complete the figure I grew to contemplate daily, wondering how she did certain things the rigid court etiquette imposed at the same time managing to accumulate enough strenght for protecting her libertine and bohemian spirit from the obligations required as the consort of Austria’s Emperor, Franz Joseph. Her gowns were pure refinement and her habits awoke uncountable rumors amongst the high society smug chaps hence it was near to impossible my not being enchanted by Sissi. The more I found, the eager I became to stumble across new dimensions of her personality and learn fresh facts connected with her bizarre propensities the whole of Vienna and even Europe gossiped about. Enigmatic, a bit tragic, non-conformist: what is not to love?
Alas, a single post would never incorporate half of her deliciously vivid life, lyric works and, overall, persona so I’ll confine to discussing miscellaneous customs the Empress of Loneliness was renowned for throughout Europe and even parts of the other continents which couldn’t have been spared of her vitriolic existence.
Today I thought of apportioning you urban myths (surprisingly often true) relating Sissi’s flabbergasting pulchritude which alas defined the great woman in the eyes of most of her contemporaries and share some of her beauty obsessions which made the main topic of countless fashion magazines that were actual gospels for the wannabe socialite ladies in the 19th century.
One could correctly state that Sissi’s characteristic trait, concealing a high intellect and amazing linguistic capacities (she was fluent in 8 modern languages plus ancient Greek and the traditional Latin), was her unnatural appearance, the only thing with which she could fearlessly confront the world, concomitantly preserving her sensible ego and draw the benevolent attention of large masses of adorers. Her striking silhouette and the incredible long hair framing her vixen face were, in fact, the first factors to contribute to Franz Joseph’s shallow infatuation with a girl (she had barely turned 16 the summer they properly met) whom his mother, controlling Archduchess Sophie, thoroughly disapproved as she had had elected Sissi’s elder sister, Duchess Helene, to become her obedient daughter-in-law, the future Empress of Austria, a position requiring virtues the shrewd Archduchess pretended not to find in the childish Sissi. And perhaps she was right in the end, Sissi proving to be most incompatible with her newly acquired title, but this opens a whole other topic I don’t aim to debate here.
So Sissi was an animated piece of jewel possessing a profuse appeal: no wonder the mob worshiped her from day one, especially the Hungarians identifying their need of emancipation with her rebel attitude.
Enhancing her native handsomeness, she dissimulated a most sensitive core, faster gaining the endorsement of those who condemned the girl for not being subdued by the protocol (except the Archduchess- she was the average eternally displeased mother-in-law).
Tall (she had 172 cm, more than her husband despite being pictured smaller in the official portraits not to emasculate him), slender to superlative, her tight leather corsets diminishing a wasp waist Sissi managed to keep until death, moment when she was sixty, the Empress’s hallmark was categorically the Rapunzel-like brass hair inherited from the majority of the female ancestors in the Wittelsbach family. She could complain of it giving her headaches but it totally worth it, I think.
It took a whole day to wash it appropriately in the wanted essence of cognac and egg once every two weeks, being forced to cancel any formal obligation, and the routine care of her abundant mane lasted least 3 hours, quite a prone to bizarre ceremonial.
Than again, organizing her beauty ritual was the sole thing she could control in her otherwise oppressed early life, under the Archduchess’s directives, and continued as a rule during her later years. The rigorousness with which she practiced it only reflected a subliminal will to put some order in her chaotic existence and thus Sissi, often restless to the point of hyperactivity, very impatient, gathered the determination to sit passive at her “table which was moved to the middle of the room and covered with a white cloth”, “shrouded in a laced peignoir” to let the hairdresser Franziska (Fanny) Feifalik create her famous ornate hairstyles. She recognized: “I’m the slave of my hair.”
And because exclusively magic could satisfy her aesthetic exigencies, Fanny had to resort to tricks: knowing the Empress scolded her for each and every hair that fell out throughout the combing, braiding and pinning Sissi’s rich tresses, she stuck it to an adhesive band hidden in her apron, bypassing the rage of her mistress when she was supposed to present it in a special bowl at the counting. Well, that’s an obsession and it isn’t as if Sissi could spare herself from fallen hair by numbering it!
Contrary to the popular myths, she even tasked Feifaluk with tweezing gray hairs away but in her last months Sissi was reported to still have plentiful locks, “though streaked with silver threads”, a not so insignificant achievement.
Franz Joseph had the following paintings of his wife hanging in his private chambers at Hofburg Palace and it’s obvious he never ceased to be fascinated with the enigmatic Sissi despite being conventionally separated. They show her dramatic curls at their finest.
Yet this wasn’t the single thing she tended.
Devotee of natural looks, the refined Sissi disapproved cosmetics Parisians were mad to use galore, preferring instead tonics and nightly facial masks made of silk (presumably against wrinkles), raw veal to moisturize the skin or crushed strawberries. The favorite creme, ” Céleste”, was compounded from white wax, spermaceti, sweet almond oil and rosewater but she didn’t prized it as much as the previous treatments. Pretty wacko, right?
Wait till I tell you how she refused to part her lips while speaking because she found her teeth too yellow and deteriorated to be exposed!
Furthermore, for maintaining the hourglass figure she slept with cloths soaked in either violet- or cider-vinegar above her hips, taking both a shower every morning and an olive oil bath in the evening , luxuries only the affluent people could permit. Unfortunately, these harsh cures caused several major health issues decades later, aggravating her arthritis and nervous anorexia which forced Sissi to search milder climates, a perfect pretext to stay well away from Vienna and implicitly her husband. In the benefit of her beauty, she traveled with 40 tons of baggage and 90 servants, not at all a negligible quantity. As a matter of fact, haunted by the prospect of getting old and ugly, she would have done a lot more.
After age 32, Sissi vehemently rejected to pose for portraits, believing her fetching image had begun to fade and the world should remember her young, vivid. Ironically, she remained gorgeous yet another 20 to 30 years, information attained from eyewitnesses and the few photographs taken without her approval while she was strolling down crowded boulevards, her face screened by parasols or leather fans.
That’s what she said with her own sensuous mouth: “When I’ll grow old I shall retire definitively from public life for nothing is more horrible than watching how you gradually transform into an utter mummy, ending up crawling like a worm- absolutely dreadful! One day I’ll cover my face with a veil and nobody, not even my closest friends, will be able to gaze upon me.”
She kept her promise.
The photo above depicts her exactly as she wished: her hair is dressed elaborately to reassemble a coronet to “get rid of the other one” (the Imperial crown), her attire is simple but majestic and the look in her piercing, melancholic eyes just seizes the audience.
Her efforts to preserve this ephemeral pulchritude paid off eventually and I can’t help to stare at Sissi in silent marvel.
February 21, 2012
Exactly when you assumed that you’ve seen or experienced all the possible scripts in which you’re firendzoned, seemingly the romantic horror of our century, here comes the Middle Ages feminist and patented poet, French-Italian Christine de Pizan (1363 – c. 1430) with a brand new formula of expelling her male suitors: if poems, she mused, are chief means of expressing borderless love to one’s own sweetheart, why not turn them into torture tools by sending through them messages like “I’d rather we remained pals” ? According to my humble judgment, coincidentally elaborated by historians too, sounds legit.
Here’s the juicy example I found browsing an old manuscript available on internet courtesy to my favorite digital library, Gallica:
Long temps a que je perdi Tout mon soulas et ma joye, Par la mort que je maudi Souvent; car mis m'a en voye De jamais nul bien avoir; Si m'en doy par droit blasmer; N'oncques puis je n'oz vouloir De faire ami, ne d'amer. Ne sçay qu'en deux ne fendi Mon cuer, du dueil que j'avoye Trop plus grant que je ne di, Ne que dire ne sçaroye, Encor mettre en nonchaloir Ne puis mon corroux amer; N'oncques puis je n'oz vouloir De faire ami, ne d'amer. Depuis lors je n'entendi A mener soulas ne joye; Si en est tout arudi Le sentement que j'avoye. Car je perdi tout l'espoir Ou me souloie affermer. N'oncques puis je n'oz vouloir De faire ami, ne d'amer.
And, as I bet you haven’t been able to comprehend much, let me enlighten you with the approximate translation: I was hurt and men trifled with my poor, feeble heart so you, dear, loyal buddy, you, who bear for me these strong, steady feelings… have no chance but remain my platonic friend. The repeating syntagm “de faire ami, ne d’amer” (make friends, not lovers”) gives both the tone and the title of the composition and were doubtlessly a delight for the unfortunate guy to whom she had addressed them.
These are the lyrical words with which gracious Christine shuddered all her admirer’s hopes like the merciless widow she was, excusing her insensibility by the contrary, too much sentiment engaged in previous affairs that, ending disastrously due to unrecorded factors, traumatized the poor woman to such extent she refused to adventure walking once more on the risky wire of love. You’d be tactless to insist proclaiming your adoration after being dedicated this, right?
Don’t you consider it a great example of friendzoned in the Middle Ages?
February 1, 2012
Few days ago, watching a remarkably accurate Oscar Wilde biographical film (inventively entitled “Wilde”, if you wondered) , I developed yet another spontaneous and futile crush on a man who’s been well dead for the past 67 years. And to those of you who’ll imply that my heart throbs just because this character’s played by popularly considered hot Jude Law, hide your heads in the sand like the ostrich does for you are embarrassingly wrong.
Superficially judging by appearance or sex-appeal, I find the actor (no offense to his fans) less attractive than the historic original. Eyes deeper, hair fairer (though his photos are mostly monochrome…), more enigmatic, fascinating and playful, not to say incredibly talented, the old he’s-better-due-to-my-infatuation story. An ivory Dorian Gray brought to life from the pages of his lover’s novel (I did some accidental alliteration here…), whom Wilde himself described “quite like a narcissus – so white and gold… he lies like a hyacinth on the sofa and I worship him.”
But let’s not be shallow and reduce the poor boy at his mere looks (certainly not inconsequential themselves). He has a name and a dynamism increasingly adding to the mottles of his charisma which he anyway had galore by my humble opinion: say hello to poet/author/ translator/ spoiled Brit aristocrat Lord Alfred Douglas, suggestively nicknamed Bosie.
Born at Ham Hill House, in picturesque Worcestershire, as the third son of John Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry, and wife Sybil (née Montgomery), on a fine 22 October, 1870, Alfred experienced a rather unconventional childhood in the gloomy atmosphere of the Douglas house which seemed to have had a real propensity for dubious deaths, suicides, manias and unfortunate career decisions nicely illustrated by the profiles of his uncle James, Archibald or Francis.
Despite being Sybil’s favorite offspring, the one she fondly called Bosie (note, meaningful and also fitted derivation of Boysie), he never had a proper relationship with his rigid father whose interests in boxing and sports were polar opposites to Alfred’s bohemian personality. This would lead to many inconveniences later in their lives, much regretted by both parties.
Bosie received a traditional education at Winchester College between 1884 and 1888, continued by the typical Oxford Magdalen College he attended for another 4 years period and left before obtaining a degree, which was obviously an extra causeto his increasing conflicts with the Marquess. On top of that, it was in this time young Bosie, escaping the rigorous parental supervision, unleashed his predilections for same-sex partners, engaging in promiscuous adventures with the luring creatures of vice, or the homosexuals as we presently label them. Subsequent poems will make allusions at the all boys schools and their underground happenings of less innocent nature. Bet the old John Douglas was fuming at that too and, frankly, I don’t even know why they kept sending their heirs to those ‘corruption” nests.
Odd common sense to let your son mingle with dodgy rental boys yet scold him for the stable love of Oscar Wilde, which occurred in 1891, while the latter was happily married and father of two, don’t you think? I mean, would you lend your kid money to pay male prostitutes for evidently doing things you condemn yet call him “miserable”, “crazy” or “demented” if he dares to involve in romantic love?! I understand he lost his future successor, Lord Francis, who had had a dangerous liaison with Prime Minister Lord Rosebery, and planned a brighter destiny for Alfred, still, bipolar much?
No wonder Bosie (whose nickname means “a cricket ball bowled as if to break one way, actually breaking in the opposite side”) was distinctly temperamental- the family trait!
And that’s an actual plus on my list of why I like him so much: his flaws were perfectly explainable through the psychological pressure constantly put on him by Lord John, rising juicy contrasts between Bosie’s lewd image and genuine sensibility, passionate adoration and cruelty, gentleness and outbursts which stressed his forced duality. Don’t you believe it’s both sweet and sexy to watch his interiorised frustration projected in such variable sins?
Yes, he was definitely a jerk; yes, he perverted morally sane Oscar Wilde with uncountable orgies in the shabby male brothels of London, sexual promiscuity which was to enhance their love, he claimed; yes, he wasted large sums on noxious gambling and fought everyone who rightly dared criticizing it; yes, he was the ultimate ass (with a presumably pretty ass) when, after falling ill with influenza and being nursed back to health by faithful Oscar, refused to return the favor, making a scene and moving to another Hotel instead (on Wilde’s 40th birthday, he sent him the bill…) . He took advantage of Oscar, who wrote that “I cannot see you, so Greek and gracious, distorted with passion. I cannot listen to your curved lips saying hideous things to me. You are the divine thing I want, the thing of grace and beauty!”. He even cheated, as these letters, sent to Maurice Schwabe, in 1893, confess:
“I went to the Savoy Hotel with Oscar for two nights; and I was sentimental enough to go down to the old room 123 next to the restaurant where we used to sleep together.My darling pretty boy, I do love you so much & miss you every minute… I really love you far more than any other boy in the world, & shall always be your loving boy-wife, or your ‘little bitch’ if you prefer it.” (notice the bawdy teasing tone? in translation gives “I’m fully dedicated to you but, sorry, I screw another!” Freud would have had a sheer delight in analyzing the mental complexes revealed by these words…)
“Goodbye now my dear darling beautiful Maurice; I send you all my love and millions of kisses all over your beautiful body. I am your loving boy-wife, Bosie.” (again the “boy-wife” supplement- what a shrew!)
So YES, he was heartless sometimes and lead to Wilde’s downfall. You have all reasons to detest him! Isn’t it riveting?!
Bosie incorporated the colors which inspire writers with their torrid power and those who soothe them with their flimsiness: contrastive, capricious, delectable, of an ephemeral handsomeness that disarmed true aesthetes, like Oscar, who felt his “only hope of again doing beautiful work in art is being with” him. Begin to see why Bosie caught my attention?
In 18945, Wilde, harassed by the insistent Marquess and badly influenced by the avid Alfred, sued Lord John for an offensive card which accused him of sodomy (or buggery, in old-fashioned Victorian slang) . The following trials had a disastrous conclusion, sentencing Oscar with 2 years of incarceration.
Again, you can blame Bosie for manipulating his lover into doing what he wanted, but considering the despicable things his father wrote (that he divorced Sybil not to “run the risk of bringing more creatures into the world like yourself”; “I cried over you the bitterest tears a man ever shed” at Alfred’s birth). Indeed, he was no angel, yet had he deserved such degrading words? An object of stimulation, like him? No wonder Bosie had replied with an “I detest you” line and persuaded Oscar to apply the charges which ruined both their lives.
Coming back to the main story, Wilde got 2 years of prison, plague to his existence. Bosie met him once more, for a brief period in Naples (1897), but definitively broke up as they had no support (financially…).
At Oscar’s funeral, in 1900, he fiercely disputed the role of the chief mourner with the writer’s former love, jealous Robert Ross. Keep this in mind.
On March, 1902, our Bosie married rich poet Olive Eleanor Constance, of 28, and their only son, Raymond Wilfred Sholto Douglas ( 1902-1964), obeying the family tradition, was diagnosed a schizo, rotting between the white walls of Saint Andrew’s mental hospital. Poor guy!
At this point, we don’t have records to attest why, Bosie concluded that he scorns Wilde, thus beginning to lead an ironically homophobic campaign of discrediting his persona. He refused,no, denied the association of their names in whatever situation and erased himself from any biography dedicated to the infamous writer. This from the man who insisted to be the chief mourner…
However, Providence successfully found its way to make them even and, in 1923, Alfred won his own ticket to prison by doing bad chinwag about Winston Churchill being-part-of-a-Jewish-conspiracy crap. Practically, the ordeal shook his sleeping conscience and Bosie remembered… he was the one who wanted to be the chief mourner! Oh, the dichotomy, the dichotomy!
He turned 180 degrees, converted to Roman Catholicism, as Wilde did, fortified his “most unlikely friendship” with Bernard Shaw and slowly subsided into oblivion, as his beauty began to perish.
At 78, he died of congestive heart failure, leaving a heritage of many poems, non-fictions and even a memoir which revolved around Oscar.
Lover of men, lover of women, lover of art, is it a marvel that “those red-roseleaf lips of” his “should be made no less for the madness of music and song than for the madness of kissing”?
I’m madly bewitched by Bosie’s counterpoints; I fantasize about his thoughts, the tone of his voice according to the circumstances, the softness of his ivory skin, his source of cleverness and ingenuity.
While I was watching the movie (download it, really- it worth the two hours it’ll consume from your free time) , I leaped of excitement whenever Jude Law/Bosie screamed or shouted, as girls nowadays do whenever Edward Cullen gaily sparkles. I even managed to fit in a “well, nobody’s perfect” line at his melodramatic “oh, Oscar, I was the bad influence on you!” jail scene…
Anyway, what do you think now you’ve heard the full version of Bosie’s life? Is he as dislikable as he sounded in the beginning?