Inquiring Minds

Wonders & Marvels has been around now for about 9 months and has developed a strong and devoted following of readers who have plenty to say.

Take a look at the "Question of the Week" feature over there on your left. This week's question:

"If you could witness any historical event, what would it be?"

Just click on the link, and it will take you to our new discussion page. Here's the place to share thoughts/ideas/questions with other history/bookish/historical fiction folks.

And while we're at it, can anyone suggest a good image for this post?
I'm afraid my clever creative juices have run dry on this hot weekend afternoon.

Can't wait to get the discussion going!!

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The Good Wife's Guide

Macy Halford posted a great review of The Good Wife's Guide on the New Yorker's Book Bench website. Translated by Gina L. Greco and Christine M. Rose, The Good Wife's Guide is a fourteenth-century instruction book for a young bride, written by her husband. It's a primer on the fine art of male dominence.

The dinner menu the husband offers up goes to prove that real men did not eat quiche in the Middle Ages. Green eel soup or black hare stew, anyone?

As the 17th century specialist that I am, the book reminded me--of course--of Moliere's Arnolphe in The School for Wives. The wiley Arnolphe offers up a list of "maxims" for his young bride, whom he plucked from a convent. Of course, in the great Moliere tradition, the canny Agnes ends up showing what a nut job her husband really is.

Maxim 1. The woman who intends to be married ought to remember, that the man who takes her, takes her only for himself, notwithstanding the vast numbers of admirers which other women have in these our days.

Maxim 2. She ought to consult her husband about her dress; it being for him along should she take care of her beauty, and regardless whether other people think her handsome or not.

Maxim 3. She must lay aside the practice of ogling, and must use no paints, pomatums, beauty washes, nor the numberless ingredients that are made use of to set off the complexion. These are always mortal poisons to honour, and the pains bestowed to appear beautiful are seldom for the husband's sake.

Maxim 4. When she goes abroad, she ought, as honour requires, to prevent the wounds her eyes might give, by concealing them under her hood: for she should study to please her husband, and no one else.

Maxim 5. Decency prohibits her from receiving any friends whatever, except such as come to see her husband: those people of gallantry that have no business but with the wife, are very disagreeable to the husband.

There are five more maxims. But you get the point...oh, the things history has done to quiet women.

You might want to head over to a post on Silence and the Scold's Bridle. Miranda Garno Nesler offers some details about the muzzles that were used to restrain women's speech in the Renaissance.

Wendy Moore also explores 18th Century Domestic Violence.

More things change, the more they stay the same. Regrettably.

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The Blue Hour

By Lilian Pizzichini

Once I had got to the end of my book - a biography of the writer Jean Rhys - and I had killed off the main protagonist, I felt intense relief. It had taken me five years to get to this point. Rhys was 78 when she died, and at certain points during the five years it took to write her life, I thought she would never die. Towards the end of her life, my impression was that she felt the same. But, she kept saying, she had to earn her death. I think it is safe to say that she did, and that, like her, I experienced a sense of joy in that moment. A few days later it occurred to me that not once in the 80,000-odd words I had written had I mentioned why I had called the book, “the blue hour."

L’Heure Bleue is the name of her favourite perfume, and it was what first attracted me to her. In fact, I was wearing it long before I wrote the book. In the summer of 1912 the French parfumier Jacques Guerlain concocted a scent from musk and rose de Bulgarie with a single note of jasmine. He intended his new scent, which he called L’Heure Bleue, to evoke dusk in the city, a time when the well-groomed Parisienne prepares for the evening.

For Jean Rhys, the blue hour was also the hour when the underdog she saw herself as being during the day turned into a wolf. Dogs hunt best during twilight. Underneath our mannered surface lurks a predator. Jean Rhys was always concerned with what lay beneath the top notes. In Quartet, her first novel, set in Paris, a young, female character, smarter and bolder than her heroine, is wearing L’Heure Bleue by Guerlain. Rhys’s heroine absorbs the woman’s scent as though by breathing it in she could capture her rival’s self-possession.

Its hints of pastry and almonds make L’Heure Bleue a melancholic fragrance, as if in mourning for a time passed by. The curves of the Art Nouveau bottle, the stopper in the form of a hollowed-out heart, allude to the romance of the years leading to the First World War. The story Jean Rhys tells in Quartet describes the last days and weeks of a relationship, the loss of love and safety, and, implicitly, the death of old Europe. L’Heure Bleue, as I have said, was her favourite perfume, and The Blue Hour is an attempt to re-capture her life. Another thing that occurred to me on finishing this book was that Jean Rhys died on my birthday, 14th May 1979. I was 14, and I almost feel as though I was carrying her torch long before I came to write her story.

Pizzichini is author of The Blue Hour: A Life of Jean Rhys.

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Wide Saragasso Sea

It has been years and years since I've read Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea. It is haunting, strangely monstrous and beautiful all at once. In a word, unforgettable.

In an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education a few months ago, critic Carlin Romano reminds of why Rhys should be rediscovered over and over again.

Lilian Pizzichini's biography shows clearly how Rhys' unflinching study of life's brutal realities parallels an equally turbulent and heartbreaking odyssey. Pizzichini will be here on Thursday to talk about her experience of writing The Blue Hour.

For more about
The Blue Hour and Jean Rhys do have a peek at these:

Telegraph (review)

The Independent: Jean Rhys, Prostitution, Alcoholism, and the Mad Woman in the Attic

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Thomas Edison at the Eiffel Tower

By Jill Jonnes

On August 14, 1889, Thomas Edison's third day in France, he and his entourage arrived at the Paris Exposition Universelle at 9 a.m. to ascend the world's tallest structure. "Like everyone else I've come to see the Eiffel Tower," the Wizard of Menlo Park declared. When Parisians had first seen Gustave Eiffel's design for his 1,000-foot tower, they hurled no end of insults and lawsuits, denouncing his winning entry for the fair's centerpiece as "a black and gigantic factory chimney, crushing [all] beneath its barbarous mass," a dangerous and hideous "scaffold" even "America would not have."

But by late summer of 1889 when Le Grand Edison arrived to experience this monumental wrought-iron wonder, even Eiffel's worst critics had conceded the tower's originality and grace. The few hold-outs consoled themselves that the tower would mar their beautiful city only for twenty years, when Eiffel would have to dismantle it.

From the day the tower opened to the public on May 15, 1889, it was mobbed. The Prince and Princess of Wales, the Shah of Persia, Lily Langtry, Annie Oakley, a shepherd on stilts, minor royalty of every stripe, politicians, scientists, artists, tourists from the farthest corners of the globe, everyone had to ascend La Tour Eiffel. On the cool August morning when Edison ascended, the famous inventor's party emerged from the elevator to find an unlikely group of fellow American sightseers: Chief Rocky Bear and several dozen Sioux Indians from Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, one of the great sensations of that World's Fair summer. The Indians, their long hair entwined with feathers, rushed over, whooping a welcoming chant to a startled Edison, who gathered his wits to ask how was Chief Sitting Bull?

Gustave Eiffel, away at a spa in Evian, missed Edison's first visit. Subsequently, Eiffel hosted a festive champagne luncheon on the tower for the American inventor, his wife Mina, daughter Dot, and a few French engineers. Afterwards, all repaired to Eiffel's private apartment atop the tower, where Edison demonstrated his new improved talking phonograph, one of the other huge sensations of the fair. Eiffel, who had spotted Charles Gounod dining at a nearby table in the Café Brebant, invited the composer of Faust to join them. High above Paris, Gounod serenaded Edison and played the piano until late into the evening.

Edison was one of the most famous men of his day and he was full of enthusiasm for Gustave Eiffel and his tower. So from the moment I learned of their meeting, I anticipated finding a photo of the two men together. At the Eiffel Archives at the Museé d'Orsay in Paris, I worked my way through the many boxes of century-old photos and charming souvenir menus, but found no such image. Was it possible that Edison and Eiffel, two celebrated men who so admired one another, never posed for a photo together? Especially since there was a photo of Edison posing with Adolphe Salles, Eiffel's son-in-law and partner in their global bridge-building business. Had the Eiffel family perhaps chosen not to pass the photo along when they gave Gustave's papers to the archives? Just one of those little puzzlements.

Sadly, I had no better luck at the vast and wondrous Edison Archives at Rutgers University or at the National Park Service's Edison Historic site at West Orange. They had no photographs at all of Thomas Edison at the Paris World's Fair of 1889, one of the high points of his professional career. And so, I settled for next best, the great inventor with his talking phonograph in 1892.

Jill Jonnes is author of Eiffel's Tower: And the World's Fair Where Buffalo Bill Beguiled Paris, Artists Quarreled, and Thomas Edison Became a Count, and Conquering Gotham: Building Penn Station and Its Tunnels as well as numerous other best-selling books.

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Spring in Paris

This will be one of the last travelogue posts, I promise. While I was digging around the archives in Paris, I had a constant companion: "Spring" the duck.

We picked the cute little rubber duckie up in Rome last fall. Spring found her way into my travel bag on this most recent trip to the French capitol. She visited the libraries, but she also tagged along with a friend who was traveling with me. Oh the places she went. And oh, the delight my daughter had in seeing the fun her duck had.

I snapped several pictures of Spring with other children. Being bilingual has its advantages. It was easy to ask parents to allow me to take their child's picture with my daughter's duck. But part of me is just wondering if they could sense that I was a parent missing her child. That can be expressed even without speaking.

What a sight I must have been standing in front of Notre Dame with a camera trying to find Spring's most photogenic angle! But my favorite by far is the one I snapped from the terrasse of the apartment my friend and I rented in the 5th arrondissement, on a quiet street right across from the Cluny museum. See photo above, as well as the photo-shopped picture below. Courtesy of my quirky friend, a graphic designer. That duck has friends in high places!

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The Motor Bandits

By Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler

On the night of December 13, 1911, three men stole an automobile from the home of a family in the wealthy Paris suburb of Boulogne-sur-Seine. The car was a Delaunay-Belleville, France’s finest make: the czar of Russia was said to own twenty. The three men were to use it to become, for a time, the most wanted criminals in Europe.

A week later, that same car sat idling on the Rue Ordener in Montmartre. At the wheel was Jules Bonnot (police mug shot above), a former racing-car driver who had embraced anarchism and turned to crime as a protest against society. His two cohorts, Raymond Caillemin and Octave Garnier, stepped out of the car when they saw a man with a briefcase approaching.

The briefcase, they knew, was filled with cash and securities being messengered to a bank. Though the two gunmen drew pistols, the messenger surprisingly resisted, and Garnier shot the man twice through the chest before he released his hold on the case.

The gunshots attracted attention and people ran to help. As his accomplices slid into the back seat, Bonnot gunned the motor of the Delaunay-Belleville, made a hairpin turn and sped back down the street. Finding other vehicles in his way, he simply drove onto the sidewalk, scattering pedestrians in his wake. Within seconds, the car was out of sight.

In the annals of crime, this was a singular moment: for the first time, bandits had used what became known as a getaway car to escape from the scene of a crime. French newspapers gave Bonnot the nickname “the Demon Chauffeur” as the gang staged robbery after robbery in the same ruthless fashion.

Bonnot once coolly walked into a newspaper office to correct a story that had been written about him. He admitted that the police would triumph eventually, but he vowed not to be taken alive.

So it was. On April 27, Bonnot’s hideout, a two-story house in the countryside, was surrounded by sixteen members of the French Sûreté. Resisting calls for surrender, Bonnot demonstrated that he had stockpiled plenty of weapons and ammunition. The chief of the Sûreté forces called on the local militia, who brought artillery.

When word of the battle spread, more than ten thousand civilians gathered, as well as a motion-picture newsreel team. Spotlights were set up as the siege lasted into the night. When the building was destroyed by dynamite, Bonnot’s body was discovered inside, next to a final testament he had written in his own blood. His gravesite had to be kept secret to prevent admirers from turning it into a shrine.

Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler are authors of The Crimes of Paris: A True Story of Murder, Theft, and Detection (Little Brown).

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Parisian Detective Work

By Holly Tucker

Wonders and Marvels
has been a little quiet this past week. But life has actually been not quiet at all!

I just returned from a whirlwind research trip to Paris. Mission: to delve into the mysteries of a stash of 400 year-old documents in the archives of the French Academy of Sciences. The picture above will you a sense of why I left the library with more than a little dust on me.

My archival sleuth work will figure prominently in the book that I'm finishing up. So stay tuned!

In the meantime, a few highlights:

Over the course of just of few days, I dug gently around in cartons and cartons of manuscripts and corrected page proofs from the 17th century.

I stood awkwardly in front of an equally old building in the busy Marais quarter, waiting for someone to let me in. I wanted desperately to have a chance to where one of my historical guys lived, and did some of the crazy experiments I describe in the book. I lucked out when a mail person showed up. And lost my pride once again as I begged and pleaded to have a look around. (It worked!)

I visited the Paris Observatory, which was built by another fascinating historical figure that I bring back to life in the book. And then, what the heck, I sat quietly in an anatomical amphitheatre in the heart of the Latin Quarter.

My French surgeons learned their craft in these two-storied dissection halls. I spent a good twenty minutes, sitting right in the very spot where the dissection table would have stood, soaking it all in.

I didn't have to beg to get in, but I did get many odd looks from the workers of the Paris Human Resources department who inhabit this small historical building now.

Que la vie est belle!

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