Photo copyright Jon Crispin 2011.

Photo copyright Jon Crispin 2011

Monday, May 28, 2012

Happy birthday, Maeve Binchy. I suppose it's not fashionable to admit reading your stories with their happily-ever-after endings. Not edgy enough, I suppose. But I do love your storytelling ability, and your characters seem so real. You make me believe that if I ever visit Dublin that I could have a meal at Quintons, and find my own circle of friends, or study Italian at night school. Your people are so sensible, even when they make wrong choices or hurt one another. Your readers care about them and what happens to them. We learn about life, love and happiness. And this is no small thing.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Catherine the Great v. Marie Antoinette

Catherine the Great and Marie Antoinette were nearly exact contemporaries. Both were obscure princesses moved about on the political chessboard that was 18th-century Europe. Both left their homes at a very young to live in a land where they were considered to be foreigners, auslanders, outsiders, to be married to men who weren't particularly interested in getting down to the responsibility assigned to them: produce an heir to the throne. The people, food, and language were strange. They were surrounded by intrigue and untrustworthy "friends." They both had rather overbearing mothers who couldn't seem to understand that they couldn't continue to pull the strings and make their daughters dance. Such different results, though. One becomes a great success, one of the greatest leaders Russia has ever known, and the other . . . well, not so much. Why?

I have read several bios of Marie Antoinette; my favorite is by Antonia Fraser. I just finished reading a biography of Catherine by Simon Dixon while I'm waiting for my name to float to the top of the wait list for Robert K. Massie's new bio. I realized while reading Dixon's book that Catherine and Marie Antoinette were not unusual in their circumstances. A princess is only as good as her marriage, and princesses were moved all over Europe like chess pieces. What makes the difference between Catherine and Marie Antoinette is not the circumstances but the personalities. Catherine grasps the reality of her situation immediately and settles down to spend eighteen years studying how best to please her mother-in-law, her husband, and the Russian people. Two out of three isn't a bad score, and she becomes a great leader. Marie Antoinette is the poster girl for the song "Girls Just Want to Have Fun." Liberated from the strict oversight of her Austrian mother and turned loose in the French court, she didn't know where to stop while enjoying herself. Tragedy ensues.

After reading the books, I realize that pure situational intelligence, shrewdness, and survival skills were gifts that Catherine brought to the game, while all Marie Antoinette had to depend on was a pretty face a gentle nature, and trust that men meant what they said. Not enough. A princess needed a bit of ruthlessness to survive then, and now as well, I suspect.

There once was a man . . .

There once was a fellow named Lear
Who brought lots of laughter and cheer
With poems full of cheese
And bad rhymes like these
And to us he became rather dear.

The best limerick I remember was written by a friend, John Woolley. From memory, it goes something like this:

A pretentious young poet named Tennyson
Called every blessing a benison.
A lake was a mere;
When dry it is was sere;
He referred to his wife as "my venison."

What are your favorite clever limericks?