The eternal fascination of Rome

August 24, 2010 at 9:43 pm (Book review, books, History, Italy)

It all (re)started with my first visit, last year, to chaotic, fabulous Naples – Napoli, as it is known in Italy. But the city has had other names: it was founded in the 700s BC by the Greeks. It was then Neapolis – “new city.”

But no – before that, there was Robert Harris’s riveting novel. I read Pompeii shortly after it came out in 2002. Like many the world over, I’ve been intrigued by the story of this lost and resurrected city since I was a small child. I had been to Italy several times, when I was in my twenties, but not since; while there, I had been to Rome, Florence and Venice – never to the southern portions of the country. I was pretty certain that I would never see Pompeii. I was wrong – gloriously wrong!

But I must go back further…to the appearance, in 1991, of Roman Blood, the first book in Steven Saylor’s superb series, Roma Sub Rosa.

Actually, now that I give it careful consideration, I think I know when and where I first became fascinated by ancient Rome. It was when Mrs. Gelber, my ninth grade Latin teacher, had us do projects concerning the Romans. I took two small plastic dolls and dressed them up in togas. My satisfaction with this effort was all out of proportion to the rather modest effect I achieved. Mrs. Gelber, an inspiring teacher if there ever was one, praised my efforts nonetheless. From then on, I was well and truly hooked.

Of course, I can provide no image of these small effigies. Nevertheless, they are clearly etched in my mind’s eye.

Recently, I listened to Part One of The Teaching Company’s History of Ancient Rome. These lectures are given by Professor Garrett Fagan, an Associate Professor of Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies and History at Penn State University. (Professor Fagan is from Ireland; this makes him an especial pleasure to listen to on this recorded course.)

I’m also thinking and writing about Rome because I’ve just finished listening to Conspirata, the second novel in Robert Harris’s projected trilogy based on the life of Cicero. The events are narrated by Cicero’s slave Tiro. Tiro took dictation for Cicero and managed his garden as well his finances. He made himself  quite indispensable to his master and was ultimately freed in 53 BC.  Despite his new status, Tiro continued to work for Cicero. (The audiobook versions of the novels in this series are read superbly by Simon Jones.)

The following commentary is from an article on Cicero by William Harris, Emeritus Professor at Middlebury College:

Tiro, a diligent slave perfected a system of Latin shorthand, which served to preserve fairly accurately Cicero’s speeches. A number of medieval MSS in “Tironian annotation” survive, containing much of the master’s speeches and perhaps more than we are aware of, since the specialization required for a study of this esoteric field deters all but the most laborious of scholars. The list of extant speeches is immense, the text fills several volumes.

The story Tiro tells in Conspirata and Imperium, its predecessor, is extremely complex. The characters are numerous; keeping track of them is made challenging by the fact that Roman names are easily confused. Nevertheless, I got completely caught up in the story, and in the author’s vivid re-creation of a vanished world. The last thing I expected, as Conspirata was concluding, was to be moved to tears by the events being narrated – and yet, I was.

The third volume in the trilogy is due to appear in 2011. (Note: for some reason, Conspirata was published in the UK as Lustrum.)

On his wonderful site, Steven Saylor provides terrific links to ancient world websites. (Scroll down to “Links to Classical World web sites.” This site also links to my review of the most recent Gordianus the Finder novel, The Triumph of Caesar. Scroll down to the bottom and look for Books to the Ceiling under “Reviews & Misc.”)

I have purchased the Penguin edition of Livy’s The Early History of Rome: . I immediately needed to know more about that eerie, vaguely familiar cover image. It is The Capitoline She-Wolf. It resides in Rome’s Capitoline Museum, where, I  now realize, I first saw it some forty years ago. This video brings the viewer up close to this remarkable sculpture:


So, to recapitulate, I recommend the following:

Pompeii, and Imperium and Conspirata (aka Lustrum), the first two books in a trilogy based on the life of Cicero. (The versatile Robert Harris is also the author of the contemporary thriller The Ghost, the novel upon which the film The Ghost Writer is based.  )

The entire Roma Sub Rosa series by Steven Saylor. I’ve read and loved all twelve books!

The Teaching Company’s History of Ancient Rome, with lectures by Garrett Fagan.

Livy’s History, fascinating but quite challenging. I’m reading it in small  – very small – chunks.

Finally, there’s a novel I read years ago and have never forgotten: The Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar. This is a demanding but hugely rewarding work of fiction that lays bare the heart and soul of an Emperor who proves only too human. It is on my list of books to re-read.


Soundtrack for this post: The Pines of Rome by Ottorino Respighi. Here is the final paragraph of program notes written by Richard Freed for a performance of this Heaven-storming work by the National Symphony in 2008:

As the dawn mists rise and settle, the tread of ghostly legions is felt and, in Lionel Salter’s splendid phrase, “fanfares begin to echo down the centuries.” The mists disperse in the blaze of thousands of burnished helmets and breastplates. The already large orchestra swells with the addition of an organ and the augmented brass already noted. Respighi summed up, “To the poet’s fantasy appears a vision of past glories. Trumpets blaze, and the army of the Consul advances brilliantly in the grandeur of a newly rise sun toward the Via Sacra, mounting the Capitoline Hill in final triumph.”

If you ever have a chance to hear this piece performed live – drop everything and go!

Here is the finale, in a 2004 performance by the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, led by the venerable – born in 1924! – French conductor Georges Pretre:

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The Belles Heures of the Limbourg brothers: exquisite masterpiece at the Met

August 7, 2010 at 2:16 am (Art, History)

Time spent in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is magical. I got to experience that magic once again during my June visit to New York City.

The Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry was being displayed in a small lower level gallery. This magnificent work, which dates from 1405 to around 1408, is normally housed in the Cloisters, a separate branch of the museum devoted to the art and architecture of medieval Europe. Individual pages had been detached from the binding for purposes of conservation and study; the inspired decision was taken to make them accessible to museum patrons in this dismantled form before the manuscript was reassembled.

This was a one time opportunity to get a close-up view of this masterpiece by the Limbourg Brothers. The weekend that I saw it marked the close of the exhibition.

Museum patrons were provided with magnifying glasses with which to view the amazingly intricate paintings and the elegant, delicate lettering. Each page was enclosed in plexiglass and mounted on a pedestal.

Since childhood, I’ve loved the story, as told by C.W. Ceram, of Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb of King Tut. As he peered into the dimness of that ancient space, Carter was asked if he could see anything. When he was able to speak, he replied: “Yes, wonderful things.”

I felt a similar sensation as a took my spyglass and gazed into the perfection of these tiny, miraculous works of art:

To see more of the art, and to learn more about the exhibit, view the video:

Timothy B. Husband, whom you see touring the exhibit with Thomas P. Campbell, is Curator of the Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters. He is also the author of the book that accompanies the exhibition:

This is some magnificent tome, I can tell you. (It is beside me on the desk, at this moment.)

In the Introduction, we learn the history of the Belles Heures, and how it has come down to us. Commissioned by the wealthy connoisseur Jean de France, Duc de Berry, work on the Belles Heures was begun by the three Limbourg brothers – Herman, Paul, and Johan – around 1405 and completed some three or four years later. Jean de France died in 1416. The following year, the manuscript was purchased Yolande of Aragon, Duchess of Anjou. There exists persuasive evidence that the manuscript remained in the environs of Anjou for the next several decades. And after that:

No history of it is known from that point until May 1879 when its rediscovery, in the possession of Pierre-Gabriel Bourlier, baron d’Ailly, was announced to the Academie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres by Leopold Delisle, then director of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France.

Well, gosh, that is one long dormancy period – approximately four hundred years, by my estimate. But once the Belles Heures came to light again, things moved swiftly. In 1880, the manuscript was acquired by Edmond James de Rothschild. Upon Baron de Rothschild’s death in 1934, the Belles Heures became the property of his son, Maurice. Maurice was living in Paris at the time. Shortly after the Nazis began their occupation of the city, he fled to Montreal. Before leaving, Maurice de Rothschild had hidden his priceless manuscripts in a bank vault.  In 1941, the Nazis raided the bank and seized the boxes containing the manuscripts. Ultimately these priceless objets d’art ended up in the storied Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, where much of the art looted by the Nazis was stored.


In April 1945, the treasures were recovered by the American Seventh Army. This detachment included Second Lieutenant James J.Rorimer, a member of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives teams of the Civil Affairs Division, the curator of The Cloisters, and later Director of The Metropolitan Museum.

Here’s where matters become murky. There was a book of hours by the Limbourg brothers found in this hoard of manuscripts, but it was the Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux – not the Belles Heures. There was some confusion in the identification of the various works. (Lt. Rorimer enlarges on this topic in his book, written in 1950:  Survival: The Salvage and Protection of Art in War.)

Careful review of the material found at Neuschwanstein yielded no trace of the Belles Heures, which in all probability was never conveyed to Germany.

Meanwhile, at war’s end, Maurice de Rothschild elected not to return to Paris but to take up residence on Lake Geneva in Switzerland, in a chateau which had been owned by his great-uncle. He decided to offer some of the manuscripts for sale. First, they had to be catalogued.  Sure enough, in its  final form, this catalog contained an entry for the Belles Heures. It was back among Maurice de Rothschild’s possessions, if only briefly.

The Belles Heures and the Hours of Jean d’Evreux were first offered to the J. Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. The Morgan specialized in medieval art (and still does), but its funds were committed elsewhere, and it declined to make the purchase. The manuscripts were then offered to Harvard’s Houghton Library; they were once again declined. A private collector was then offered them, but he also responded in the negative. At last, they were offered to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where they finally found a permanent home. Both the Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux and the Belles Heures, purchased together in 1954 for the sum of $300,000,  are now housed at the Cloisters.

Timothy Husband concludes the introduction by observing that this is “…certainly one of the most fortuitous acquisitions of medieval art on record.”


The Limbourg brothers were from Nijmegen, a proud and ancient city in what is now the Netherlands. A medieval festival (which looks like great fun) is held there and is named for this trio of famous citizens. There is a nicely made video on the festival’s site; it is (mostly) in English.

Alas, for these precocious geniuses: all three died in 1416, before reaching the age of thirty. The cause is presumed to be the Plague.


Here are some pages from another great masterpeice by the Limbourg brothers, Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. The music is the Mass for St. Anthony of Padua by Guillaume Dufay.

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Much have I studied in the pages of Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club

July 14, 2010 at 2:40 am (Book review, books, History)

And much did I struggle with and not quite comprehend…

The subtitle of Menand’s book is “A Story of Ideas in America.” Some of those ideas were sufficiently abstract – not to mention abstruse – that it was as though I had strayed into “how-many-angels-can-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin” territory.  I felt this all the more keenly because most of the passages to which I refer came after a description of a Civil War battle – the so-called Bloody Angle of Spotsylvania – that was so horrifying that I knew at once that I could never read an entire book about that savage conflict:

‘In a small space along the breastworks of Confederate trenches, in the pouring rain, the two sides had fought hand to hand continuously for eighteen hours in a kind of blood frenzy. Men thrust bayonets through the logs or jumped onto the barricade and fired into the mass of soldiers below until they were themselves shot down. A tree eighteen inches thick was completely severed by bullets.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. was not at this battle; nevertheless, as a first lieutenant in the Twentieth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (aka “the Harvard Regiment,”), he saw plenty of action and was wounded more than once. In later life, he rarely  spoke of his wartime ordeal.

(I have ever confused Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. – eminent jurist and Supreme Court Justice – with his father, who was a physician and a poet. OWH Senior wrote one of my favorite poems: “The Chambered Nautilus:”

This is the ship of pearl, which, poets feign,
Sail the unshadowed main,–
The venturous bark that flings
On the sweet summer wind its purpled wings
In gulfs enchanted, where the Siren sings,
And coral reefs lie bare,
Where the cold sea-maids rise to sun their streaming hair.

Its webs of living gauze no more unfurl;
Wrecked is the ship of pearl!
And every chambered cell,
Where its dim dreaming life was wont to dwell,
As the frail tenant shaped his growing shell,
Before thee lies revealed,–
Its irised ceiling rent, its sunless crypt unsealed!

Year after year beheld the silent toil
That spread his lustrous coil;
Still, as the spiral grew,
He left the past year’s dwelling for the new,
Stole with soft step its shining archway through,
Built up its idle door,
Stretched in his last-found home, and knew the old no more.

Thanks for the heavenly message brought by thee,
Child of the wandering sea,
Cast from her lap, forlorn!
From thy dead lips a clearer note is born
Than ever Triton blew from wreathed horn;
While on mine ear it rings,
Through the deep caves of thought I hear a voice that sings:–

Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,
As the swift seasons roll!
Leave thy low-vaulted past!
Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
Till thou at length art free,
Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!

In my youth, I thought this poem sappy. I now find it beautiful and am grateful for its optimistic spirit.)


These days, America’s favorite luminary of early 19th century New England is Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau barely figures in Menand’s narrative, whereas Ralph Waldo Emerson is a crucial figure:

“…Emerson was a genuine moralist whose mistrust of moralism led him continually to complicate and deflect his own formulations. He was a preacher whose message was: Don’t listen to preachers. ‘I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching,’ as he put it in the essay on ‘Self-Reliance’…Emerson represented the tradition of the New England churchman, which is one reason he became an honored and respected figure despite his anti-institutionalism; and at the same time, he represented that tradition’s final displacement. Unitarianism had rescued the integrity of the individual conscience from Calvinism. Emerson rescued it from Unitarianism–which is why after his famous address to the Harvard Divinity School in 1838, in which he scandalized the Unitarians by renouncing organized Christianity in favor of personal revelation, he was not invited to speak at Harvard again for thirty years.

In 1958, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. received, as a birthday gift from his parents, a five volume edition of Emerson’s writings. At the time, Holmes was a freshman at Harvard. Writing many years after the fact, he says of  Emerson that he “set me on fire.”

There is much in The Metaphysical Club concerning Holmes’s philosophy of jurisprudence. I admit that I found the material tough going.

At the conclusion of the section of the book devoted to Holmes, the author describes a poignant scene.In 1932, the distinguished jurist, now retired, attempts to read a poem about the war to Marion Frankfurter, wife of Felix Frankfurter. Unable to proceed with the reading, Holmes  broke down and wept:

‘They were not tears for the war. They were tears for what the war had destroyed. Holmes had grown up in a highly cultivated, homogeneous world, a world of which he was, in many ways, the consummate product: idealistic, artistic, and socially committed. And then he had watched that world bleed to death at Fredericksburg and Antietam, in a war that learning and brilliance had been powerless to prevent.


Next we turn to William James.

In our house, we have frequent recourse to that stale bit of humor in which one person asks, “Do you have trouble making decisions?” and the other responds, “Well, yes and no.” The chapter on William James is entitled, “The Man of Two Minds.” He was, apparently, a master equivocator.

He was also a formidable intellect, from a family of formidable intellects. His father Henry was a theologian who came to embrace Swedenborgianism. William’s younger brother was the novelist Henry James.

Part of Henry Senior’s formative experience involved being swept up in what is called the Second Great Awakening, which began in New England at the turn of the 19th century:

‘From one point of view, the Second Great Awakening, which lasted from 1800 to the eve of the Civil War, was, as Tocqueville interpreted it, a kind of democratization of European Christianity, a massive absorption onto American popular culture of the Protestant spiritual impulse, , stripped of most of its traditional heirarchies and formalities. But from another point of view, it was the last blast of supernaturalism before science superseded theology as thee dominant discourse in American intellectual life.

(I wanted especially to quote the above passage as an illustration of the sheer elegance of Menand’s prose.)


Next we meet Swiss paleontologist and geologist Louis Agassiz, who relocated to the U.S. in 1846 and eventually accepted a professorship at Harvard University. In 1850, the widowed Agassiz married Elizabeth Cabot Cary, a pioneer is women’s education who eventually became the first president of Radcliffe College.

Here’s an interesting fact concerning the state of scientific inquiry in the U.S. in the early 19th century:

‘One of the things that had held back scientific education in American colleges…was the dominance of theology in the curriculum, which obliged scholars in every field to align their work with Christian orthodoxy.  Theology was the academic trump card.

One of Louis Agassiz’s great contributions to intellectual endeavors in this country was his insistence that the study of science be divorced from all aspects of religious belief.


At this juncture in his narrative, Menand once again focuses on William James, who first met Agassiz on a research expedition to Brazil in 1861. At this point, Darwin’s discoveries and theories begin increasingly to dominate scientific discourse in America. Here’s how Menand explains James’s take on Darwin, as elucidated in James’s masterwork The Principles of Psychology (1890):

‘There is intelligence in the universe: it is ours. It was our good luck that, somewhere along the way, we acquired minds. They released us from the prison of biology.

(My first thought on reading this was, We have not been entirely released from that prison: along with every other organism on the planet, we are still mortal.)


Next we meet Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce was “…an all-around prodigy of science, mathematics, and philosophy, and he was not shy about displaying his erudition or his disdain for less initiated minds.” (Peirce’s father Benjamin was a mathematician who taught at Harvard.)

In a never-published manuscript dated from 1907, Charles Peirce gives this account of the founding of the Metaphysical Club in 1872:

“‘It was in the earliest seventies that a knot of us young men in Old Cambridge, calling ourselves, half-ironically,  half-defiantly “The Metaphysical Club,”–for agnosticism was then riding its high horse, and was frowning superbly upon all metaphysics,–used to meet, sometimes in my study, sometimes in that of William James.’

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. was also a member, but the prime mover was Chauncey Wright, a gifted mathematician and philosopher. Wright’s story is a poignant one. Brilliant and intense, he was also gentle and kind. He suffered repeated bouts of depression and ultimately died of a stroke at  the age of 45.

The Metaphysical Club was in existence for less than a year. But it retains its luster due to the sheer brain power of its members and the fact that the discussions engaged in by those members helped give birth to the philosophy of pragmatism. (This was yet another topic in this book that challenged my understanding.)


The last major figure profiled in this work is philosopher, psychologist, and educator. John Dewey. Dewey’s achievements and influence were tremendous. I won’t try to recount them here but will refer you instead to Wikipedia’s comprehensive entry.


As I’ve indicated, there were times when I bogged down in my reading of The Metaphysical Club. The soft cover edition currently before me runs to 442 pages. I own that as I was approaching the home stretch I gave myself permission…you’ve probably guessed… (gasp!!) to skim some of the material.

But  then I was stopped in my tracks. Just shy of the book’s conclusion, there’s a chapter entitled “Pluralisms.” It deals with the concept of the Melting Pot, with racism, anti-Semitism – how these forces were playing out at the turbulent beginning of the twentieth century. It’s riveting stuff. Immigration comes in here, too. This is the kind of reading in which you discover that although the players are different, many of the crucial social and political issues confronting us today were equally contentious in the past. A hundred years ago, these same battles were being fought, and with equal ferocity.

In this chapter, we encounter the great W.E.B. Du Bois. One of Du Bois’s many groundbreaking accomplishments was that he was the first African- American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University. (The year was 1895; the subject was history.)

I had, of course, heard of the author of The Souls of Black Folk. But I hadn’t heard of Alain Locke (though obviously I should have). Menand enumerates the challenges faced by this individual:

‘He had heart trouble and an unusually slight physique (he was five feet tall and weighed ninety-nine pounds); he was homosexual; and he was black.

Locke earned his undergraduate degree in English and philosophy from Harvard in 1907. He then went on to be the first African-American Rhodes Scholar. Subsequently, he studied philosophy at the University of Berlin and attended the College de France in Paris in 1911. Locke returned to Harvard to complete his doctoral work in philosophy. He then went to Howard University, where he chaired that institution’s philosophy department until his retirement in 1953. In the course of his life in academia, Locke wrote numerous books and articles.

Some people are just unstoppable…


I recommend the site History of American Thought for additional reading on the history of American philosophy.

The Metaphysical Club is  filled with riches; I have barely skimmed the surface here. It was a challenging but ultimately hugely rewarding book, and it won for its author the 2002 Pulitzer Prize in history.



W.E.B. Du Bois

William James

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr

John Dewey

Chauncey Wright

Alain Locke

Louis Agassiz and Benjamin Peirce

Henry James Senior and Junior

Ralph Waldo Emerson


Here is Louis Menand being interviewed at the University of California at San Diego in 2004:

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‘For her, living was to be measured in doing. Nothing was trivial.’ – A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785 – 1812

July 5, 2010 at 1:55 am (Book review, books, History)

In the early 1700s, Cotton Mather refers to the women of New England, noted for their piety, as “the Hidden Ones.” But, as author Laurel Thatcher Ulrich observes, “In real life,…women weren’t hidden at all. They fed travelers, bargained with neighbors, and moved about their towns at will, on horseback, in canoes, or afoot.” But, she adds, ” in one sense they were hidden, even in Martha’s diary. Women, to use a Biblical metaphor, performed their works under a bushel; men’s candles burned on the hill.”

One is tempted to add that in the annals of history, until quite recently, it was ever thus…

For Martha Ballard of Hallowell, Maine, the diary is the sole thing that rescues her, as a distinct individual, from complete obscurity. And yet, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich tells us: “Those few historians who have known about the diary have not known quite what to do with it.”  The document is filled not only with her experiences as a midwife but also with the details of her labors in her house and in her  beloved garden As such, there has been a tendency to regard it as not being particularly germane to historical inquiry. As recently as the 1970s, a work entitled Lying-In: A History of Childbirth in America had this to say about it: “‘Like many diaries of farm women, it is filled with trivia about domestic chores and pastimes.’

Ulrich’s book stands as a corrective to that dismissive assessment:. In her introduction, she avers that “…it is in the very dailiness, the exhaustive, repetitious dailiness, that the real power of Martha Ballard’s book lies.”

Each chapter of A Midwife’s Tale begins with a section from the diary. The spelling and capitalization are eccentric, but that was not unusual for the time. Dating from 1809, here are some sample entries:

‘1  2  At John Shaws. Birth 2nd. June 16 receivd 7s and 6d of Mr Shaw.
Clear. I was Calld about midnight to John Shaws wife who is in Labour. Shee was safely delivered at 8 hour this morning of her 2nd child and daughter. I returned home about noone. Mr. Ballard went to Town meeting. Magr Samuel Howard was chosen to represent the Town in general Coart.
Birth John Shaws daughter [illegible]

2  3  At home. Feel unwell. Patty T Came here.
Clear. I have been doing work about my soap. Feel very feeble. My husband been to Hallowell. Came here at Evening.

3  4 At home Daughter Ballard sent us 4  1/4 lb. chees.
Clear and warm. I have helpt do my hous work. Patty washt andd Cleand bed rooms. We removd Cyrus Bed and Chest up Chamber. Mrs Smith and Brooks Calld here. Inform me Mrs Mosier is very sick.

4  5 At Daughter Lambards and Mr Mosiers.
Cloudy and some rain. I went to Daughter Lambards. Calld to see Mrs Mosier. Find her very sick.

5  6   At Daughter Lambards. To Lecture & son Ephraims.
Rained part of the day. I went to Lecure from Daughter Lambards. From there to son Ephraims. Sleep there.

And on and on it goes, delivering babies, tending the sick, visiting family members and friends and  receiving them at home, and endless housework: moving furniture, making soap, and endlessly cooking and cleaning. In the midst off this endless round of hard work, Martha records that she feels “very feeble.”  And wherefore should she not? She is 74 years of age or thereabouts, and has three more years to live. But age and feebleness are no excuse: she is still assisting with household tasks, some of them quite arduous. The weather is always of great concern. Will she be able to reach her patients? (These include not only women in labor put anyone who is sick or injured and in need of the hand of a healer.) And in the precious summer months, there is the unremitting care of the garden that provides for friends and family.

Read  A Midwife’s Tale and you will encounter the contradictions and strangeness of rural America in its early years. You will meet people who are kind, considerate, and compassionate, for whom no trouble is too great when it comes to helping family, neighbors, and friends. You will also encounter cruelty, rape, and murder. (And wait till you read about the Purrinton family – what a shocker!) You will learn the fascinating history of medical practice in the early days of the republic. You will find yourself with Martha Ballard as she attends an autopsy. But most of all, you’ll travel back and forth, to and fro, across the Kennebec River and back again, as the intrepid midwife delivers baby after baby – 816 in all!

This book is the story of a life lived and a land transformed. It is a remarkable chronicle of perseverance and ultimate triumph. I feel deeply grateful to Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Professor of History at Harvard University, for bringing Martha Ballard so vividly to life. It’s a quintessentially American story, and I’m especially pleased to be posting this on the evening of  July 4, just as the fireworks are starting to go off.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, winner of the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for A Midwife's Tale

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The pleasures of Archaeology

June 6, 2010 at 12:15 pm (archaeology, books, History)

I don’t normally buy this magazine, even though like most people, I am fascinated by archaeological expeditions and discoveries. I bought this particular issue because of the photograph of the Tollund Man on the cover.

Many years ago, when I was teaching high school English, I used a text book that contained an excerpt from The Bog People: Iron-Age Man Preserved, by Danish archaeologist P.V. Glob. At the time, I was faced with the usual cohort of bored, antsy teenagers, and I don’t recall getting mush of a response from them when we discussed this piece. But I have never forgotten the effect it had on me.

The English translation of The Bog People appeared in this country in 1969.

Gods, Graves, and Scholars, another landmark volume on archaeology by C.W. Ceram, was written in 1949. It was translated from the German and published here in 1951, A  revised edition appeared in 1967. That was already some years after my mother had first urged me to read it.

It is the second revised edition, dated 1979, that sits before me on my desk at this moment. Ceram states in his foreward to the first American edition:  ‘My book was written without scholarly pretensions. My aim was to portray the dramatic qualities of archaeology, its human side.” He goes on to describe the fruits of his research:

‘Archaeology, I found, comprehended all manner of excitement and achievement. Adventure is coupled with bookish toil. Romantic excursions go hand in hand with scholarly self-discipline and moderation.  Explanations among the ruins of the remote past have carried curious men all over the face of the earth.

Two stories made a lasting impression. The first was that of Heinrich Schliemann and the search for Troy. This particularanecdote has stayed with me:

‘Incredible as it may seem, this actually happened: the rich and eccentric foreigner one evening sat in the village square and read the Twenty-third Book of the Odyssey to the descendants of those who had been dead for three thousand years. Overcome by emotion, he wept, and the villagers wept with him.

The second is the discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamen. The year is 1922. Archaeologist Howard Carter has enlarged a hole in the door to the newly unearthed burial chamber. Lord Carnarvon, his backer on the project, and others, are crowded around him:

‘Nervously Carter lit a match, touched it to the candle, and held it toward the hole. As his head neared the opening–he was literally trembling with expectation and curiosity–the warm air escaping from the chamber beyond the door made the candle flare up. For a moment Carter, his eye fixed to the hole and the candle burning within, could make out nothing. Then, as his eyes became gradually accustomed to the flickering light, he distinguished shapes, then their shadows, then the first colors. Not a sound escaped his lips; he was struck dumb. The others waited for what seemed to them like an eternity. Finally Carnarvon could no longer contain his impatience. “Can you see anything?” he inquired.

Carter, slowly turning his head, said shakily: “Yes, wonderful things.”

As with so many books that shaped my young mind (such as it was),  it is probably time to revisit Gods, Graves, and Scholars. (It is thought that C.W. Ceram – real name Kurt Wilhelm Marek – wrote so eloquently of the distant past in an effort to escape from his own recent past. Read this and judge for yourself.)


While working on a review of Peter Ackroyd’s novel The Fall of Troy, I discovered this fabulous photograph of  Heinrich Schliemann’s wife Sophia wearing some of the jewels comprising what he called “Priam’s Treasure.”


In The Bog People, this is how P.V. Glob describes the discovery, in 1950,  of the body that came to be known as Tollund Man:

‘Momentarily, the sun burst in, bright and yet subdued, through a gate in blue thunder-clouds in the west, bringing everything mysteriously to life. The evening stillness was only broken, now and again, by the grating love-call of the snipe. The dead man, too, deep down in the umber-brown peat, seemed to have come alive. He lay on his damp bed as though asleep, resting on his side, the head inclined a little forward, arms and legs bent. His  face wore a gentle expression–the eyes lightly closed, the lips softly pursed, as if in silent prayer. It was as though the dead man’s soul had for a moment returned from another world, through the gate in the western sky.

The men digging up peat to use as fuel thought they had found the victim of a recent murder. They called the police. The officers, knowing that similar mummified remains had been found in the area before, called the local museum. Thus did Tollund Man pass once again into history. (He is thought to have lived during the fourth century BC.)

The men cutting fuel for the coming winter were not entirely mistaken in their surmise about the body they had uncovered. Tollund man was found with a noose around his neck.

The Bog People has been re-issued by New York Review Books, a publisher that’s doing a terrific job of bringing the classics, both fiction and nonfiction, back into print.

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A single day in a museum – and the turbulent, fascinating history of this country comes alive…

May 23, 2010 at 8:23 pm (Art, History, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Music)

When I was in high school, American history was not so much taught as drummed into us. The process was strictly chronological and concerned primarily presidents and wars. There was no room for inference or subtlety. It was boring beyond belief.

he truth is, of course, that American history is anything  but boring. That point was driven home for me on a recent visit to the National Portrait Gallery/Smithsonian American Art Museum. First off: what’s with the double title?  The edifice actually houses two museums. Collectively they are now known as the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture.

Before I introduce several of the paintings I especially admired, I’d like to say something about the building itself. Work on the Old Patent Office was begun in 1836 and completed some thirty years later. It is a grandiose vision in the Greek Revival style, and worth seeing just  for itself. And oh, the riches within!

We spent most of our time in the National Portrait Gallery, specifically in the collection called “American Origins.” Here can be found paintings,  sculpture, and artifacts dating from 1600 to 1900.

We saw many portraits of famous Americans. Even if the subjects were known to us, the artists, for the most part, were not:

General William Tecumseh Sherman, by George Peter Alexander Healy (1866)

Daniel Webster, by Francis Alexander (1835)

Harriet Beecher Stowe, by Alanson Fisher (1853)

Alexander Hamilton, by John Trumbull (1806)

More astonishing was encountering so many figures from our history who were completely new to us:

Ira Aldridge, by Henry Perronet Briggs (c.1830)

Born in 1805, Ira Aldridge was a gifted actor. Unable to pursue his profession in the United States, Aldridge moved to England in the 1820s. He never returned to his native land.

In this painting, he is portraying Othello. A Russian critic commented that “…he was Othello himself, as created by Shakespeare.”

Anne Catharine Hoof Green

After emigrating from the Netherlands, Anne Catharine Hoof Green lived with her husband Jonas in Annapolis, Maryland. Jonas Green  was the editor of the Maryland Gazette; when he died in 1767,  Anne Catharine continued to print the Gazette until her death eight years later.

This daguerreotype of John Brown (1846 or 1847) is a famous image of the uncompromising abolitionist. What is not so well known is that it was made by Augustus Washington, son of a former slave.  While a student at Dartmouth College, Washington took up photography in order to help pay his bills. Eventually he set up a studio in Hartford, Connecticut.


When you click on American Origins (above), you will hear a fragment of the most poignant, evocative music. It is from Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copland. Here is the famous “Simple Gifts” from that justly beloved work, paired with some spectacular photographs by Ansel Adams:

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Of poems, poets – and the Age of Victoria

December 1, 2009 at 3:18 am (Anglophilia, books, History, Poetry)

I like this Ode by Horace; it is translated by John Dryden:

Happy the man, and happy he alone,
He who can call today his own:
He who, secure within, can say,
Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have lived today.
Be fair or foul or rain or shine
The joys I have possessed, in spite of fate, are mine.
Not Heaven itself upon the past has power,
But what has been, has been, and I have had my hour.

(Odes, Book 3, Verse 29)

Here is the original Latin:

ille potens sui
laetusque deget, cui licet in diem
dixisse “vixi:  cras vel atra
nube polum Pater occupato

vel sole puro;  non tamen irritum,
quodcumque retro est, efficiet neque
diffinget infectumque reddet,
quod fugiens semel hora vexit.


As I make my (mesmerized)  way through Hilary Mantel’s historical novel Wolf Hall, I have encountered, among the throng of characters peopling this fast-paced, harrowing narrative, Sir Thomas Wyatt. Wyatt wrote one of my favorite sonnets:


Whoso list to hunt ? I know where is an
hind !
But as for me, alas !  I may no more,
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore ;
I am of them that furthest come behind.
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the deer ; but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow ; I leave off therefore,
Since in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt
As well as I, may spend his time in vain !
And graven with diamonds in letters plain,
There is written her fair neck round about ;
‘ Noli me tangere ; for Cæsar’s I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.’

I love the concluding couplet. How powerfully it conveys the extreme danger of the poet’s quest! In Wolf Hall, the reader discovers the identity of the object of this anguished expression of subjugated longing.


In the process of composing this post, I stumbled upon Luminarium. I could spend days – nay, weeks or months exploring this content!


Up until I began reading Wolf Hall, I was deeply engrossed in the Victorians. This preoccupation came about as a result of listening to Patrick Allitt lecturing on the subject (The Teaching Company: Victorian Britain). In Part One of this series, Professor Allitt begins by discoursing on what he terms “the Victorian paradox.”  From there, he moves on to the life and character of Queen Victoria. Next comes fascinating lectures on the industrial revolution and parliamentary reform. These are followed by several even more fascinating lectures on women in the Victorian era. Professor Allitt then moves on to the religious life – and strife – of the Victorians.

Finally, he comes to the subject of poverty and the working conditions in mines, mills, and factories and the diseases endemic to those who toiled there, including children. This section was a veritable catalog of horrors. Although I was listening alone in the  car, I nevertheless  could not refrain from exclaiming aloud, viz. “What – how atrocious! How could they!”

Photo from the archives of the Shaftsebury-Grooms Society

At that point, I though I had “supped full with horrors” – and then the Professor described the ghastly treatment of the chimney sweeps. (See “Ideas of Childhood in Victorian Children’s Fiction” from the incredibly rich site Victorian Web; and “Pity the Poor Chimney Sweeps” from Suite 101. )

So now I am silently begging, no more, no more…and we come to the potato famine in Ireland.

At one point in this appalling litany, Professor Allitt comments to the effect that Victorian Britain was obviously “not all Masterpiece Theatre.” This would be one of the major understatements I have ever heard in my entire life!


Each of the Teaching Company’s Great Courses comes with a booklet containing, among other resources, an excellent bibliography compiled by the lecturer. As per Professor Allitt’s suggestion, I have so far obtained (though not yet read): . Henry Mayhew was a journalist whose descriptions of, and interviews with, the poor of London deeply impressed his contemporaries, among them Charles Dickens. In this poignant excerpt, he describes the life of a young girl who sells watercress on the city’s streets.

Heaven’s Command is the first in a trilogy about the British Empire. I wasn’t really interested in that aspect of nineteenth century  Britain – I wanted to read about conditions within the country itself. But reading the first few pages I found Jan Morris’s writing so beautiful that I may have to rethink my reading plan. Morris has just come out with a new book, Contact!: A Book of Encounters, due out here in April of 2010.  She is now 83 years old!


As I was listening spellbound to Victorian Britain, the phrase “the dark Satanic mills” was constantly floating to my mind’s surface. It comes from this poem by William Blake, written in 1808 or thereabouts:

And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold:
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.

This poem was set to music by Sir Hubert Parry in 1916 and orchestrated by Sir Edward Elgar in 1922. (Wikipedia has an interesting account of how and why this sequence of events came about.)

I saw an exhibit of Blake’s art work at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York earlier this month.

William Blake: artist, poet, visionary

Here is the Hymn, “Jerusalem”:

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Greek vases

November 22, 2009 at 2:58 am (Art, History, Poetry)

In a post on my recent sojourn to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I mentioned being stunned by  the Greek vases in the Greek and Roman Art galleries. Since this past May, when I journeyed to Naples, a city first colonized by the Greeks in the 700’s BC, I’ve become newly fascinated by the literature of the classical period. Now I was face to face with the art produced, in some cases, in the same period. I had not anticipated the effect these works would have on me.

My first thought – when I was able to think again – was of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: specifically, the words, ‘O attic shape, fair attitude.’

Here is the entire poem:

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thou express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunt about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these?  What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit?  What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels?  What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter: therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal – yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.

O Attic shape!  Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

These astonishing works of art, which in earlier visits to the Met I have always sailed right past, cheerfully distracted and oblivious, now seem to me the most miraculous of objects, and for just the reasons that Keats cites in his poem: their timelessness, their freezing of a moment in time, their promise of eternal youth, of an eternity of bucolic joy in a setting devoid of any hint of ugliness.

I have just purchased this book: and have ordered this glorious tome from the Met: . I shall enjoy learning more about these Attic shapes…

The section of the Met’s collection database that deals with these works is entitled: “Athenian Vase Painting: Black- and Red-Figure Techniques.”

When I told my New York friend Helene about my new-found fascination with Greek vases, she, who has tutored me in love of the arts almost my entire life, smiled and said, “Keats knew something, huh?” Oh yes, he did – with his tenuous hold on life, Keats knew.

John Keats 1795 - 1821

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The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, by Kate Summerscale: a book discussion

October 18, 2009 at 9:08 pm (Book clubs, books, Crime, History, Uncategorized)

jwhicher I confess I approached last Tuesday night’s discussion with a certain diffidence. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher presents such an array of complex issues, I doubted I could do the book justice. But – doubts were vanquished almost as soon as we began. I have the incredible good luck to be associated with The Usual Suspects, a gratifyingly brainy group of people who brought their impressive intellects to bear full force upon Kate Summerscale’s many-layered, remarkable narrative. (Click here to read my original review of  this book. Also, be warned: this post contains spoilers.)

I began our discussion  by a reading a passage from the introduction:

“A Victorian detective was a  secular substitute for a prophet or a priest. In a newly uncertain world, he offered science, conviction, stories that could organise chaos. He turned brutal crimes – the vestiges of the beast in man – into intellectual puzzles. But after the investigation at Road Hill the image of the detective darkened. Many felt that Whicher’s inquiries culminated in a violation of the middle-class home, an assault on privacy, a crime to match the murder he had been sent to solve….

That paragraph in its entirety summed up many of the issues explored by the author in this book.

I next asked everyone to look at the Kent family tree. Several of the birth and dates there given serve as a sobering reminder of how prevalent infant death still was, even in the mid-nineteenth century in a progressive Western country.

I then went on to provide some biographical information on Kate Summerscale.  This Wikipedia entry pretty much sums up what I was able to find. In addition, here is an interview with the author:

Then it was time to look at the murder itself, and the context in which it took place. When I asked what emotion this core aspect of the book evoked, someone immediately responded, “horror.” Everyone agreed at once. It seemed an especially heinous crime, compounded as it was of cool calculation and unimaginable rage. As Summerscale puts it, concerning the weeks that followed the grisly revelation :

“The puzzle of the Road Hill case lay in the killer’s peculiar combination of heat and cold, planning and passion. Whoever had murdered, mutilated and defiled Saville Kent must be horribly disturbed, possessed by unnaturally strong feelings: yet  the same person, in remaining so far undiscovered, had shown startling powers of self-control.

The author concludes this paragraph by pointing out that “Whicher took Constance’s cold quiet as a clue that she had killed her brother.” And though he was made to pay dearly for it, he was exactly right to do so.

We all agreed that this book was greatly enriched by the frequent allusions to works that were seminal in the evolution of the detective fiction genre. Some time ago, the suspects had discussed The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, so it was particularly enjoyable to encounter this great writer once again, in this context. Collins coined the phrase “detective fever,” declaring that Charles Dickens had a bad case of it where the Road Hill House crime was concerned.

Inspector Bucket in Bleak House and Sergeant Cuff in The Moonstone are both to some extent modeled on the real life character of Jonathan Whicher. Another novel mentioned in connection with the Road Hill House case is Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. When I first read The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, I was intrigued by the mention of this title. It was a book – and author – which rang only the faintest of bells for me, dating from my English major days at Goucher College and Georgetown University. I then tried to read it, but got bogged down in the rather protracted description of Audley Court with which the novel begins.

This time, after completing my second traversal of Summerscale’s book, I decided yet again to read Lady Audley. And a strange thing happened:I was mesmerized by this novel! Once past that slow-moving opening passage, I found myself completely engrossed in a genuinely fascinating story. It was hard for me to believe I that a work of such positively juicy readability was originally published in 1862. Mary Elizabeth Braddon, you sorceress – where have you been all my life?  audley

Lady Audley’s Secret is the exemplar of a genre known as the novel of sensation. Attaining great popularity in the 1860’s and 1870’s, such works aimed to jolt the reader by turning certain staid Victorian conventions on their collective heads, and by dealing deliberately in shocking subject matter, such as “adultery, theft, kidnapping, insanity, bigamy, forgery, seduction and murder” (Wikipedia). Well gosh, no wonder that was so much fun!

To a considerable extent, novels of sensation were the forerunners of the detective story, so they should naturally be of interest to those of us who are ardent readers of crime fiction. Kate Summerscale advances the possibility that “…the purpose of detective investigations, real and fictional…[is] to transform sensation, horror and grief into a puzzle, and then to solve the puzzle, to make it go away.”  Summerscale goes on to quote Raymond Chandler to the effect that “The detective story…is a tragedy with a happy ending.” Our group kicked this provocative observation around a bit. IMHO, this is Chandler speaking with tongue firmly in cheek. This is, after all, the man who wrote, at the conclusion of one of the greatest mystery novels ever written:

“What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell.

No happy ending there ( though the writing itself is stunning.) Summerscale’s theory, on the other hand, has real merit.

I’ll have more to say about Lady Audley’s Secret in a later post. But first: more on the book under consideration Tuesday night.

As with much sensation fiction, madness runs as a dark undercurrent throughout Kate Sumerscale’s narrative. The Kent family was a blended one, comprising Samuel Kent’s children by his first wife, Mary Ann Windus, and those he fathered subsequently by Mary Drewe Pratt.

Samuel Kent

Samuel Kent

Mary Ann Windus was a sad case. Married to Samuel Kent in 1829 at the age of twenty-one, she became repeatedly pregnant. Out of a total ten live births, only five children survived infancy. When still young, Mary Ann purportedly showed signs of ‘weakness and bewilderment of intellect.’ The repeated pregnancies and infant deaths she had to endure can only have made matters worse.

Also unhelpful was the introduction into the household of Mary Drewe Pratt as governess to Constance, who was born in 1844. Pratt, an apparently imperious presence on the domestic scene, disparaged and marginalized Mary Ann Windus. The latter finally died in 1852. A year later, Samuel Kent married Mary Drewe Pratt. Proving to be just as fecund as her predecessor, Pratt gave birth to three children in quick succession. Francis Saville, born in 1856, was the murder victim in 1860.

The initial revelations concerning the murder caused a kind of feeding frenzy among members of the public and the press. Jack Whicher obstinately insisted that Constance Kent was the culprit, but his methods were blunt and ham handed, and he lacked any convincing evidence. People found another theory more compelling; namely, that Samuel Kent and the nursemaid, Elizabeth Gough, were lovers and had been observed in flagrante by little Saville. Gough slept in the same room with the younger children and was present when Saville was taken from his bed. Although she insisted that she had slept through the abduction, neither seeing nor hearing anything, she nevertheless made an attractive suspect.

In the short term, no further compelling evidence appeared. No breakthrough was achieved. The hubbub gradually died down.  Whicher,  his investigative techniques and seemingly arbitrary conclusions thoroughly vilified by both the press and the public at large, slunk back to London. The public’s attention was diverted to other matters. (Whicher stayed with the police force for several more years. After retiring from the force, he became a private “agent of inquiry,” a career path similar to that of Anne Perry’s fictional protagonist William Monk. It’s also worth noting that amid the general disapproval, Whicher did have his defenders.)

Jonathan Whicher

Jonathan Whicher

Then, in 1865, Constance Kent came forward and confessed to the murder of her step-brother.  Her initial explanations in regard to her motive tended to be murky and contradictory. Ultimately, however, it emerged that Constance was possessed of a great animus toward her stepmother. Mary Drewe Pratt had sewn a huge resentment in the bosom of Mary Ann Windus’s daughter by denigrating and ultimately seeking to replace her own mother. To make matters worse, Pratt displayed blatant favoritism toward the children she and Samuel had together. With Saville’s murder, she seems to have reaped the fruits of her own actions. If her sole aim was to secure Samuel Kent for her husband and thereby make a place for herself among the middle classes of nineteenth century England, she achieved her goal, but at a terrible price.

Constance Kent

Constance Kent

When it became known that Constance had confessed of her own free will, the question arose as to whether she, like her mother, suffered from “the taint of madness.” How else to account for an adolescent girl’s commission of such a terrible act? In recent years, the theory has surfaced that the real trouble – or at least, the medical trouble – in the Kent family was caused by Samuel’s having had syphilis, and having passed the infection on to Mary Ann Windus. Among its other scourges, this disease can cause early infant death and mental instability. Men were extremely reluctant to seek medical help for this particular ailment, or even to admit to be suffering from it.

At any rate, Summerscale advances this theory cautiously, warning that “Syphilis is an affliction easy to suspect in retrospect.”

We talked about the strange lack of emotion displayed by members of the Kent family. Samuel is reported to have been seen weeping at one point, but we are not told of any other demonstrative displays. This is perhaps understandable in the context in which the crime occurred. First of all, Summerscale could report on only what was supported by written testimony. And this was an era in which people – especially those belonging to the upper classes –  were taught to reign in their emotions.

The one member of the Kent family to whom Constance felt genuinely close was her brother William. Indeed, several years before the murder, the two had attempted to run away to sea. Some commentators on the crime believe that it would have been impossible for Constance alone to have abducted and killed Saville. She must, in other words, have had an accomplice. Was that accomplice William? Proof positive of this has never been found. Many, though, consider it to be highly likely. Our group was of that opinion. We felt it likely that Constance deliberately “took the rap” for the crime, insisting that she acted alone. This admission effectively lifted the cloud of guilt from other members of the Kent family. Constance would have been especially keen to have William no longer suspected of complicity. And in fact, William went on to enjoy a distinguished career in microscopy and marine biology.

William Saville-Kent, in the 1880's

William Saville-Kent, in the 1880's

As we discussed this outcome, Pauline put this question to us: in the matter of the murder of Saville Kent, was justice done? The group’s consensus: in the main, it was not. Constance Kent did serve a 20-year prison term, but she was still only 41 years old upon her release. Assuming the name Ruth Emilie Kaye, she emigrated to Australia, where she received training as a nurse. She never married and spent the remainder of her life in service to others. And it was a very long life: Constance Kent, aka Ruth Emilie Kaye, died in 1944 at the age of 100. Her obituary mentions that at one time, she nursed lepers.

It would appear  that Constance was trying to make restitution for her crime to society. Did she achieve this? It’s a subjective question, one that can never be answered conclusively. (And the same question could be asked of the aforementioned Anne Perry.) Even if one wishes to concede that a good faith effort was made here – What, then, about William Kent? His role in the events at Road Hill House was never proven and remains a matter for speculation. As an adult, he was free to live a full and productive life.

From the question of justice in this particular instance, our discussion widened to include the issue of the death penalty. It was necessary to tread carefully here, as people have strong opinions on this issue, but I thought our group handled that part of the discussion with admirable tact and diplomacy. I observed that Britain had come a long way since the day when executions were a form of public spectacle. Pauline, our “token Brit,” told us about the John Christie and Derek Bentley cases. Both involved wrongful execution; the ensuing revulsion proved instrumental in the decision to abolish capital punishment in the UK.

Several of us had read “Trial by Fire,” an article in the September 7 issue of the New Yorker concerning the possible wrongful execution of Cameron Todd Willingham in 2004. (At one point in this article, author David Grann recounts the following case from British history:

“In the summer of 1660, an Englishman named William Harrison vanished on a walk, near the village of Charingworth, in Gloucestershire. His bloodstained hat was soon discovered on the side of a local road. Police interrogated Harrison’s servant, John Perry, and eventually Perry gave a statement that his mother and his brother had killed Harrison for money. Perry, his mother, and his brother were hanged.

Two years later, Harrison reappeared. He insisted, fancifully, that he had been abducted by a band of criminals and sold into slavery. Whatever happened, one thing was indisputable: he had not been murdered by the Perrys.

This was the famous Campden Wonder, which I first heard of from our seemingly omniscient Smithsonian tour guide, Ros Hutchinson.)

We talked about other high profile murder cases in which justice has proved elusive. We’ve all had the experience of learning of a verdict or a sentence and exclaiming in disbelief: How could they? or words to that effect. What is the answer to this perennial question? Mine is that just as human beings are hard wired to want to solve puzzles, so are we equally hardwired to yearn for justice – and to keep up the relentless effort to see that justice is served.


Kate Summerscale won the 2008 Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction for The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher.

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What do an eighteenth century Russian opera singer and a warlike tribal people of ancient Italy have in common?

May 6, 2009 at 10:40 am (books, History, Italy, Russophilia)

In  The Pearl, author Douglas Smith tells the story of Nicholas Scheremetev, a Russian aristocrat who finds, in the young Praskovia Kovalyova,  a woman of prodigious acting and singing talent. He puts her in starring roles in his home grown opera company. Then, almost inevitably, he falls in love with her. The problem: she is of lowly serf parentage. But this fact does nothing do dampen Scheremetev’s ardor; if anything, his devotion to Praskovia increases as she moves from triumph to artistic triumph.

I found myself turning back repeatedly to this portrait of Praskovia, attributed to German artist Johann Bardou and most likely painted in 1790. She is here depicted in the role of Eliane in an opera entitled “The Marriage of the Samnites” by Andre Gretry:


I admit that at the time, I was so engrossed in the poignant story of Nicholas and Praskovia that I did not stop long to wonder just who the Samnites were. But now that I’ve been reading up on the history of the Italian peninsula, I am encountering them again. Early settlers in central Italy, the Samnites warred repeatedly with the Romans for supremacy in the region. Ultimately they lost out, were dispersed, and gradually disappeared, as the Romans swept all before them.

Somehow, though, I doubt that their womenfolk got themselves up in elaborate costumes like Praskovia’s; animal skins were probably more the order of the day!

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