Tag Archives: Lincoln

Books and real people

100_0233

So many bloggers write about their experiences writing fiction that I’ve begun to look long and hard at what I read.  Mostly diaries, letters, biography, autobiography and history.

Why? I’ve been asking myself. I think of a panorama of people, living and dead and what I love about these accounts of real life are the moments of humanity and truth that emerge, lighting up the character of each person, and giving me such an insight into the goodness, variety, and endless capacity for living which we humans are capable of.

Though fiction gives us these moments too, I love to see them embedded in the life of people we know in history, and to see how we have changed so much – and not changed at all.

So there’s the Venerable Bede, who introduced the terms AD and BC into our language and wrote dozens of books in ‘Englisch’ for the first time in history. This gentle, scholarly man was a foodie in the seventh century, and spiced up the basic monastery fare in remote Northumbria by using rare and expensive peppercorns. He bequeathed his little store to his fellow monks when he died…and also his handkerchiefs… another luxury in that far-off century.

And talking of food – what an intriguing insight into the character of Ulysses Grant – to read that this great soldier, who was responsible for sending hundreds of thousands of men to their deaths in the struggle between the Union and the Confederates – hated the sight of blood. All his meat was overcooked to the point of being crisp. He never went hunting, refused to attend a bull – fight held in his honour in Mexico when he was president, and was probably the first horse whisperer, a superb horseman who could do anything with any horse.

Another great general, Wellington – whose horse Copenhagen, was as famous as Robert E. Lee’s Traveller – loved dancing, and any officer on his staff had to fulfill the job description of being a good dancer. Onlookers were surprised by their frivolity and their dedicated efficiency, but between battles, these dashing young aristocrats danced their way around Vienna, Brussels and Paris, their most famous dancing date being the Duchess of Richmond’s ball on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo. When Napoleon surprised Wellington (“Humbugged, by God!” exclaimed Wellington) many of these officers had to rush straight from the ballroom to the battle in their dancing shoes.

I read seventeenth century John Evelyn’s diaries, and his account of passing Stonehenge in a carriage, and attempting an act of vandalism, hammering at one of the huge stones, and failing to make a dent. He reaches across the centuries when his eldest son, five year old Jack died suddenly, and he wrote what so many bereaved parents feel: “Here ends the joy of my life, for which I go mourning to the grave.”

On the other hand, famous philanderer, English MP Alan Clark, shows that the hard arrogant swashbuckling man is a complex unpredictable human being, when he writes of seeing the heron who’s been poaching the fish in his moat. (He lived in a castle… doesn’t everyone?) and seizing his rifle shoots it. He describes the slow dignified ebbing of life as the beautiful creature keels over, and he weeps in horror as he feels the enormity of what he has done.

I love the story of Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward, who had had a dreadful carriage accident with two bolting horses. As he lay in pain in bed at home, missing all the action and excitement around the start of Lincoln’s second term, Lincoln came to visit him, on his return from Richmond. He lay down on the bed, alongside the agonised man, propped himself on one elbow, and told him all that was going on, asked his advice, and made him feel he was still an important and valuable cog in the wheels, instead of a sick bystander. The tenderness and sensitivity of the long, lanky President lying on the bed, looking into the eyes of his suffering colleague moves me deeply.

As does the picture of Isabella Burton, the famous explorer Sir Richard Burton’s wife, sitting on the dusty ground in her voluminous Victorian skirts at their house in Damascus, cradling her pet panther in her arms until he died. He’d been poisoned by a neighbour.

Yes, I love fiction, especially the oldies like George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, the inimitable Jane, and others, but it’s that feeling of recognition and empathy that I love when reading about the humanity of these ordinary, or great or historical people. Like crusty old King George V complaining about his eldest son’s suits, with turn-ups on his trousers, and Queen Victoria writing to her second son Alfie ticking him off for his smoking, putting his hands in his pockets, parting his hair in the middle, as well as his “frightful stick-ups” – high collars – they remind us that parents’ disapproval of their childrens’ clothes and habits is a long- standing tradition.

Waiting in a stuffy men’s club, I saw a book- case filled with old books. One title jumped at me – the memoirs of Count Lichnowsky. I had no idea who he was, and became entranced by his historic and vivid descriptions of being German Ambassador in England on the outbreak of World War One. He wrote of his heartbreak as he left London where he admired and respected all the statesmen there, and I read all his frantic telegrams to the Kaiser, trying to stop the immoral invasion of Belgium which triggered the conflict in France.

But best of all, I read his description of Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary who spoke those immortal words on the eve of World War One: “The lights are going out all over Europe.” Sir Edward, a humble and rich man who rode a bicycle to get to and from friend’s houses – up to thirty miles away –  used to feed by hand the red squirrels who came to the window of his house in Scotland.

Tender glimpses of real people, moments of gentleness, of love and goodness… these are the reasons I love non-fiction … insights into men and women’s souls, windows into their lives… the history of the human race in these moments of truth and intimacy. And this, of course, is why blogs are such addictive reading. They give me the same connection with truth and reality.

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

One of the things that I’m never without are packets of chipped or slivered almonds (not flaked). They make a difference to every dish I use them in. I toast them in a dry frying pan  and sprinkle them over cauliflower cheese, and they give it a wonderful crunch to contrast with the smooth cheese sauce and soft cauliflower. I toast them to add to raw cauliflower salad for that crunch too.

And they are wonderful in rice salad. This is the basis for a cold chicken salad, which I’ll share in the next post. The rice has peas, juicy soaked sultanas, chopped parsley- plenty – and lots of toasted almonds for the crunch factor. At the last minute, add a vinaigrette dressing and gently mix it through.

Food for Thought

“Oh King, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time which is unknown to us, it seems like the swift flight of a sparrow through the banqueting hall wherein you sit at supper in winter with your thanes and counsellors.

In the midst there is a good fire to warm the hall; outside, the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. The sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another.

While he is inside, he is safe from winter storms; but after a short space of fair weather, he vanishes out of your sight into the dark winter from which he came. So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before or what is to follow, we know nothing.

The Venerable Bede  AD 672/3 – 735   Monk, historian, teacher

61 Comments

Filed under books, cookery/recipes, great days, history, literature, philosophy, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized

Lincoln’s wife – ‘that woman’

This is the story that Isn’t in the film on Lincoln. But I couldn’t look at Robert Lincoln in it, without thinking of how he betrayed his mother and had her certified as insane and bundled into a mental home ten years after her husband died.

After her husband’s death and then the death of Tad, Robert was her only son. He left her to grieve alone in her cheap hotel when Tad died and went off on holiday for a month. Later, after she had had a premonition that he was in danger, he decided he’d had enough.

Reasons for certifying her were her obsessive grief, belief in spiritualism and premonitions  – her husband had dreamt of his death shortly before his assassination – compulsive shopping, and embarrassing efforts to raise money – like selling her clothes – because she couldn’t afford to buy a house when she left the White House, and was lobbying for a pension..

Two men arrived at the hotel where she lived, took her off to court, where Robert had bribed six doctors who’d never seen her, to say she was insane, and the jury – of men – certified her. After three months, she managed to smuggle a letter to a woman friend who was also a lawyer though barred from practising because she was a woman, and finally extricated herself from the asylum. She went to live with her sister.

The actor playing Robert was a remarkable likeness, as was Sally Field, who wore copies of the same clothes that Mary Lincoln had been seen in, and also looked uncannily like her. Mary Lincoln, for all the slurs and vicious attacks on her in the newspapers of the time, was her husband’s most loyal and percipient supporter. She’d seen his greatness from the days of their courtship, when she turned down another suitor – Stephen Douglas –Lincoln’s political rival, and said she intended to marry a man who was going to be President, and it wasn’t him!

When her confidant Elizabeth Keckley, and she fell out, Keckley wrote a book about Mary’s years in the White House. Who of us would want our lives exposed by a friend we’d fallen out with? Over the years newspapers picked up every piece of malicious gossip, true or not and ran with it, while Robert’s explanations for his behaviour added to the picture of an unbalanced and unlovable woman. The lasting effects of all this negative publicity shows in her entry in Wikipedia in which all the slurs of that time are repeated as though they were true.

One of the last massive  public snubs this unhappy and difficult woman endured was when one of my favourite people, Ulysses Grant, and his wife Julia, were given a triumphant reception in Pau, where Mary Lincoln was living in frugal exile in France, and they failed to even call on her.

In psychological terms, she never got over her feeling of being a victim, which she was, attracting the very events which re-inforced her victimhood. She was a victim both of the times she lived in, and of her own frequently tactless behaviour. Displaced as a year- old baby by two more brothers, she became the forgotten middle child in a family of six, and then her mother died when she was six years old.

A new stepmother arrived swiftly in the family and one of her methods of dealing with her unwanted stepchildren was to shame and humiliate them, which to a vulnerable six year old would have been devastating. As more and more children arrived in the family via the stepmother, the older children became more side-lined and alienated.

Mary became a boarder at a school in walking distance from her home, and at seventeen left this unhappy house to live with her sister. She was pretty, mad about fashion, accomplished, speaking French fluently,  highly intelligent, and fascinated by politics, an unusual quality at a time when most girls left school and thought of nothing but clothes and who they would marry .

When she met and married Lincoln, unlike most other women then, Mary had neither slaves not servants. She kept her house like a new pin, became a noted cook and hostess for her husband’s political supporters, and brought up their children in a very modern way, easy-going and tolerant, as was Abraham. But the deaths of three sons and her husband devastated her already scarred psyche.

After each death she did become emotionally unbalanced, no doubt driven by that first deep wound of her mother’s death. And history has not been kind to her.  Today, she would have been understood and received the counselling and therapy she needed to exorcise her pain. Today we would have understood that her extravagant shopping was an attempt to comfort herself… who of us has not enjoyed some retail therapy at some time in our life?

Today, her child-rearing methods would have been accepted, as would her need for an outlet for her talents and energy. Today it would not be possible to bundle her off out of sight into a mental home because she was an embarassment. But it was okay to do that to a woman in the 1870’s.

Today, she would have received proper medical treatment for the post childbirth problems she suffered for the rest of her life, as well as for her constant migraines. She would not have been treated as a hysterical neurotic with no rights. (“Get that woman out of here,” a man said when she was weeping over her dying husband.)

Today, she would not have had to leave the White House with no means to buy a house for herself and her children, would not have had her husband’s estate withheld from her for two years because of dilatory executors, and she would not have had to beg for a pension. After leaving the White House she lived in cheap hotels for the rest of her life.

She had a happy marriage and a devoted husband, and had no need of VAWA, and the protection against violence that so many women need today all over the world. She needed the protection of rights and respect, and in Western countries at least, today women can no longer be treated like chattels or second class incompetents – they are equal under the law, they have a vote and a voice.

The contrast between Mary Lincoln’s treatment then, and women’s rights and opportunities today shows us that we have made progress, that civilisation is inching its way to a better world, and that though there are still so many areas of pain and poverty that need to be tackled, we can still hope to ease the suffering, knowing that we’ve achieved so much already.

Don’t miss that film ‘Lincoln’!

P.S. If I seem neglectful at reading your blogs, it’s I’m having great trouble with Word Press. According to the teenage son of the garage proprietor I’ve lost my cookies or something, but he can’t fix it… So it means a long drive into the nearest town to the computer man to get it done… I have visions of a computer buff scoffing a plate of chocolate brownies, but presumably computer cookies are something else….

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Summer and salad days. We have a glut of cauliflower, thanks to a generous neighbour. We’ve done cauliflower cheese of course, but my favourite way with cauliflower is raw. This recipe is for one person, just increase the amounts for each person. Grate a cup, to a cup and a half of cauliflower, chop lots of parsley, hard boil one egg and chop three or four dates. Pour a tablsp of almond chips – not flakes- into a non stick frying pan, and watch carefully until the almonds brown in their own oil. Tip into the grated cauliflower immediately or they go on cooking, and mix everything together gently with enough good mayonnaise to bind it. Sometimes I add grated carrot, sometimes chopped banana, but this is the mix I like best. It’s filling enough on its own for a meal.

Food for Thought

The success of any great moral enterprise does not depend on numbers.              William Lloyd Garrison   1805 – 1879     One of the great heroes of Abolition, whose life was sometimes endangered by his crusade against slavery. He also campaigned for women’s suffrage, and civil rights for blacks.

 

 

 

53 Comments

Filed under cookery/recipes, great days, history, love, politics, slavery, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized, womens issues