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Archive for the ‘The 1954 Club’ Category

Once you’ve proven yourself as a novelist, what do you do next?  Do you turn out novel after novel, perhaps improving, or perhaps churning out forgettable fodder?  Or do you try something entirely different, striking out into the unknown and – to your readers – the unexpected?  I know which sounds like more fun to me.

In 1954, Madame de Pompadour by Nancy Mitford was released to indulgent – and no doubt frustrating for the author – praise from the critics.  With seven novels already behind her, Mitford had a fine reputation but, intoxicated and in love with her new home in Paris, she was eager to write about something other than the romantic trials of the English.  She threw herself into researching Louis XV’s famous mistress and the result is something between the froth of a novel and the impartiality of a biography.

My first encounter with Mitford the biographer was her last book: Frederick the Great.  Published in 1970, it’s a wonderful book, full of colourful anecdotes skillfully threaded through a well-structured and well-researched account of a difficult man’s fascinating life.  From the very first chapter of Madame de Pompadour, it was clear how much Mitford had learned about the art of biography in the period between those two books.

The approach to the codified world of Versailles is, paradoxically, familiar and affectionate.  Individuals are described as dears (or the opposite) in a chatty tone, with Mitford enjoying a good gossip over their foibles despite most of them having been dead for the better part of two hundred years.  She is particularly critical of Louis XV’s queen, a Polish princess who, “though an exceedingly nice woman, was dowdy and a bore.”  Mitford believes “[she] might have played the part of mistress as well as that of wife, if she had had more character.”  Instead, her husband was forced to go find new bedmates and friends to keep him constantly entertained.  The Queen, having given birth to 10 children in the first 12 years of their marriage, seems to have been completely at ease with that – and who (except Mitford) can blame her?

The character of Louis XV is the gap at the center of the book.  He sounds to have been a man of extraordinary energy, thoughtless selfishness, and enormous appetites.  But what actually attracted people to him is less clear.  He suffered immense losses as a child, after which he “retired into a world of his own, concealing all his thoughts and feelings from those around him, and nobody every knew much about them for the rest of his life.”  No one woman ever seems to have held his attention sexually – Madame de Pompadour was his chief mistress for a time, but there were others before and after, not to mention the girls of no significance who were procured for a bit of bed play, most never even knowing the identify of their lover.  (Which of course makes Mitford’s criticism of the Queen ever harder to accept.)

But what of Madame de Pompadour herself, a woman who would go down in history for her exquisite taste, her intelligence, and her support for the artists and thinkers that modern France continues to revere?  As a child, a fortune teller predicted she would one day rule the heart of a king and within the family she was then nicknamed Reinette and given all the education and training a king’s mistress would need, however unlikely it seemed that a young bourgeois would ever be picked for such a role.  She grew up, she married, she became a mother…and she met the King.

Mitford paints a very romantic picture of the attraction and whirlwind that kicked off the relationship, with countryside cavorting and masked balls, obvious to the entire court, before she was officially installed in the palace.  She was far from the first mistress but she was the first from outside the court, so a crash course in the bizarre intricacies of Bourbon etiquette was required.  But she found her feet quickly, cunningly (innocently?) made herself appealing to the Queen, and was soon established in the world where she would live for the next twenty years until her early death, firmly first in the King’s affections if not always in his bed.

Indeed, she was, Mitford states, “physically a cold woman.  She was not strong enough for continual love-making and it exhausted her.”  Since Louis XV seems to have liked nothing more than continual love making, it must have been a great relief when the relationship turned away from the physical, as it did within 5 or 6 years due to her poor health, leaving them as companions.  All Madame de Pompadour’s early training, her talents, and her charms had combined to make her a delightful companion – one who could not be parted with even when the obvious purpose of the relationship had been extinguished.  It was, Mitford notes with some amusement, quite like a normal marriage.

I enjoyed reading this but it felt too much like a romantic biography rather than a true biography to me.  And yet how do you assert the individualism of a woman’s whose goal was to be an appendage?  For most mistresses, the chase, the conquest, and the victory might be the full story.  But I don’t think it was for Madame de Pompadour.  Mitford does look at Pompadour’s championing of Voltaire (always so hard – he did not make life easy for his supporters), her gifts as an actress, her establishing of a porcelain factory in Sèvres, and her involvement with politics during the Seven Years War, but I would love to see how Mitford would have approached this with more experience behind her.  It’s still a very enjoyable book but not as good an example of biography as she would eventually prove capable of.

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The 1954 club has arrived!  It was a year full of fantastic children’s historical novels – The Eagle of the NinthKnight Crusader! – but I’m kicking the week off with a slightly more obscure choice: Banner in the Sky by James Ramsey Ullman, an adventure tale inspired by the first ascent of the Matterhorn.

Set in 1865 in the fictional town of Kurtal (aka Zermatt), we meet our hero, sixteen-year-old Rudi Matt, as a disgruntled dishwasher at the town’s best hotel.  Slight and cherubic, Rudi is nothing like the bulk of the town’s hearty men, who make their livings as guides for mountain-climbing tourists.  He is, his mother and uncle have decided, to be a hotelier and to train in Zurich after getting experience at home.  They want him far away from the dangerous mountains that have taken too many men from their town, his own father included.

But Rudi is a mountaineer in his heart, and escapes the kitchen to climb whenever he can.  He may never have known his father, the great Josef Matt who died on an expedition to summit the Citadel (aka the Matterhorn), the last great unconquered peak in Switzerland, but he inherited his spirit.

With a disconcerting comfort in bending the truth (a welcome and clever element that saves the Rudi from being too saccharine), Rudi finds himself slowly gaining the support of some in the climbing community – the intrepid Englishman, Captain Winter, and Teo Zurbriggen, a now crippled climber who was part of his father’s final expedition.  Rudi shares Captain Winter’s dream of conquering the Citadel and dedicates himself to being capable of the climb.  In the end, he is one of four men who attempt the ascent.

After an exhausting climb and close to the summit, a fellow climber is injured through sheer hubris.  Rudi, desperate for the glory of being the first man to ever reach the peak and eager to complete his father’s last journey, is torn.  Does he fulfill what he sees as his destiny and summit the peak, or does he follow the code of the mountain guides and care for his incapacitated climbing partner?  His own father knew what it meant to belong to the mountains – and died there not from an accident, but of exposure when he stayed with an injured client and was caught in a storm while waiting for help.

The 1950s was a golden era for children’s adventure tales and Ullman exemplifies the best of the tradition, writing suspenseful scenes along with solid character development.  The book is full of climbing action and it is wonderfully vivid and tense, carrying the reader along with Rudi through his painful and dangerous exploits.  As someone who hates heights, climbing is my idea of torture and I mean it as a compliment to Ullman’s skill that certain scenes made me queasy.  What an idiotic pastime – but what good material for an adventure tale.

With conflict like this, you can see why Disney adapted this shortly after it’s publication.  It’s a perfect blend of adventure tale and morality tale, with sublime scenery to cap it all off.  It was released in 1959 as Third Man on the Mountain with James MacArthur looking cherubic but decidedly more robust than Rudi is described (MacArthur played a Swiss teen again for Disney in Swiss Family Robinson in 1960).

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We’re less than a week away now from the start of the 1954 Club and I can’t wait!  For those not familiar with it, Simon and Karen host twice-yearly reading weeks to encourage us to try books from a specific year.  It’s always a lot of fun to see what people pick and the clubs are really the only things that can predictably stir me from my sloth and get me to post new book reviews.

Being a planning-focused (some might say obsessed) person, I always enjoy pulling together ideas of what to read.  There were lots of interesting releases in 1954 (including my mother, who was born at the end of October 1954) so we are spoiled for choice.  Here are some suggestions if you’re still deciding what to read:

The Usual Suspects
When it comes to mid-century fiction, there are a handful of ridiculously prolific authors that I know I can always turn to and trust that at least one of them will have had a release that year.  In 1954, they all did.  These are all middling offerings from these authors but entertaining nonetheless:
The Toll-Gate by Georgette Heyer
Destination Unknown by Agatha Christie
What Did It Mean? by Angela Thirkell
Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit by P.G. Wodehouse
Charlotte Fairlie by D.E. Stevenson

Children’s Books
What a year for children’s historical fiction!  Both The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff and Knight Crusader by Ronald Welch were published and they remain wonderful no matter the reader’s age.

A Bit of Non-Fiction
Non-fiction (like poetry) doesn’t get much love during these clubs but maybe 1954 will be the year everyone embraces it!
The Wilder Shores of Love by Lesley Branch
Madame de Pompadour by Nancy Mitford
Slide Rule by Nevil Shute
(1954 was also a big year for cookbooks, including The Art of Eating by MFK Fisher, Italian Food by Elizabeth David, and The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book)

Happy reading!

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