Woman of the Week: Queen Christina Alexandra (née Kristina Augusta Wasa)

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Christina aged approximately 16, between 1640 and 1642 (by Jacob Henry Elbfas)

Queen Christina of Sweden (1626-1689) isn’t one of the few queens that people actually know about, but it certainly isn’t because her life and character don’t merit the recognition. Literally from the moment she was born, Christina was causing scandals. Apparently born with unusual quantities of hair and a ‘strong, hoarse voice’, the birthing attendants initially believed the infant to be a male, which entertained her father, Gustav II Adolf, immensely. ‘She’ll be clever,’ he said, ‘she has made fools of us all!’

 

 

 

In fact, the strange stories about her birth, as well as her reportedly masculine behaviour and appearance, has lead modern historians to theorise that she may have had one or more unacknowledged disorders, such as polycystic ovary syndrome (which can cause hirsutism and obesity), Pervasive Developmental Disorder (encompassing behavioural disorders such as autism), or Disorder of Sex Development (involving abnormal development of sexual characteristics), although her skeleton was judged ‘typically female’ when analysed in 1965.

Having no other children, Gustav arranged for his daughter to be raised exactly as a male heir would have been, from studying statecraft and sciences to learning to fence and hunt bears. It wasn’t surprising, then, that she became known as ‘the Girl King’ when at age 6, she inherited her father’s kingdom after his death in the Thirty Year’s War – even at her coronation, her official title was ‘King of the Swedes, Goths and Wends’.

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Christina depicted on horseback in a portrait intended to gain favour with Philip IV of Spain, in 1653 (by Sébastien Bourdon)

Due to her youth, Sweden was ruled by a Privy Council until she came of age at 18, but Christina attended council meetings from the age of 14, showing a keen interest in politics and diplomacy. She is reported to have spent 10 hours a day at her studies, learning up to 8 languages other than her native Swedish and developing an interest in culture, religion and art that would last throughout her life.

As reigning queen, Christina continued to be an enthusiastic patron of the arts, gathering scholars, musicians and artists to her court, among which were philosopher René Descartes and kabbalist Menasseh Ben Israel, as well as various prominent Jesuits. It was her discussions with these last that finally convinced the young Queen that she should convert to Catholicism – a significant decision, considering that at the time, it was illegal to be Catholic in the country of Sweden. The punishment for such an offence? Only execution.

Nonetheless, Christina was determined. She had already made her first cousin, Charles X Gustav, her heir in 1649, and in 1652, after strong opposition from her advisors, Christina abdicated in favour of her heir, citing her desire to remain celibate as the reason for her decision. Immediately after the ceremonies were concluded, she disguised herself in men’s clothing so as to pass herself off as ‘Count Dohna’ whilst travelling through Denmark, a country still hostile to Swedish monarchy, on her way to Rome.

The true reasons for Christina’s celibacy may not have been purely religious motives, however. Christina’s sexuality remains a mystery even now, as she was rumoured to have romantic liaisons with both men and women but had no public relationships throughout her life. She was conjectured to have had relationships with both Charles Gustav and her long-time friend and bookkeeper, Decio Azzolino, but also with a female friend, Ebba Sparre, who is frequently alleged to have been the Queen’s lover due to the Queen’s description of her as her ‘bed-fellow’, and the intensely emotional letters written between them, which included the Queen declaring that she would always love Ebba.

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Monument to Christina in St Peter’s Basilica, ordered by Pope Innocent XII in 1702

Upon reaching Rome, Christina enjoyed considerable popularity, becoming famous as the monarch who gave up her country for her love of God. She spent the remainder of her life maintaining her extensive patronage of the arts whilst living in Italy and France. Though she made a failed attempt to regain the Swedish throne after the death of Charles X Gustav, Christina ultimately never returned to power and died in relative peace in 1689 in her palace in Rome, leaving her autobiography unfinished. Contrary to her wishes, Pope Innocent XI arranged for her to be buried with great ceremony in the Grotte Vatican beneath the St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, making her the third woman ever to be interred there.

 

 

 

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Woman of the Week: Rumer Godden (née Margaret Rumer Godden)

“I wish I knew when I was going to die,’ ninety-six-year-old Dame Frances Anne often said, ‘I wish I knew.’
‘Why, Dame?’
‘Then I should know what to read next.” In This House of Brede, 1969

Rumer Godden was a 20th century author who wrote with wit, charm and sensitive insight into human nature in its various manifestations. Though born in England in 1907, Rumer lived in modern-day Bangladesh until her parents decided to send her to school in England at the age of 12.  The influence of this experience during her formative years can be seen in the vividly colourful characters and settings for her novels, as she describes a stately old mansion in Cornwall with the same lively detail as her one-time home in a primitive cottage in the mountains of Kashmir.

Rumer was soon to return to the country that had already laid such a strong claim to her heart, as she and her older sister, Jon, struggled to settle into English life. While in London, she had trained as a dancer despite having serious spinal damage resulting from a bad fall as a child, and in 1925 Rumer moved to Calcutta to open a mixed-race dancing school. Despite public shock at her audacity, Rumer and her younger sister Nancy ran the Peggy Godden School of Dance successfully for 20 years.

When the Second World War broke out, Rumer was unhappily married to Laurence Foster, with two young children, Jane and Paula, and had just published her first best-seller, the novel Black Narcissus, which dealt with a group of Catholic nuns living in India. Her husband having joined the army, Rumer decided to move to Kashmir with her children in 1942, living initially on a houseboat and later in a remote house in the mountains. The small family lived without many modern luxuries of the time, such as electricity or running water, but were still considered as well-off compared to the local Indians. Their time in Kashmir came to an abrupt end when it was discovered that their Indian cook had tried to poison them by adding ground-up glass to their food, in addition to quantities of opium and marijuana, with no apparent motive. Finding little support from the community, both of locals and other British colonists, Rumer returned to England to support her children through her writing.

Rumer divorced her first husband in 1948 and remarried the year after, her second choice being James Hayn Dixon, who she remained with til his death despite her wry comment that she “loved Mr. Darcy far more than any of [her] own husbands.” Since her first publication in 1937, Rumer had been writing prolifically, and her output remained consistent until her death in 1998, with her last novel, Cromartie versus the God Shiva acting through the Government of India, being released the year before.

Though reasonably widely acknowledged as an influential European writer of the 20th century, since her death almost twenty years ago, Godden’s legacy has faded from attention. But the themes of  childhood innocence and the contrasting corruption of adult life that emerge through much of her work remain as relevant today as half a century ago.

“I know now it is children who accept life; grown people cover it up and pretend it is different with drinks.” (The Greengage Summer, 1957)

Her work, whether intended for adults or children, throbs with theatrical characterisation and fascinating stories woven into the tapestry of everyday life, reflecting the huge array of experiences she had in her own life.

Famous Works:

The River, 1946
The Diddakoi, 1972 (Winner of the 1972 Whitbread Award in the Children’s Book category)

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Portrait for Vogue, 1947

Woman of the Week: Marie Laurencin

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Self Portrait (around 1905 – Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris)

Marie Laurencin (1883-1956) was a contemporary of Picasso and Delaunay and friends with both. Despite the significant role she played in the Paris avant-garde movement, her artwork remained largely uninfluenced by the Cubism being developed by her close associates, and is frequently forgotten today.

 

Marie, illegitimately born to Pauline Laurencin, cited her date of birth as 1885, claiming that ‘the age of a natural child is always mysterious – it is found neither in reality nor in dreams, it is not determined by a date.’ Her father, a tax collector who refused to officially recognise his daughter, visited her rarely.

Marie’s career began officially when she went to Sèvres to study porcelain painting at the age of 18. She soon returned to Paris to study at the Académie Humbert, where she turned her focus to oil painting, one of the mediums she would use most often in her recognisable works. It was there, too, that she first met George Braque and Georges Lepape, fellow students who were impressed equally by the fantastic, whimsical canvases she executed with such apparent ease, and her engrossing personality – ‘my name’s Marie Laurencin,’ she told the curious Lepape, ‘but call me Coco.’

At the age of 24, Marie exhibited at the famous Salon des Indépendants for the first time. She met Picasso, who in turn introduced her to Guillaume Apollinaire, and soon became ensconced in the circle of artists and writers that made up the avant-garde movement and particularly the Section d’Or, which focused on Cubism and Orphism. She began a long-term romantic relationship with Apollinaire, being generally recognised as his muse and particularly as the Tristouse Ballerinette from his 1916 work, ‘Le Poète assassiné’.

Marie married a German artist, Otto von Wätjen, in 1913, causing her to flee to exile in Spain when war broke out a year later, as she had lost her French citizenship upon marriage. She remained there until 1919, finding solace and inspiration in the works of Vélasquez and Goya, and beginning friendships with various new artists, including Gleizes, Delaunay and Picabia, the latter two with which she would later exhibit. She divorced her husband in 1921, and would go on to have various affairs, often with well-known figures such as diplomat Philippe Berthelot and lesbian literary expatriate, Natalie Clifford Barney.

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Portrait de Mademoiselle Chanel (1923 – Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris)

 

 

In this period, Marie made a name for herself as a portraitist, with the famous faces gracing her canvases ranging from ladies of nobility to Coco Chanel. In 1923, Serge de Dhiagelev asked her to undertake the décor and costuming for his ballet, ‘Les Biches’. Her work was received successfully, and ballet costuming and décor became a new facet of her creative expression.

Though criticised for her repetitive subjects and relatively unvaried style, Marie’s work remains highly recognisable for those very reasons. She preferred to depict young girls with dreamy, mask-like features, accompanied by various animals, from unicorns to swans to faithful hounds. Both human and beast frequently have a strong sense of unreality, with figures appearing to undergo transfigurative processes within the image. She focused on themes of femininity, relying heavily on pastel shades of blue, pink and grey which she felt helped to express these themes.

Upon her death in 1956, caused by cardiac arrest, Marie was buried in the famous Père Lachaise cemetery according to her wishes: dressed in, with a rose clutched in one hand and the love letters written to her by Guillaume Apollinaire laid across her heart.

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Watercolour for ‘Les Biches’ (1923 – Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris)

 

 

 

Woman of the Week: Desirée Clary (née Bernardine Eugénie Désirée Clary)

Desirée Clary (1777-1860) was a woman who knew how to climb the social ladder. Born the daughter of a reasonably wealthy silk merchant in Marseilles, she ended up being the Queen of two nations and a political informant within the French government. That begs the question – well, how? The answer is simple, as technically all she had to do was marry the right man, but the story is far more interesting.

It starts just after the French Revolution, when in 1794 Desirée became engaged to a young soldier from Corse called Bonaparte, but the arrangement was broken off so that Desirée’s older sister, Julie, could marry him instead. A bad deal for Desirée? Not really, considering that the change was suggested by Bonaparte’s younger brother, who had his eye on Desirée himself – another soldier, very recently elevated to the status of general, whose first name just so happened to be Napoleon.

In another turn of events that ended up being a blessing in surprise, Napoleon soon abandoned Desirée to become involved with Josephine de Beauharnais, a wealthy and influential widow in the Parisian ‘set’. Throughout his life, though, he maintained a respect and affection for his one-time fiancée that would give her a unique position within the inner machinations of the French government.

Returning to Paris after a sojourn in Italy with her sister, Desirée soon found herself romantically linked to another French general, Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, who she married in 1798. Bernadotte was already a well-known and well-liked figure in the military before Napoleon’s rise to power, and was seen by many as the ideal alternative to the despotic Bonaparte. As the wife and ex-fiancee of these two powerful rivals, Desirée had to contend with both factions trying to use her as a political pawn.

Though Bonaparte hoped to end Bernadotte’s military and political influence in 1809, when he stripped the other man of the Marshal’s baton (and rank) that he had bestowed upon him in 1804, a healthy dose of karma helped to balance the scales again. Bernadotte’s benevolent treatment of some Swedish prisoners brought him to the attention of the aging, heirless King Charles XIII of Sweden, who eventually adopted him as his royal heir.

Thus Desirée became the Crown Princess, and inevitably, after the old King’s death in 1818, the Queen of Sweden and Norway. Finding the -20 weather that greeted her upon her first arrival in Sweden to be rather not to her taste, Desirée flatly refused to stay in her adopted kingdom and returned to Paris instead, where she remained for 12 years.

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Desirée as Queen Consort in 1822 (by Fredric Westin)

Whilst there, though her personal relationship with Bernadotte drifted into insignificance, she stayed in close contact with him so as to provide Sweden with the latest political news in Europe and France. By receiving important personages like Talleyrand and
Fouché
, and playing on her lingering intimacy with Napoleon, she helped to mediate political conflicts between the country of her birth and that of which she became Queen, despite a self-professed lack of interest in politics and government.

Though Desirée did eventually move permanently to Sweden in 1823, to remain until her death, the French habits and expectations that she clung to were at odds with Swedish culture, and she never truly adapted to – or was adopted by – the nation with the enthusiasm of her husband.

Woman of the Week: Elizabeth von Arnim (née Mary Annette Beauchamp)

avt_elizabeth-von-arnim_9068Born at Kirribilli Point, Australia in 1866 to British parents and the little-known cousin of New Zealand poet, Katherine Mansfield, Elizabeth von Arnim published her first semi-autobiographical book, Elizabeth and her German Garden, after her then-husband, Baron von Arnim, was imprisoned for fraud and debts. Despite claiming to have no taste for work, indeed, informing us that “There is nothing so absolutely bracing for the soul as the frequent turning of one’s back on duties,” (Elizabeth and her German Garden), from 1898 onwards, she had a reasonably prolific output of more than 20 books, often based heavily on her own life and experiences. Her irreverence towards the private nature of her relationship with her husband, or indeed to appropriate behaviour in general, as well as her disregard for the odd beliefs and biases about love and the sexes that pervaded her era, can be seen from the thick satire ubiquitous in her work.

“But there are no men here,” said Mrs. Wilkins, “so how can it be improper? Have you noticed,” she inquired of Mrs. Fisher, who endeavoured to pretend she did not hear, “How difficult it is to be improper without men?” (The Enchanted April, 1910)

With her first book becoming rapidly popular, Elizabeth was soon associating with the literary names of the time, becoming mistress to H.G. Wells for some years and including E.M. Forster among her children’s tutors. Throughout her life, though, Elizabeth’s cheerfully acknowledged misanthropy, so often alluded to in her work – “It is true she liked him most when he wasn’t there, but then she usually liked everybody most when they weren’t there.” (The Enchanted April) – allowed to be quite capable of contenting herself alone, and indeed she demonstrated her taste for independence with her frequent relocations throughout Europe. To travel so willingly and so much as a single mother was already notable, but showed the strength of her personality even more so when she moved to the United States after separating from her second husband, the second Earl Russell -who  was known colloquially as ‘the Wicked Earl’ due to being tried for bigamy and who she never officially divorced.

Elizabeth’s writing is filled with her original and somewhat cynical opinions on society and the various absurdities she observed within it, delivered with what became a signature style of wit – a kind of flippant satire that makes her characters feel intimately relatable, like a cheerful old friend. After all, who can disagree when Elizabeth warns of the danger of extended family?

“Oh, my dear, relations are like drugs, – useful sometimes, and even pleasant, if taken in small quantities and seldom, but dreadfully pernicious on the whole, and the truly wise avoid them.” (Elizabeth and her German Garden, 1898)

Even in death, Elizabeth entertains us, requesting an epitaph that read parva sed apta (‘small but apt’ in Latin), referencing her rather short stature. Sadly, however, in spite of her impelling honesty and famous friends, Arnim, who preferred to style herself simply as ‘Elizabeth’, though her birth name was in fact Mary Annette, has been largely forgotten by the reading public today.

Famous Works (freely available via Project Gutenberg):

Elizabeth and her German Garden, 1898
Vera, 1931

 

Woman of the Week: Artemisia Gentileschi

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Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (between 1638 and 1639 – Royal Collection, England)

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653) was internationally famous in her own time, despite the obvious prejudices of 17th century Europe, being invited personally to the court of English king Charles I and enjoying the patronage of Cosimo II de Medici. Today, she is academically recognised as one of the most accomplished painters of the period, but remains largely forgotten, instead of claiming her place in public knowledge among the likes of Rubens, Caravaggio, or even her father, Orazio Gentlileschi. The first female to be admitted to the prestigious Accademia delle Arti del Disegno, her fame was partly – and rightly – due to her fascinatingly expressive and skilful paintings, but also to her dramatic personal life, echoes of which reverberate throughout her work.

 

With her father already a famous painter who included Caravaggio, known for his introduction of chiaroscuro to the world of Renaissance painting among his close friends, it was natural that Artemisia began painting at an early age, with

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Susanna and the Elders (1610 – Schonbrön Collection, Pommersfelden)

her first major artwork, Susanna and the Elders, marking her debut onto the painting scene. She was just 17 when the canvas was finished, and already making a name for herse
lf with the controversial subject choice as much as her obvious talent. Unfortunately, she rose to notoriety shortly after for a rather more upsetting reason, when Agostino Tassi, a fellow artist hired to the tutor the young Artemisia, raped the still teenaged girl in her own house. The case went to trial, lasting a staggering seven months, and the entire transcription of the proceedings has been miraculously retained. In it, Artemisia states that she threw a knife at her assailant, shouting ‘I’d like to kill you with this knife because you have dishonoured me’. Eventually, Tassi was found guilty, but the experience, unsurprisingly, had a profound effect on Artemisia’s painting.

 

Many of her portraits are now interpreted as intensely autobiographical, with Artemisia favouring strong female characters from the Bible or popular mythology and depicting them with a sense of agency and emotion practically unseen at the time. One of her most famous pieces, Judith Slaying Holofernes, is largely accepted to represent Artemisia as Judith, finally exacting her revenge on Tassi in the form of Holofernes, an infamous general from the Old Testament. The grim determination of Judith as she saws off the head of a screaming but helpless Holofernes is one of the most chilling examples of Artemisia expressing herself, as a female in an incredibly male-dominated world, through Biblical allegory. Artemisia’s deviation from social expectations in her depiction of women shows, quite clearly, how she defied against a culture inclined to ignore her with the most powerful weapon she had – her art.

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Judith Slaying Holofernes (between 1614 and 1620 – National Museum of Capodimonte, Naples)