Posts Tagged ‘France’

The King’s Evil

Wednesday, November 5th, 2014

Hello, friends. Happy Guy Fawkes Day! I hope you’re celebrating with just the right combination of open flame and recreational explosives.

This week, my main blog post is over at the History Girls, where I write about the King’s Evil – another name for scrofula, a disfiguring swelling of the neck glands that was often linked to tuberculosis in the seventeenth century.

scrofula (image via wikicommons)

scrofula (image via wikicommons)

What has this to do with the king – and the young Samuel Johnson? Head over to the History Girls, to find out!

Bookmark and Share

Research thrills

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

Hello, friends. I’ve been reading Nicholas Shakespeare’s Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France. It’s a hard thing to categorize: a book encompassing fragments of a memoir, many elements of biography, and a tightly focused history of France during the Nazi Occupation. It’s completely gripping and extremely well told.

Priscilla, by Nicholas Shakespeare

The aspect that I want to focus on this week, however, is how so much of Shakespeare’s insight into his aunt’s life is the result of a series of happy coincidences. He begins the book with his childhood memories of Priscilla, his glamorous aunt with a mysterious past. She’d been married to a minor French aristocrat, lived in France under the Vichy government, and spent time in an internment camp. She was clearly scarred by those years, and nobody in the family spoke of them or questioned her directly.

After she died in 1982, Shakespeare continued asking questions but received few answers. There was a box of intriguing but inconclusive photographs and letters. It revealed that Priscilla had been adored by many men, but not who these men were or what kind of role they’d played in her life – and the larger history through which they’d all lived.

Years, and then decades, passed. One day at the Bodleian Library, writes Shakespeare, “I was in the final stage of putting to bed an edition of Bruce Chatwin’s letters, a project which had occupied me intermittently since 1991, when I noticed a reference to a Sutro Collection, recently catalogued and stored in the same building. In no real spirit of expectation, I pulled out the catalogue and saw that the Sutro archive had been bequeathed by Gillian [Sutro, Priscilla’s lifelong best friend]; further, three specific boxes related to my aunt.”

Do you see the extraordinary string of coincidence and happenstance at play, here? Nicholas Shakespeare happened to be working on the Chatwin letters. He happened to notice (how?) a reference to a Sutro Collection (a distinctive name, especially in England). The Sutro Collection happened to have been recently catalogued. It happened to be stored in the same building (the Special Collections Room of the Bodleian Library) in which Shakespeare was presently at work.

But the gifts of fortune continue! Shakespeare ordered up the boxes and found more harmless letters and photographs from before and after the war. “Interesting, I thought, but nothing more, and opened the second box, which was full of red and yellow notebooks. Then I read my name.”

Did your hair just stand on end? Mine did! Shakespeare explains that he’d mentioned his aunt’s wartime history in a magazine article in 1992. Gillian Sutro had read the article. In it, a factual error on Shakespeare’s part acted like a detonator on Sutro’s memory and emotions. It forced her to rethink her entire relationship with her lifelong best friend; made her re-sift the evidence of their conversations after 1941; and impelled her to interview others in their circle, to uncover what had really happened.

Shakespeare says, “For three months, I read and transcribed Gillian’s notebooks. Again and again, I had the freakish impression of being taken by the wrist and led down, through a procession of unlocking doors, into the cellars beneath one of the most fascinating and yet, in spite of all the literature on it, incompletely explored moments of the twentieth century – a period over which France continues to draw firm bolts: ‘Four years to strike from our history,” is how the French still refer to it. Because what Gillian had written down was the other half of the key.”

I love this analogy of “being taken by the wrist and led down… into the cellars”. It inspires the precise blend of excitement, helplessness, and foreboding that I recognize from my own (considerably less deus ex machina) research work. It’s one of the best things I know.

How about you, readers? Have you had comparable – or wildly different – moments in your own research?

Bookmark and Share

Monsters of entitlement

Wednesday, November 14th, 2012

Hello, friends. I’ve been reading a light, slick, funny book of cultural observation and enjoying it very much. And it’s a – gasp! – parenting book. Doesn’t that seem like a contradiction in terms?

It’s Bringing Up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman (in the UK, it’s called French Children Don’t Throw Food). It was published earlier this year, to a predictable squawk of gossip, defensiveness, and some reluctant concessions that Anglo-American parenting is imperfect. (This review is somewhat typical – much more about the reviewer’s own experience than about the book.) It seems that we don’t like to think about a parenting culture that’s not “child-centred”.

What I loved about this book (and which I haven’t yet seen mentioned in a review) is Druckerman’s distillation of what seems to underlie what she calls French parenting. It is the assumption that babies are small people with an immense capacity to learn, right from the beginning. Amazing! Druckerman traces this attitude all the way back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 1762 book Emile, or On Education.

In practice, this means that instead of reorganizing their lives around children’s desires, French parents start to teach children how to be rational members of a society from a very early age. Instead of “discipline”, they talk about “education”; instead of “development”, they use the term “awakening”. They take pride in being strict. They allow children immense freedom within a strong framework of rules. They speak politely to babies, because babies are individuals, too.

To me, this doesn’t sound uniquely French. As my friend S at Waldorf Yarns observes, it’s familiar to Waldorf parents (S gives a sample list). S also theorizes, “I can’t help but wonder if some of what is presented as ‘the French’ way of parenting may be European and may have infused into Waldorf education before it was transplanted into our corner of North America.” I’d just add that Druckerman’s “French” parenting also sounds a lot like Maria Montessori’s philosophy of education. It’s no accident: both Waldorf and Montessori education  are founded upon the idea of respect for the child.

As you can tell, I’m a believer. Do I think French parenting (or any single method or ideal) is perfect? Mais non, pas du tout! But it’s a beautiful, rational, and sane starting position that gives me hope that we can raise thoughtful, compassionate citizens, not monsters of entitlement.

Bookmark and Share

A Walk in the Void & Kat, Incorrigible

Thursday, April 7th, 2011

Hello friends! This month, Mondadori publishes the Italian edition of the second Agency novel. It’s called La Detective. Passeggiata nel vuoto, which translates to The Detective: A Walk in the Void. I really, really, really wish I could read Italian.

Here’s the cover:

And the full dustjacket:

What do you think?

I also have a few lovely announcements. Some French readers have asked when the third Mary Quinn novel (The Traitor and the Tunnel in English; I don’t know what the French title will be), will be published by Nathan. There’s no firm date yet, but it’ll be early in 2012. Hurray! I’ll update this as soon as I have a date for you.

This month, The Body at the Tower is the Rutgers University Project on Economics and Children‘s Book of the Month! Their review is here.

Deborah Sloan just told me that A Spy in the House is on the Bank St College of Education’s 2011 Best Books List! If you’re curious, their picks are here (as downloadable PDFs), grouped by age. Spy is on the 14 and up list.

And finally, a truly fantastic announcement that’s not about me or my books: Stephanie Burgis‘s debut novel, Kat, Incorrigible, is published this week in North America! Huzzah!

I’ve raved about Steph’s novel before. If you love Jane Austen, magick, sly wit, and sibling solidarity, you will adore Kat’s adventures. But don’t just take my word for it – read the first three chapters here! Congratulations, Steph!

Bookmark and Share

Performances and translations

Thursday, December 9th, 2010

Isn’t life great? Sometimes, you just get an email out of the blue telling you stuff that makes you squeal with surprise and delight.

The audiobook editions of A Spy in the House and The Body at the Tower are now on sale! They’re performed by Justine Eyre, who has an absolutely beautiful voice.

And finally! The French edition of the second Mary Quinn novel, The Agency: Le meurtre de l’horloge, will also be published in February. I was wondering what they’d call it.

The second Mary Quinn novel

I think The Clock Murder works very nicely indeed. And I thoroughly approve of the orange. What do you think?

Bookmark and Share

Le pendentif de jade

Thursday, May 13th, 2010

Hello friends,

On Tuesday, I finished the first full draft of the third MQ novel, The Traitor and the Tunnel. (*weak cheer*) Consequently, my brain most resembles a smallish bowl of cooling tapioca. Today I’ll confine myself to announcing that yesterday was the official pub date for the French edition of A Spy in the House. Here’s the cover:

As you can see, they’ve changed the title to The Jade Pendant. I like that the series is still called The Agency, and not L’agence. What do you think?

Bookmark and Share