Monday, May 23, 2016

Apparently Marie Antoinette was into snaffling other people's kids

Uneducated opinions about the French Revolution, gleaned from novels and popular histories

I’ve recently read Antonia Fraser’s Marie Antoinette: the Journey. It’s a fairly hefty biography and the basis of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (you know, the one with Kirsten Dunst and that fabulous pastry-eating scene).

Fraser is very sympathetic towards the French royal family in the book. She almost considers them victims of chance rather than contributing in any way to their own demise (with the exception of their inability to flee Paris in a timely and non-farcical manner. She's pretty exasperated with some of their choices around that).

We all know that the French Revolution wasn’t caused by one single factor, but of course the attitudes and actions of royal family had an impact on the events that lead to their sticky end—yes, they inherited an antiquated court system that had been tinkered into bizarro-ness by Louis XIV, however check your privilege French royal family. Be more involved with your country! Be a little less the product of your time!

One thing does make my heart ache, for Marie Antoinette at any rate, was the royal couple’s apparent infertility (too close to home, perhaps). I do feel sorry for MA—especially as it seems as though she was a person who just loved children for their own sake, and craved their uncomplicated affection. 

Fraser attributes their seven years without conception to Louis XVI’s reluctance to *ahem* complete the act. She quotes the Austrian Emperor Joseph II to his brother Archduke Leopold:

Imagine, in his marriage bed—this is the secret—he has strong, perfectly satisfactory erections; he introduces his member, stays there without moving for about two minutes, withdraws without ejaculating but still erect, and bids goodnight… Nevertheless, the King is satisfied with what he does.

Les enfants de la Reine


The actual point of all this

How did MA deal with her lack of children? By lavishing attention on a series of small people that she co-opted at will.

Things were much more lax then in terms of adoption—especially if you had the cash. In her book, Fraser includes a slightly opaque reference to MA’s acquisition of a child called Jacques who she almost flattened with her carriage while riding through the countryside. Less than half a page reference that breezes over the topic! My interest was piqued.

This brief reference raises far more questions than it answers. What did Jacques think of this whole situation? What happened to him? I googled and found—a very little more information online. Mostly references to this passage from Madame Campan’s memoirs (Campan was part of MA’s household staff—and part of the economy in MA biographies that boomed immediately after her execution):

A little village boy, four or five years old, full of health with a pleasing countenance, remarkably large blue eyes, and fine light hair, got under the feet of the Queen's horses when she was taking an airing in a calash, through the hamlet of St. Michel, near Louveciennes. The coachman and postilions stopped the horses, and the child was rescued without the slightest injury. Its grandmother rushed out of the door of her cottage to take it; but the Queen, standing up in her calash and extending her arms, called out that the child was hers, and that destiny had given it to her, to console her, no doubt, until she should had the happiness of having one herself.

"Is his mother alive?" asked the Queen. "No, Madame; my daughter died last winter, and left five small children upon my hands." "I will take this one, and provide for all the rest.; "Do you consent?" "Ah, Madame, they are too fortunate," replied the cottager; "but Jacques is a bad boy. I hope he will stay with you!" The Queen, taking little Jacques upon her knee, said that she would make him used to her, and gave orders to proceed. It was necessary, however, to shorten the drive, so violently did Jacques, scream and kick the Queen and her ladies. The arrival of her ladies at her apartments at Versailles astonished the whole household; he cried out with intolerable shrillness that he wanted his grandmother, his brother, Louis, and his sister, Marianne; nothing could calm him.

He was taken away by the wife of a servant, who was appointed to attend him as a nurse. The other children were put to school. Little Jacques, whose family name was Armand, came back to the Queen two days afterwards; a white frock trimmed with lace, a rose-colored sash with silver fringe, and a hat decorated with feathers, were now substituted for the woolen cap, the little red frock, and the wooden shoes. The child was really very beautiful. The Queen was enchanted with him; he was brought to her every morning at nine o'clock; he breakfasted and dined with her, and often even with the King.

She like to call him my child and lavished caresses upon him, still maintaining a deep silence responding the regrets which constantly occupied her heart. The child remained with the Queen until the time when Madame was old enough to come home to her august mother, who had particularly taken upon herself the care of her education. This little unfortunate was nearly twenty in 1792; the incendiary endeavors of the people, and the fear of being thought a favored creature of the Queen, had made him a most sanguinary terrorist of Versailles. He was killed at the battle of Jemmapes.

So, what do we know: a tiny child was taken from his family, he cried and cried because he didn’t want to leave them, and later became a revolutionary. Also, apparently it’s ok to call a child “it” if they're very small and from an inferior social class.

It’s also reported that MA “provided" for the rest of Jacques’ family until the Revolution—including organising one of his brothers music lessons. All this is apparently covered in detail in a book I haven’t read, Marie-Antoinette by Marguerite Jallut and Philippe Huisman (Viking Press, 1971), and covered in the Marie-Antoinette blog Tea at Trianon.

What I’d really like to read is some information about this from the perspective of Jacques or his family, but I couldn’t find anything published or even reported. Yet another situation in recorded history where a real person brushes up against the wealthy and powerful—for a second a light shines on their life, and then they sink back into obscurity.

Bonus video of the best bit from the movie


Picture creditLouis XVI and Marie-Antoinette at the Entry of the Tapis Vert in the Gardens of Versailles, 1775 , by Hubert Robert.

Next time 

Something about food, probably.

SCP history (weeks of 1-23 May)

Edited for truly embarrassing entries of the kind written in the mid-2000s, for posts that have mysteriously lost their images, and for those where an embedded video has been pulled down from YouTube or Vimeo.


Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Watching the Titanic sink in real time


Screen Shot 2016 04 21 at 11 36 54 AM


On Thursday morning I found out that a video game company had made an elaborate 3D rendering of the Titanic sinking in real time—a full 2 hours and 40 minutes. The timing of the disaster and the dimensions and features of the ship itself are based on historic documents and oral testimonies (and I’m guessing: historical analysis of those documents and testimonies).

Because I am a giant history geek I decided that I would watch the entire thing while working from bed. AND I decided that since I was dedicating my time to this extremely valuable endeavour, I would give a little live blog rundown. 

The video-rendered Titanic is, as the linked article suggests, very Mary Celeste-esque: the company hasn’t (yet) created human figures to represent the crew and passengers.  So the captions describe what was happening on the boat at the time, while ghostly lifeboats are lowered into the sea and the ballrooms fill up with seawater. Sometimes there are distant shouts and screams (which I found quite macabre).

The breakdown

8.48am. I’m still in bed, the Titanic has hit the iceberg. Doesn’t appear to be slowing or stopping at all. Evidently they’ve all been moved to the port side (as per the request of a disembodied voice) but as there’s no human figures onboard the boat it’s rather hard to tell. We’re getting a very slow 360 view of the outside of the ship.

8.50am. The article said that the action was slow but the reality of watching this on and off all morning is just beginning to occur to me. Also: there really aren’t many lifeboats, are there? I mean, I knew that—but still, there is barely a handful on the boat.

8.54am. Crap, just missed a caption. But the noise of the engines has stopped and the ship itself appears to slowed… so I’m guessing it’s something to do with that (turning off the engines?).

8.56am. The caption notes that engines are half ahead now, so I think that noise will resume. Ooh, it’s quite a different noise… chugging. There’s some things next to the boat that I thought were tiny lifeboats but are actually supposed to represent wake.

8.58am. The new noise is eerie. Actually, the idea of a lone boat moving through a starry night—miles and miles away from any other people or land, an island of humanity as it were—feels quite eerie full stop. And that wake looks totally wacky. Caption tells me that almost 4,000,000 litres of water has entered the ship.

9.03am. Looking at the starboard side again, thought I’d be able to see the crack in the hull but apparently not. Is now a good time to have a shower? YouTube check: I read the first couple of comments and they confused me. Full of naval engineers arguing and someone complaining that they didn’t get to see anyone drowning? YouTube is truly the home of the worst of humanity.

9.15am. Boat has started to make a weird noise. I’m going to have a shower.

9.24am. I didn’t have a shower, I started doing some work instead (no pants, still in bed). Boat is definitely listing towards the starboard side, and the caption notes that the orchestra has started playing the lounge so I guess they’ve decided it’s all over? I’ve only seen Titanic once but I definitely remember that bit

9.27am. I’ve been watching this boat sink for half an hour now and there is no sign that any lifeboats have been launched.

9.42am. The camera appears to be zooming into the ship which is an extremely exciting development! The way the details are rendered is quite amazing.

9.44am. Swinging out the lifeboats! Finally! That’s one hour since the ship hit the iceberg FYI.

9.54am. Shitballs! The front of the ship is definitely sinking and the backend of the boat is lifting out from the water. The second lifeboat has been launched.

10.06am. Shots of the hallways filling up with water. Great foley sound (creaks, groans, water rushing etc).

10.11am. More interiors.

10.43am. The interiors are the best thing so far. I think the lights will blow out any second now. Very eerie watching the chairs tip backwards and realising that their position must mirror how they were found on the seabed.

10.56am. Aaah! Navigated away from YouTube by accident and thought I was going to have to find my place again, but it had been saved (thank goodness). Prow of boat well and truly swamped by now. Again, very eerie: this animation doesn’t have any people in it so I’m watching these scenes and imagining the pandemonium and screams and terror in my own head—which is probably more intense than it would be to just see someone else’s idea of it.

11.15am. 20 minutes left. This feels simultaneously as though it’s been going on forever and that it’s been happening for hardly any time at all. 

11.24am. Sinking very rapidly now. The silence continues to be the most disconcerting thing. 

11.29am. Smokestacks falling over and exploding spectacularly, suddenly lots of creaks and groans and explosions. The realisation that there were hundreds of people killed and that they’re trapped inside that sinking metal shell. SO SAD. When I saw Titanic at the movies aged 16 I cried and cried and cried because all those people drowned in a stupid, avoidable accident caused by hubris and arrogance. I left with my jacket over my head because I couldn’t stop sobbing. Natalie was embarrassed.

11.32am. Approximately 1500 people still on board the ship. The boat just broke in two and now there are lots of screams. It’s gone from completely silent and still and slow, to frantic and loud and—oh shit. Now sinking very fast. Imagine the speed needed for something that large to sink so quickly. 

11.34am. The boat is gone. And because there are no people or debris at all in this animation, it has totally completely and finally gone, the ocean just closed around the ship completely. Have I used the word eerie too much? It was very eerie.

Next time

My thoughts on Marie Antoinette’s penchant for snaffling other people’s children.

SCP history (week of 24-30 April)

Edited for truly embarrassing entries of the kind written in the mid-2000s, for posts that have mysteriously lost their images, and for those where an embedded video has been pulled down from YouTube or Vimeo.


Monday, April 18, 2016

Seasonal produce: the pear

"Seasonal produce" is a regular section from my newsletter, reconfigured here for your reading pleasure. I write it to ramp up my enthusiasm for eating seasonally—especially when I’m eating August swedes and dreaming of spring asparagus.

Pears cropped


Autumn rolls around, and once again we are eating fresh, seasonal pears (i.e. not the disappointing coldstore ones available later in the year with the creepy brown centres).

I don’t love pears. As a rule I prefer a crisp, slightly tart apple.

In making that bold generalisation I add the caveat that I think pears taste pretty nice as a rule. My main issue is that they jump too quickly from rock hard and tasteless, to so ripe they’re almost impossible to eat without getting covered in juice. There is a pear-eating sweet spot that’s pretty hard to hit.*

Shannon, on the other hand, loves pears, so they feature pretty regularly in our fruit bowl—which gave me somewhere to start when we had some people over for dinner the other week (our oven is kaput so my normal go-tos like pies or cakes were out of the question). I ended up making maybe the most delicious emergency dessert ever. Simple! Light! Flavours! Pears!**

Poached pears with cinnamon sour cream gelato

The gelato is incredibly easy: I’d had the recipe in my clearfile for at least a year, and found it again recently. It’s a matter of just mixing a bunch of stuff together and throwing it in the freezer and is very, very good. The recipe is from Pear Nuallak (who writes a rather wonderful food blog).

My original plan was to serve the gelato with some fresh berries—I was growing raspberries in our Wellington veggie patch and am somewhat obsessed. However, we are kind of broke at the moment, we already had the pears, and I remember seeing Nigella poaching some peaches one time which seemed pretty easy.

Cinnamon sour cream gelato

Recipe from Pear Nuallak

  • 1 can full-fat sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • Couple of pinches of sea salt
  • 300ml full-fat sour cream (I guesstimated this as in NZ we mostly have 250ml cartons of sour cream)

Whisk together the condensed milk, vanilla, cinnamon and salt. Add the sour cream and continue to mix until the whole melange is smooth and well-combined (I don’t think I did this terribly thoroughly as there were definitely parts of my gelato that were more “condensed milky” than others. Don’t be like me.).

Whack the whole lot in a container that can hold up to 1 litre, seal it, and put it in the freezer. Wait impatiently for 4ish hours until it’s frozen.

Poached cinnamon vanilla pears

Recipe adapted (slightly) from

  • 4 perfect brown pears (or, you know, whatever you’ve got)
  • lemon juice 
  • 1 cups sugar 
  • 3 cups water
  • vanilla bean, split, seeded
  • cinnamon quill

Mix the sugar and water in a pan that will hold the fruit and liquid fairly snugly. Heat gently-ish until the sugar is dissolved, then simmer for 5 minutes.

Meanwhile peel the pears, leaving the stalk on them if you can. Rub them all over with lemon juice (this helps to stop them going brown—but if you moved quickly you could probably leave this step out). Put the pears and whole spices into the sugar syrup, and gently cook the lot for 15-20 minutes, until the pears are tender. Make sure that the pears are cooked evenly by turning them in the liquid a couple of times.

Next step I missed out, but: take the pears out of the liquid, and continue to cook the syrup until it’s reduced by about a third.

Finally: serve the gelato and pears together with a little of the syrup. You could reheat the pears if you’d like, but I didn’t bother (too lazy). It was *dancing lady emoji*.

*Yes! There are lots of different kinds of pears. We seem to always end up with brown pears like Beurre Bosc though. I had a good experience with some little green crisp pears once but haven’t seen them since.

**In the event there was a delicious misunderstanding and our guests brought a delicious butterscotch nut pie-flan thing that was crazy delicious. We ate the pears and gelato over the last week. Much excellent, very recommend.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Notes: I am in Auckland

Death to stock communicate hands 3 Notes

It’s just over a year since I announced my blog break. In that year my father passed away, Shannon and I bought a house in Wellington, I went freelance, and we moved to Auckland (in that order). It’s been massive, and stressful, with very big highs and lows.

And here we are, three weeks after the move north... the novelty of Auckland is yet to wear off. I’m writing this from an exceptionally beautiful cafe around the corner from our house in Herne Bay, featuring many gorgeous pot plants in eclectic vessels. It’s all very artful and well staged, and makes me want to throw out everything I own and redecorate in the “deliciously distressed Hamptons beach house” style.

As for eats: the coffee I am drinking is ok, but weirdly acidic which is not so nice. I am not eating here because it’s really expensive moving city (quelle surprise) and at the moment I’m tilting towards saving and recouping our moving expenses, with some success I think.

Life grinds inexorably onwards

I’m currently knitting two socks on the same needle. I’m not sure what you’re supposed to do when you get to the heel, so I kind of fudged it and made a mess—I’m proud to say I was able to fix without doing too much damage. I like that I’m avoiding second sock syndrome, but really need to figure out how to turn heels with this new technique.

My kitchen here is great, so much better than the one in our house in Wellington (which will be first against the wall when the renovations come). It’s inspiring me to try new things and get excited—I want to get my Ferment on, so I’m sussing out kefir and kombucha cultures; I dug up a whole heap of recipes that I’d bookmarked and am slowly cooking my way through them; we are eating homemade bread again on the regular.

Finally: I’m hustling for work! I’m best at Plain Language web content writing and am looking for contracts or part time work. I’m keen to ghost-blog also. Let me know of any leads, or hit me up if you’re keen! All details are on my website.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

What I'm reading right now

"If I wish to believe that my infancy was an Idyll, I had better not remember any more of it." Troy Chimneys by Margaret Kennedy.
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