Uninhibited History

Various ramblings, musings, film reviews and fantasies of a couple of history geeks and their guests

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Twisting History

The course of history is marked by a series of turning points—the most important actions of an age; the moments and decisions that caused a country, group of people or even an individual to change in an important way. We learn history in school that way too, with the development of civilization broken into eras and punctuated with seminal issues and events. But authors, given to asking, “What if…?” sometimes are tempted to tinker with the past and by doing so create a new or appreciable different timeline.
Alternate histories, in fact.
This often neglected sub-genre of romance in particular has undergone a bit of resurgence recently with the advent of Steampunk, where authors ask, “What if the Victorians had more advanced, steam driven machinery?” But there are so many other ways this thought process can be used to create exciting and intriguing worlds for characters to inhabit. Below are a few examples of some interesting questions that could lead to a completely different world than the one we know or read about in the history books.
What if the Persians had won at the Hot Gates?
What if Boudicca had won against the Romans?
What if Christianity had never taken root?
What if the Roman Empire hadn’t fallen?
What if Hitler had conquered England?
What if the British had defeated the Americans during the Revolution?
What if Texas had become a country?
What if the Irish branch of the Catholic Church had triumphed over the Roman branch?

The list is endless, and each question leads to more questions, until a writer can make herself crazy just thinking about the ramifications! The trick is, I think, to make whatever you’ve changed make sense. Some authors can get away with simply saying, “In my world, this is what is happening. Don’t ask me why, or to explain how—just accept it,” but most readers need a little more. Usually, it helps to start with the “What if…?” question and move forward, but sometimes characters and situations can just jump into your head fully formed, and then comes the hard part—figuring why they ended up the way they did. What changed in the past to bring them to the place they are at the time the novel starts?

In Beyond Prudence I imagined a one-two blow to England, with an influenza-type disease following a few years of drought and poor harvests decimating the population—in particular the women. The rich have used their money and influence to spur development of the machinery necessary to uphold their rather indolent lives. Also, because of scarcity, women of the higher classes are considered assets to be protected. When William Foreman, son of an unmarried tannery worker, meets the Honourable Prudence Hastings, he knows there can never be anything between them. Prudence, who has already experienced the vagaries of life, has her work cut out convincing him otherwise!

It was a great deal of fun imagining the world and—because it is, at heart, fantasy—peopling it with automatons with as much personality as the humans! Personally, I’d like to see more books in this kind of vein, but then I’m also the person who likes historical romances set in unusual places or times. The trick is not to overwhelm me with so much erroneous detail I feel like I’m reading a history book, but give me enough to make the era or setting come alive. And, of course, still give me a love story that will make me sigh happily.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Interesting Women in History: Marie Bonaparte

Interesting Women in History

I love discovering the lives of women who forged their own paths, and in this post I’d like to introduce you to Princess Marie Bonaparte.
“Bah,” I hear you say, “Not another royal!”
But wait…Princess Marie, great-grandniece of Napoleon I, was definitely not a traditional princess.
As a descendant of one of Napoleon I’s disinherited brothers she had no claim to the French imperial throne, but inherited great wealth from her maternal grandfather, who was one of the principal developers of Monte Carlo. She married Prince George of Greece and Denmark (uncle of HRH Prince Phillip, Elizabeth II’s consort) in 1907, towards the end of La Belle Epoché, that time of peace and prosperity that died with the advent of World War I.
I first became aware of Princess Marie when I was researching the work of sculptor Constantine Brancusi and came across his series of sculptures, Princess X. This was Brancusi’s vision of Princess Marie, and consisted of a stylized penis.
You know I had to find out more about this woman.
As it turned out, Princess Marie was a woman who enjoyed her sexuality and is rumoured to have had diverse affairs after her marriage. But, because of the prevailing ideas that masturbation and clitoral stimulation led to mental imbalance and the only good orgasm was a vaginal one, she felt unfulfilled and worried about her ‘frigidity.’ She began to do research and decided that women whose clitorises were closer to the vagina were most likely to achieve orgasm during intercourse (which seems to be defined as having sex in the missionary position.) Women with a greater distance between the two were less likely to have vaginal orgasms. She then went ahead and had surgery moving her clitoris closer to her vagina, not once, but twice! OUCH!
Now I understood—Brancusi’s sculptures seem to encapsulate her obsession with sex and her need to achieve vaginal orgasm.
Apparently the operations didn’t solve her problem, and she became involved in the world of psychoanalysis, eventually consulting with Freud and being mentored by him. She was instrumental in arranging Freud’s ransom from the Nazis, and was a well-respected practitioner of psychoanalysis until her death in 1962.
Princess Marie Bonaparte was very much a product of her time, but took the prevailing mores one step further, turning her intellectual prowess towards solving what she saw as a wide-spread problem. She was at the forefront of the development of psychoanalysis and was, I’m sure, a great inspiration for women of the era and those that came afterwards. Even if I can’t agree with her methods, times having changed as they have, I find myself agreeing with her when she said:
On the one hand, then, in the reproductive functions proper—menstruation, defloration, pregnancy and parturition—woman is biologically doomed to suffer. Nature seems to have no hesitation in administering to her strong doses of pain, and she can do nothing but submit passively to the regimen prescribed. On the other hand, as regards sexual attraction, which is necessary for the act of impregnation, and as regards the erotic pleasures experienced during the act itself, the woman may be on an equal footing with the man.”
Amen, your highness. Amen!