Sunday, 16 January 2011

The daring Mademoiselle Desjardins

Marie-Catherine de Villedieu, born Mademoiselle Desjardins, is a writer whose work is being revived today. She is largely known for her rather daring (and, for the time, erotic) semi-autobiographical novel Mémoires de la vie d'Henriette-Sylvie de Molière

She led a scandalous life, without a doubt, running off with a married man (Monsieur Villedieu) and living not only to tell the tale, but to crow about it.

She has shown up several times in the biographical historical novel I'm writing now. In some historical accounts Desjardins/Villedieu is accused of dealings with the poisoner Voisin, and—since she's also accused of being my heroine's good friend—implicating my heroine (Mademoiselle Claude des Oeillets) into the bargain.

Wrong on both counts, which shows how tricky historical research can be. The Madame de Villedieu who had dealings with the poisoner was the original Villedieu, the wronged wife, and the so-called friend was my heroine's cousin.

Working on my third draft, Marie Dejardins showed up yet again in Claude's life, in fact as well as fiction. Claude's mother, Alix, was a theatrical star (something of a Meryl Streep rather than a Marilyn Monroe). After Alix is headhunted by the Theatre of the Bourgogne—the serious theatrical troupe in mid-17th century Paris—the first play they put on is Manlius, a tragicomedy by  . . .  guess who? Marie Dejardins/Villedieu.

There are two rather amazing things about this:

The first is that Marie was only twenty-two at the time. The youngest member of the Bourgogne troupe was over ten years her senior. As the author of the play, she would have been calling the shots, from casting through rehearsals to production. 

The second amazing thing, of course, is that she was not only young, but female. A playwright? This was almost unheard of. 

Her work is being revived, reprinted, translated and studied today. I may, someday, write about her, and if I do, I should like the image below—"Lucrezia as Poetry" by Salvator Rosa— to be the cover. It's not the prim, fat-cheeked young woman shown in the etching above, but it's rather how I imagine her—a spunky young woman of twenty-two who dared produce a tragicomedy in a male-dominated world.

Sandra Gulland


Sunday, 9 January 2011

The Dreaming

Several years ago I read a story about witch trials in Virginia. Surprisingly, most of the trials predated Salem. Except for some people who live in the coastal region of the state, few realize that Virginia was the first to hold witch trials on the North American continent.

Those stories became a journey for me. One that I had no idea where it might lead, but I think that's true with most writers. Not only were the Virginia trials overshadowed by Salem, but few records have survived to modern times. Thanks to the American Civil War, many of the 17th-century records were burned during the 19th century (another area of history that I know very well!).

Unlike Salem, only one woman was recorded to have been executed. But how many records were lost? No one will ever know. The journey of writing my story led me to read more about England where the colonists originated from. Fellow Hoyden, Mary Sharratt shared some of her research and introduced me to Emma Wilby and her wonderful book Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic.

With an anthropology degree, I have always been intrigued by shamans. Wilby's book hit an instant chord with me, but historians disagree whether the cunning folk ever reached the American shores. I dug deeper. Two of the Virginia trials sounded very much like the accused were cunning women. Between that possibility and the fact that cunning folk were very common in the 17th century, I had a basis for my story. Yet, something was missing.

When the colonists first arrived on the Virginia shores, the land was already inhabited. Besides the John Smith/Pocahontas myth, I knew nothing about the Powhatan people. In my pursuit to learn more, not only did I read books, but I visited the historic sites. Jamestown is the original site where the colonists made the first permanent English settlement in North America, and Jamestown Settlement is a living history park where the 17th century comes alive. The Citie of Henricus is also a living history park portraying the second English settlement. Like Jamestown Settlement, it includes how the Indians of the time lived, but unlike Jamestown, Henricus did not survive Opechancanough's organized attacks in 1622. Also on my stops, I included visits to the Pamunkey and Mattaponi museums. The paramount chief Powhatan was a member of the Pamunkey tribe, and his daughter, Pocahontas was Mattaponi (the Algonquian speaking tribes of Virginia traced their lineage through the women). These two tribes were part of the Powhatan chiefdom and still live on reservations in Virginia to this day.

After four years of researching and writing, I was drawn into a world that I could have never imagined. In my story, The Dreaming: Walks Through Mist I have blended modern times with fantasy and the 17th century. As many of the tribal people teach, my path has taken me along a circle, leading me home. Now my journey is complete.

I look forward to seeing where my next journey leads.

Kim Murphy


Sunday, 2 January 2011

Murder in Pall Mall

Thomas Thynne

Thomas Thynne, the eldest son of Sir Thomas Thynne and his wife Stuarta, inherited Longleat House and the family's estates at the age of 22. His nickname of 'Tom ' Ten Thousand' was derived from the fact he was believed to have an income of £10,000 per annum, making him richer than most peers.

Thomas spent his money on his own pleasure, dressing like a Restoration rake, sporting 'a grey wide-briimmed hat, silk shirts and stockings ... a lace embridered waiscoat, blavk velvet breeches and a green frock coat', all topped off with his signature piece, a gold-fringed scarf seven yards long. He once acquired 168 pounds of gold in one year, and presumably spent it.

After Oxford, he joined the entourage of the Catholic James Stuart, Duke of York, but quarrelled with him and switched allegiance to the rival camp of Protestant James Scott, Duke of Monmouth and became a member of the Green Ribbon Club. Thomas spent most of his time at his London house in Cannon Row, leaving his Wiltshire estates in the hands of agents while he toured London's brothels and gaming houses with Monmouth.

Thomas took a leading role in the Exclusion Crisis of 1679-1681 which attempted to exclude the Duke of York from the succession. Thomas was one of the ten lords and ten commoners who proposed that the Duke of York should be brought before the grand jury of Middlesex as a papist. As a result, and enraged Charles II deprived Thomas of his command of the Wiltshire militia.

Thomas married Elizabeth Percy, a fifteen-year-old heiress of the Earl of Northumberland. She was already an extremely rich widow, having married Henry Cavendish, Earl of Ogle at the age of thirteen, who died within the year. Elizabeth had remained with her grandmother at Petworth so it was almost certain that the marriage was never consummated.

Thomas promised to grant Elizabeth an allowance of £2,000 a year, and during the course of the wedding ceremony in July 1681, with the pronouncement of the words, 'With all my worldly goods I thee endow', he produced a bag holding one hundred gold guineas which his bride promptly wrapped in her handkerchief and stuffed it down the front of her dress.

Reluctant to shut herself away in Longleat House now she had escaped the clutches of her grandmother, the dowager Countess of Northumberland, Elizabeth went to the Netherlands with Lady Dorothy Temple, the wife of William Temple, while Thomas spent the intervening time gaining control of his wife's property despite the protests of many of her relations.
Lady Elizabeth Percy

In the Hague Elizabeth met John Philip Köningsmark, a Swedish Count, adventurer and serial seducer of impressionable women. Having succeeded in making Elizabeth his latest conquest, Köningsmark twice issued Thomas Thynne a challenge to fight a duel through his steward, Captain Christopher Vratz. Thomas declined, but it is said to have sent his own party of six men to France to murder Köningsmark, or at least forcibly dissuade him from further contact with his wife.

Undaunted by their failure, in February 1682 both Köningsmark and Vratz arrived in England, and together with the count's groom, a Pole named George Boroski, and a Swedish mercenary John Stern met at a tavern in Whitehall. Whilst Thomas's carriage travelled down the Pall Mall, where he had gone to pay a call on Elizabeth’s grandmother, Vratz seized the horses and forced the carriage to stop, while Boroski fired his blunderbuss at Thomas Thynne. Stern was too drunk to take any direct part in the murder, but fled the scene.

Wounded in four places, Thomas and rushed to his house in Cannon Row. Monmouth and Thomas’ friends were summoned attended his bedside when he died at six the following morning.

The magistrate John Reresby conducted an investigation, and all three men were taken before King Charles II. Vratz admitted that he had been employed by Köningsmark, but claimed that the intention was only to force Thomas to fight a duel and that Boroski had misinterpreted his instructions. Boroski in turn swore that Vratz had ordered him to kill Thynne, whilst Stern pleaded that he had no knowledge of either the planned duel or the murder and had simply the misfortune to be in the company of Vratz when the deed was done.

Count Köningsmark was apprehended a week later at Gravesend by Monmouth's steward, where he had been trying to obtain passage home to Sweden. He was briefly examined before the king and council and again by the Lord Chief Justice Francis Pemberton, before being committed to Newgate with the others conspirators.

Vratz, Stern and Boroski were charged with murder, while Köningsmark was charged as an accessory before the fact. His cohorts were all found guilty, but Köningsmark was acquitted. The judge, the Lord Chief Justice Francis Pemberton, condemned the three conspirators but favoured Köningsmark during the trial at the Old Bailey, and directed the jury to acquit him. Reresby claims he had been offered (and declined) a bribe and John Evelyn said that Köningsmark 'was acquitted by a corrupt jury'. 

Vratz, Stern and Boroski were sentenced to be hanged at Pall Mall at the scene of the murder. Vratz faced his fate with stoicism and asked to be excused the customary blindfold; 'Never man went so unconcerned for his fate' wrote John Evelyn. Boroski shook with fear, whilst Stern verged on hysteria. As the man who had pulled the trigger, Boroski's corpse was hung in chains at the Mile End Road as the customary warning, Stern's remains were quietly buried, whilst Vratz's corpse was embalmed and returned to Germany in a lead-lined coffin 'too magnificent for so daring and horrid a murderer' according to Evelyn.

Elizabeth Thynne did not marry Köningsmark, who was killed in 1687 at the Siege of Argos fighting the Turks. Instead she married Charles Seymour, 6th Duke of Somerset, known as ‘The Proud Duke’ who was rumoured never to have addressed his wife by her given name.

Thomas Thynne’s remains were interred at Westminster Abbey in a marble tomb. Beneath his recumbent figure flanked by a prancing cherub, a bas-relief panel depicts a representation of the scene of his murder at Pall Mall.
Thomas Thynne's Tomb in Westminster Abbey
An anonymous verse circulated soon after his death;
Here lies Tom Thynne of Longleat Hall
Who never would have miscarried,
Had he married the woman he lay withal
Or laid with the woman he married.