Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Cinderella and the Glass Slipper

On March 13, Disney releases its new re-telling of this classic tale.  As an unabashed Disney fan, I look forward to it with great anticipation. Also, I love alternative re-tellings (Wicked, Maleficent, etc.) I hope to go on opening night with a large group, either in costume or in pyjamas.

I thought this would be a good time to air my beef with Stephen Fry. Well, I suppose he just reads the cards the QI elves give him, but whenever he says something wrong, I feel I have to dispute it at least to my readers. Please note that I actually adore Stephen Fry and his show. I'm just a bit uppity and excitable when it comes to historical trivia.

In one episode of QI, Mr. Fry states that Cinderella never wore a glass slipper, that this was a translation error and that the slipper was made of squirrel fur. This, he suggests, is because of the homophony of the words "vair" and "verre" in French, the language in which the most popular version of the story was first written. Note that this is the version on which is based the Disney cartoon film, which is (surprisingly for Disney) really rather faithful to the tale on which it is based.

I did a bit of research on this question, and I am convinced that Mr. Perrault, who first included the glass slipper in his telling "Cendrillon" in 1697, intended that it be a glass slipper, not a fur one. Here are my reasons, for your consideration:

1. The word in the story is written "verre." It appears numerous times in the story, and is always spelled this way, which means "glass." It never appears as "vair" or "fur."

2. There is no evidence Perrault did not know how to spell. He does not have a history of confusing the spelling of words with their homophones. By all accounts he was a very learned and erudite guy. Although spelling in the 17th Century was more flexible than it is now, there is no evidence that I am aware of that "verre" was ever an acceptable orthographic variation of "verre." Furthermore, where multiple spellings are acceptable, one usually finds that the word is spelled in different ways within a particular manuscript. Jane Austen, for example, uses both "friend" and "freind" in her books. Only "verre" is used by Perrault in Cendrillon.

3. I have not been able to find any contemporary illustrations for the Perrault story, but at least this one, done in 1862 by Gustave Dore (there should be an accent aigue above the "e" but I can't do one in this program), shows what looks to me like a glass slipper, suggesting that  at least19th Century folk, in France where Perrault first wrote and published his version of the story, believed it was made of glass.

4. One of the reasons for believing that there was a confusion between "vair" and "verre" in this story is that it seems ridiculous to have a slipper made of glass, whereas a slipper made of fur makes perfect sense. Need I remind these people that this is a fairy tale? Everything about it is ridiculous. They make a carriage out of a pumpkin. Perrault was renowned for his creativity. He was practically (though not actually) the founder of the fairy tale as we know it. There is no reason to exclude the possibility of a certain element of a fairy tale because it is fantastical. See my reasons below as to why glass actually makes more sense than fur.

5. The qualities of glass fit the story. Glass, in the 17th Century, was very precious. In the Grimm version of the story, the slipper is made of gold, reinforcing the notion that it was made of a precious material. Furthermore, the very fragile nature of glass fits the ephemeral idea of magical garb that lasts only one night. Also, any lady wearing a slipper of glass must be very graceful and dainty, or they will break the slipper. This implies that Cinderella was all these things, which is consistent with the nature of her character. Unlike fur, glass has absolutely no give. It does not stretch. It would have to mould to the foot in order to fit. Given that only Cinderella can fit the slipper, it makes sense that an inflexible material, like glass, suits the plot of the story better than fur, which might stretch and bend to fit another lady's foot.

I don't know whether I have convinced you or not, or whether the elves at QI might ever reconsider their position, but this is how I came to my own conclusion about the glass slipper. I hope the new Disney film delivers, and is at least as entertaining as this blog post!

Some of my favourite people, on the set of QI, in fitting costumes for the subject of Cinderella

Melanie Kerr is the author of Follies Past: a Prequel to Pride and Prejudice

Sunday, 15 February 2015

The Regency comes to Calgary, May 16, 2015

On September 28 last year, Edmonton saw its first Regency costume ball, which took place in the sumptuous Wedgwood Room of the Hotel MacDonald, which is actually a certified castle. To own the truth, I think of it as my castle. It isn't. I just feel an affinity towards it. For pictures and details, see my post about that event, which was so popular, we had to do it all over again to accommodate those who couldn't get tickets. 

Dancing in the sumptuous Wedgwood Room at the Michaelmas Ball

We are currently in the midst of dance lessons for the Regency Midwinter Ball taking place again at the Hotel Mac, on February 28.

Dance lessons begin for the Midwinter Ball

If you missed that as well, or if you simply cannot get enough Regency loveliness, then have I got news for you! I am bringing the show south to Calgary, where we will repeat it all, this time at the Palliser, in the Alberta Ballroom, which might be the only venue in the province that could rival the Mac's Wedgwood Room. Tickets at www.RegencyEncounters.com.

Alberta Ballroom at the Palliser Hotel

For the benefit of the uninitiated, let me tell you how it works, and how I came to hatch this plan. I have been to several Regency events, particularly costume balls, and while I enjoyed myself tremendously, those events were all in England and we cannot always hop on a plane for the sake of an evening's revelry. Furthermore, I wanted to do things differently.

Dancing at the Jane Austen Ball in Bath, England
One think I always felt was underdeveloped was the actual dancing. There were hundreds of people at the ball, and though there was a workshop offered in advance to learn the dances, we learned more than 5 dances in an hour and a half, and then spent the ball reviewing them and never really got to dance. I wanted to hold a ball at which people came knowing the dances already, so we could all just dance, as they would have in Jane Austen's time. I wanted the dances to last long enough to really get going. In the old days, a single dance could last as long as half an hour. Mine last about 10 minutes, which is long enough to work out the kinks, and for most people to make it at least once down the set.

So, for that reason, I offer 3 dance lessons leading up to the ball, to teach and practice the dances fully. Everyone comes knowing the steps, and recognizing many of the faces of the other guests. I like to think this gives an air of authenticity to the experience.

Some of our guests posing for the camera at the Michaelmas Ball
In Calgary, the lessons will take place at 5400 Dalhousie Drive, NW, on April 26, May 3 and May 10. You can register for the lessons at www.RegencyEncounters.com.

I also have a rule against cel phones and cameras at the ball. I always find it impossible to suspend my disbelief of time travel when people are texting and taking selfies all around me. Also, one wants to have a splendid visual record of the event, and being someone who is terrible at photography, and always forgets to take pictures, I never walk away with anything like the images I would like to take with me. 

So, I hire a professional photographer to take everyone's portrait, in their costume, as they arrive, and to take photographs throughout the evening. That way we all get to see ourselves looking our best, and there is only one discreet professional intruding with modern technology on our evening of make-believe.

I have a few gowns that I hire out, and I have posted videos to my YouTube channel showing people how to create a Regency costume out of regular clothing. Costume is mandatory, though flexible. I order a stock of long white gloves for the ladies and stockings  for the gentlemen, which guests can purchase, as they are both difficult to find. Plus I have a few gowns which I rent out to guests who are in a bind about their dress.

Showing some of my gowns to guests at the dance lessons for the Midwinter ball
I recommend people in Edmonton to the Theatre Garage for costume rentals, but do not know of a good costume rental shop in Calgary. Please comment below if you do.

Please share the word about this event. It is going to be tremendous fun, and a lot less expensive than a trip to England.

Melanie Kerr is the author of Follies Past: a Prequel to Pride and Prejudice

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Monday, 9 February 2015

Mr. Darcy was actually a plumber

Well, maybe it would be more accurate to say he was a pipeline engineer. My brother is also a pipeline engineer, and when I asked him about this, he acknowledged that, indeed, Mr. Darcy is integral  to pipelines everywhere.

I do not, of course, mean Fitzwilliam Darcy, of Pemberley, and indeed, the character was created before the engineer became known. It is just a bit of trivia to get your attention. But something I did learn at a talk by Beatrice Nearey at the Edmonton Library, is that there was running water in London in the time of Jane Austen, which I found surprising.

I recall watching the Forsyte Saga miniseries in 2003 (which, by the way, is possibly the best miniseries ever made and stars Damian Lewis in possibly the best performance ever given, making me resent that his rise to fame came from Homeland when I had been singing his praises for over a decade. Also, Homeland is excellent and I really like it, but I only watched it because it has Soames Forsyte in it.)

There is a scene in which the character Irene goes into the bathroom, gets in the tub and turns on a tap.

When I first saw this, I wondered about the historical accuracy of a Victorian having running water. It seems it was not only possible but quite likely. By the late Victorian period in which the book is set, Mr. Darcy had long established his pressurized water system in France. And Soames Forsyte was a man of Property and lived in Montpelier Square, which was quite posh.

At one point, water was piped in to London from Hertfordshire through the hollowed-out trunks of trees by the New River Company. I wonder how this could possibly be effective, but I am told it was done. The water only went to the most well-to-do houses, such as those in Montpelier Square, and ran for a total of 24 hours per week.

By Jane Austen's time, there were several water companies, such as Chelsea Water Works, distributing water in London. Normal people got their water from the Thames through a distribution system that was, at least at one time, made of lead.

At one point along the New River, the water was used to flood a large theatre for something called Aqua Drama, or Aquatic Theatre. This was a sort of entertainment in which naval events were staged on massive water tanks for the enjoyment of the paying public. They had actual ships made by actual shipbuilders, albeit on a smaller scale, but that were actually capable of firing real guns - inside the theatre. I do not know if anyone was ever killed in these enactments. It would not surprise me. The idea came from the ancient Romans, was revived in Medieval England, and apparently returned again to amuse the Georgians.

Aqua Drama in action

Melanie Kerr is the author of Follies Past: a Prequel to Pride and Prejudice

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Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Wolf Hall and The Lamentable Monotony of Anne Boelyn

There is a third episode of Wolf Hall. My skin is itching to watch it, but I promised my husband I would wait for him so we could watch it together. We just started watching it this week. At first I thought hey, didn't they make this show already? Wasn't it called The Tudors? But friends, this time Henry VIII is played by my darling Damian Lewis, of Forsyte Saga fame. (Yes, he was also in Homeland, but that is for me forever eclipsed by the unimpeachable perfection of his performance as Soames Forsyte). And while watching Wolf Hall, every few minutes one of us will spontaneously remark, "This is SO much better than The Tudors!"

I don't mean to bash The Tudors too much, because I did enjoy it for what it was, and it really pioneered a new approach to costume dramas, which I appreciate. But I do find that shows since have really taken the whole gritty reality of history thing to entirely unnecessary levels. How bloody can we make the violence, and how raunchy the sex, and how filthy the peasants, while maintaining the smooth skin and perfect teeth of the romantic leads? I cite The Borgia, Pillars of the Earth and Marco Polo as examples, especially Marco Polo: "For your first challenge, you must pass through this this den of writhing, naked sex workers without giving in to temptation."

So, the Tudors was fun in the way it sort of spiced up history and got folks interested in the fact that people had sex in the olden days. Plus, it had great costumes. I can overlook a lot on the strength of good costumes. I even actually enjoyed The Other Boelyn Girl (the one with Natalie Portman and Scarlet Johansen), though it may have been a result of going in with incredibly low expectations: "Let's watch Hollywood starlets heave their overflowing corset bosoms!" And then it had some acting and a plot, so that was sort of an unexpected delight, and left me with kind of a pleasantly surprised feeling which has lead me, perhaps mistakenly, to remember it as somewhat of a good film.

But back to Wolf Hall. It also had great costumes, and subtle acting, and clever writing, essentially, everything I love in a show, plus Damian Lewis - bonus. And it has this lovely, natural pacing, and no artificial lighting, and apparently they did all the filming in the actual places where the historical events took place (at least, in all the buildings that still exist). Yes, it gets an enthusiastic thumbs up from me. I heartily recommend it.

It has for me but one flaw, well, I won't call it a flaw, because in isolation there is nothing wrong with it really, but it makes a particular choice which, in the context of all the interesting things they are doing with everything else, sort of irks me, because of how every other show on this subject has made the same choice despite very clear alternatives.

The portrayals of Henry VIII in all thees shows are varied and explore the complexities of his character and the different aspects of his person, even going so far as to cast Jonathan Rhys Myers in what I can only assume was an attempt to shed light on the athletic, young and virile incarnation of his lecherous self. Questions are explored, like was he really a bad guy, or just someone trying to keep his country together under trying circumstances? Cardinal Wolsey is shown sometimes as proud, ambitious and full of self-interest, and sometimes as a devoted and loyal servant who sacrificed everything for his king, and sometimes as a kind and holy man who was wronged by everyone he tried to help. The same diversity of angles are explored for other characters, like Sir Thomas Moore and Thomas Cromwell.

And this is all great. I love that sort of thing, considering what they all might really have been like, how history has painted them, and what the range of possibilities might be given what we know, or don't know, and maybe the annals of history have been tainted by the passage of time and the record-keeping of its adversaries... except for one thing. What about Anne Boelyn?

Anne is the pivotal character in the story. Anne changed everything. Anne was a fierce advocate for religious reform, long before and well after she set her sights on the crown. Anne outdid her predecessors in her acts of charity, both publicly and privately. Anne was raised as a courtier, yet became a skillful and clever politician. Anne bore Elizabeth I, possibly the most legendary of the country's leaders. Anne got everything she wanted and then got her head chopped off, the first queen ever to be executed. Anne was posthumously alleged (albeit falsely) to have had six fingers on her left hand. Anne is arguably the most fascinating figure in the entire story: complex, intelligent, devoted and courageous.

So why, I ask you, with ample vexation in my voice, has nobody ever done anything interesting with Anne? Why is she always portrayed as a saucy, tetchy, manipulative, precocious and even sometimes silly minx? Do none of the writers of these shows realize how misogynistic this is? Nobody ever explores the possibility that her religious beliefs were anything but conveniently adopted in order to get herself on the throne, when the historical evidence is that she was deeply religious and had been so since her days in France. Plus, even after she was crowned, she continued fervently to confront corruption in the Church and to press for changes that even exceeded King Henry's intentions. She kept illegal religious material on display in her chamber, material which others had been burned at the stake for possessing. To me, this is clear evidence that her religious beliefs were more than just a means to an end, but were matters she took very seriously. And look at this picture. Does she look like a seductress to you? Or does she look like a severe and strong-minded woman?

The fact that she refused to sleep with Henry before they were married is never treated as anything but a cunning device to keep him interested and ensure that he marry her. I have never seen it suggested that perhaps she was actually concerned with her own virtue, that she actually took her chastity seriously, which conclusion would accord with her level of religious commitment. I think it at least worth considering that she was actually just sticking to her guns and wasn't going to compromise her soul for any man, not even the King.

I would like to see a portrayal of Anne that proposes that what she purported to be she actually was, that maybe she was extremely principled, that Henry was drawn to her not because she tossed her hair like Natalie Dormer, but because her core was as tough as his, because she had a keen mind and because she was interested in her country and cared about how it was run.

I mean, maybe she was just a selfish, conniving wench, but I think it terrifically unimaginative and lamentable, if not actually offensive, never to consider any other possibility and to leave such a dynamic and intriguing historical figure so one-dimensional and monotonous, particularly when giving all the male characters such multi-layered and original treatment.

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