The queen who looked at a cat–Mary Queen of Scots

Cat embroidered by Mary Queen of Scots
Cat embroidered by Mary Queen of Scots
picture of Mary Queen of ScotsWe’ve all heard the expression “A cat may look at a queen” but Mary Queens of Scots was one of the few queens who looked closely at a cat. You must remember Mary, the beautiful queen of Scotland whose implacable enemy Queen Elisabeth I put an end to the dream of her becoming Queen of England. Back in the 1500s, women had very little power, but queens were a special sort of women. Because of their bloodlines, men could not ignore them and if the queens were clever, they could sometimes manipulate the courtiers around them and build a satisfactory life for themselves, their families and their countries.

Elizabeth I was clever enough to maintain her throne for 44 years and to lead her country through a stable and prosperous period. She chose the unconventional path of remaining unmarried, leaving the possibility of a royal marriage open for as long as possible so as to keep her enemies guessing about where she would form alliances. Mary was not nearly so clever—or so lucky. She loved and married unwisely and was bullied by various factions in Scotland, England, and France including especially Elizabeth, who feared that Mary wanted to take over her throne.

For many years Mary was a prisoner of Elizabeth’s and some of those years were spent in an uncomfortable, cold, drafty medieval castle of Tutbury in Staffordshire. The castle had been built many years earlier and repaired infrequently so it had become extremely damp and had a marsh underneath it from which “malevolent fumes arose, unpleasant enough for anyone and especially so for a woman of Mary Stuart’s delicate health” according to Mary’s biographer Antonia Fraser. Nonetheless, Mary was stuck there and had to make the best of which. One of the ways she did that was by designing and executing lavish embroideries.

Embroidery is not considered a major art form, but for many years it was used to produce attractive pieces combining images with words and symbols that made them art works to read and understand as well as view. This picture of a cat is one of the most straightforward of her pieces. Look at how carefully she devised the cat, with its tale curling at the end as though she was about to twitch it at the mouse beside her. Did Mary think of herself as the mouse, quavering before Elizabeth the cat? I think perhaps Mary had a better sense of herself. She was the tall, impressive cat twitching her tail at the mousey attacks of her enemies despite the danger.

Somehow it is comforting to think that this woman, so harassed and troubled during her lifetime, left a legacy of beauty for generations who followed. And not only art, of course, she left a son who became King James I. Quite a legacy for a woman who lived in a time when all females were supposed to be submissive and quiet. By the way, if you want to read more about Mary Queen of Scots, you can follow her fascinating story in the biography of that name by Antonia Fraser available in almost every public library.

Charlotte Brooke–the woman who saved Irish poetry

Irish pattern in Connemara 1842
Irish pattern in Connemara 1842
title page of Brooke book

When St. Patrick’s Day comes around, Americans burst out with a flood of t-shirts, shamrocks, and parades. This year we even have a story about snakes in Ireland as the NY Times writes about how prosperity made snakes a favorite pet for a few years. Snakes are not the most cuddly of pets, so many of them have been set free, bringing snakes to Ireland after all the centuries of being free of them, courtesy of the legendary saint himself.

Few of stories and celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day have anything to do with the culture or history of Ireland and many of the heroes of the country, as well as most of the heroines are unknown today. One of the most unlikely lovers of Irish culture was Charlotte Brooke, born in County Cavan in 1740 to an Anglo-Irish family. Her father, Henry Brooke was a well-known playwright of the time, so Charlotte was raised in a cultured, literary family. Many Anglo-Irish people were fond of Ireland and enjoyed living there, but they thought of themselves as quite separate from the Irish peasants who lived around them. Very few learned the Irish language or knew the native Irish people except as servants. In fact the English did their best to stamp out all traces of Irish Roman Catholicism, the Irish language, and all of Irish culture. Charlotte was an exception. She learned the Irish language and appreciated the beauty of Irish poetry and legends and she became determined to preserve the legacy from extinction.

While her father was alive, Charlotte, like a dutiful 18th century daughter, devoted herself to helping him in his writing of now long-forgotten plays. When he died, she took on the task of collecting his plays and poetry and preparing them for publication. It was only after she had accomplished all this that she felt justified in turning to translating some of the Irish poetry she had found. Like most writers of the time, she had to find sponsors to provide money for publication and find them she did. Finally her book Reliques of Irish Poetry was published in 1789. She published not only her translations but the original Irish texts that she had used. The importance of this work is confirmed by a listing on the Cavan County Libraries site which points out that this book “confirms her place in the history of Irish literature and acclaims her as a forerunner of the literary movement for the revival of Irish in the nineteenth century and the formation of the Gaelic League. This was the first time that a wide selection of Irish verse appeared in print.”

Despite the importance of her contribution to the study of Irish literature and the influence that she had on poets of the 19th and 20th centuries, Charlotte Brooke is almost forgotten today. Her translations sound old-fashioned, written as they are in the style of the 18th century, but some of them capture the vitality of the Irish originals and can be enjoyed by modern readers. My favorite is this touching elegy written by a young man for his wife:

Sad the bird that sings alone,
Flies to wilds, unseen to languish,
Pours, unheard, the ceaseless moan,
And wastes on desert air its anguish!

Mine, o hapless bird! Thy fate!
The plunder’d nest, the lonely sorrow!
The lost—lov’d—harmonious mate!
The wailing night, the cheerless morrow!

O thou dear hoard of treasur’d love!
Though these fond arms should ne’er possess thee,
Still—still my heart its faith shall prove,
And its last sighs shall breathe to bless thee!

Fanny Mendelssohn–a musical life to celebrate

Concert at home
Concert at home
Women composers are not prominent in the history of Western music; in fact, many students of music and lovers of classical concerts would be hard-pressed to mention any female composer. Now at last, it appears that we have a new name to list among the 19th century composers of note—Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel.

Fanny Hensel, by her husband Wilhelm
Fanny Hensel, by her husband Wilhelm

Her name, of course, is well known because of her famous brother, Felix, but until recently she had been considered a pianist and salon musician who played in private concerts at home, not as someone whose work was worthy to be considered part of the canon. Now at last, as her compositions have been discovered over the last twenty years and studied by serious musicians, she is being taken seriously as a musician. R. Larry Todd, author of Fanny Hensel; The Other Mendelssohn (Oxford, 2010) has studied her music and has named her as the greatest female composer of the 19th century.

Both Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn were musical prodigies when they were children. By the time Fanny was 12 and Felix 9 years old, they were able to perform in public. Then their paths diverged. Like most women of her time, Fanny’s musical ambitions were strictly curtailed. While her father encouraged Felix to become a professional musician, he told Fanny that she must restrict her music to entertaining the family—the husband and children she was destined to have. Her entire life was to be determined by her gender.

Fanny never gave up her musical ambitions, although she did not have as much time to pursue them as Felix did. She generously shared her music and her ideas with her brother and did not became bitter about always being in his shadow. Eventually she fell in love with Wilhelm Hensel, a painter, and the couple had a child, named Sebastian after J.S. Bach, one of Fanny’s favorite musicians. Remarkably enough Fanny was able to make this tangle of love relationships work. She was happy with her husband and doted on her son, but continued to maintain a very close and loving relationship with her brother Felix too.

During her lifetime, Fanny’s music was often presented at concerts held in the Mendelssohn home. Fanny carefully arranged the concerts, wrote pieces for them and planned the events. As her son grew up she had more time to devote to her music and as she neared the age of 40 was more and more inclined to think of herself as a professional musician. She was beginning to publish her works, but was suddenly struck down by a stroke and died at the age of 41. When he heard the news, Felix collapsed in a faint. He died within six months of his sister.

The rediscovery of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel as an important musician is a joyful event. And while we celebrate being able to hear performances of some of her works, perhaps we should also celebrate her success in leading a rich, loving life despite the harsh limitations put on her because of her gender. She managed to make life happy for her brother, her husband and her son as well as maintaining her devotion to her own profession. That was a remarkable achievement in her time and an inspiration to us today.

March–a good month for changing the world

Slogan of Women's History month 2013How long does it take us to recognize a good idea? When Margaret Fuller, the well-known feminist and writer, visited Europe in 1845-46 she recognized the needs of working women. She endorsed the idea of the government providing crèches which could be supervised and where children would receive adequate food and care. More than 150 years later, American society has still not managed to accept that idea although almost every country in Europe provides public crèches or nurseries for preschool children.

The news during this Women’s History month has several stories that echo the concerns of nineteenth and twentieth century women that are still unfulfilled. Some women with children at home (as well as many men and women without children) have seized upon the idea of working at home, telecommuting to their offices. This month the CEO of Yahoo has decreed that employees will no longer be allowed to work from home, but must come into their workplaces every day. Mingling with other employees is thought by many people to stimulate innovation and creativity. Certainly being with other workers engaged in tasks similar to yours can be stimulating and inspiring, but why must it always be talked about in sweeping generalizations? Doesn’t it seem to you that there is a natural rhythm to work? Talking with other, exchanging ideas and listening to suggestions can get you started on a task, developing a project or writing a report, but once started it is often better to have a quiet location to work in isolation. Pulling ideas together and shaping them is a solitary occupation. Many kinds of work should offer some flexibility. Employees who have the freedom to choose the location in which they work often make stronger contributions to an organization than those who are rigidly forced to conform to the rules designed to suit the majority but not the individual.

This discussion about employee flexibility, of course, only applies to a subset of women who work outside the home. Teachers usually have to stay in the location where their students are (although that is changing in online teaching), clerks in stores have to be available at check-out stations, mechanics usually have to be where the cars are, and crossing guards had better be at their crossings. These women need flexibility not so much in where they are but in where their children are.

This leads to the second big news story for Women’s History month—the call for universal preschool education. President Obama talked about the need to start educating children while they are young. Once again America loiters behind the rest of the developed world in offering education to young children. What are we afraid of? Scientists and educators agree that children who start pre-reading activities while they are young and who learn the habits and social skills important in their future success, do far better than those who spend their preschool years in front of a TV. Let’s all push to finally achieve this goal. Women’s History month is a time not just for looking back but for looking ahead to new achievements. The theme of the 2013 celebration is Women Inspiring Innovation through Imagination. What better way is there to achieve this goal than by helping all children start young on the path toward learning and fulfillment?