To be or not to be a Kaiserin

Searching for inspiration

 Since our quite disastrous experiences in hospital and the more disastrous blow up of The Little Family, I have not been able to concentrate much. I sit in front of the screen of my laptop and vaguely browse the Net without any decisive attention. There are books around me but I do not feel much like reading. I do not feel like writing. I do not feel like going into the garden and do something about the rioting wisteria. I dare not think too much and too often about Elder Girl who is still in hospital far from us and whom we are not able to visit. I am awkward and fidgety because I cannot see properly. I am restless and I cannot envisage what the future will be – and I mean the immediate future as well as the longer one.

When I was a child I remedied to such issues by pretending I was someone totally different with another name, sometimes another nationality, certainly not the same age, perhaps not of the same era. I was another I. 

I spent days – and nights before I fell asleep – living wonderful adventures. I used to choose to be mostly older than I was really. I remember when I was about eight or nine, I was the Empress Elizabeth of Austria – well, why not when you imagine? – and solved arduous diplomatic problems for my husband the Kaiser Franz-Joseph, with the Hungarian nobility – this was not great fun as it was true the real Kaiserin did it -, but I even charmed the ruthless people from the Balkans into an amiable peace among them and a complete obedience to Vienna. Princess Elizabeth of Bavaria was sixteen or seventeen when she married her cousin Franz-Joseph, and I thought this a grand old age. Coming from a family where there were two or three generations before me (great-grand-mothers, great-aunts and uncles) and therefore who were borne away by a steady trickle of deaths, I saw Mother and my Aunts ensconced in muted colours of respect for the Dead, and I thought it was only natural to begin to live early and face the tasks of establishing peace in the Balkans. I had no doubt that my real life would be what I was dreaming about and thus could not see the reason why my parents, my family and their friends were so upset about what was happening in the world: a few years later, I would be a true born diplomat, marry some future king or emperor, and charm the population with the smile similar to that of Romy Schneider in the Empress Sisi films. A happy end was guaranteed as when I went to the movies.

Sisi in Hungary

There were tricky moments in my day-dreaming. I was more than often caught up red-handed so to speak in the act at school where I did not listened to the lessons which bored me, and at home where I was nicknamed “Princess” and treated with some irony in order to pull me down to earth.

This welcome of my dream life – that was not welcome at all – contributed to turn myself into a prickly hedgehog and to turn more and more to solitude where I found to feed my dreams in books and in writing. I used to sit at my table in my room and to scribble in green ink with a proper fountain pen on coloured sheets carefully illustrated with awkward copies of drawings or maps, surrounded by history and geography books mainly but not exclusively: when called to bring peace in the depths of the ex-Austrian Empire, I thought reasonable to know facts upon the countries I would have to reconcile.

My parents were comforted by the fact that I was kept busy and were deluded as to my day-dreaming until the day when I was asked what I was doing, and when I was demanded to produce my last written effort. It was a little booklet of some fifty sheets that I had sewn together and of which I was rather proud. The booklet was handed to Mother to be read and discussed with Father. I was called later in the week and met by a court martial. By a fateful coincidence, the reading of the booklet occurred at the same time as a call by my French class teacher who complained that I was a good pupil who did well but never learnt her lessons. I knew things without studying the rules and that was a capital crime for her. This was made a capital crime for me too and I was ordered not to squander time over the kind of useless effort that was my booklets and to learn my grammar lessons instead. I asked why, as my French compositions, orthography and grammar tests were the top of the class, without mistakes. I was answered not for the first time of my short life that rules were to be obeyed. I looked my parents in the eyes and said clearly that I did not see any reason to conform to rules that were idiotic. Punishment was to follow. I realise now that my parents were right but punishment would have been absurd if they had taken from me the objects of the offense: books, paper and ink, instrumental to my lack of discipline towards school. Obviously I was only non-conformist but not unwilling to learn and I was still top of my class. They settled about depriving me of dessert, which was a token punishment as I did not like sweets and much preferred the fruits I was given instead.

The old cinema in The Village

Speaking of movies (this is going to be a meandering entry), I first went to the cinema without my parents with a friend and her mother as chaperone to see the three Marishka films, Sisi, Empress Sisi, and Sisi Facing Her Destiny. I was eight and it was during the holidays in The Village. My friend’s mother was Mother’s friend as their own mothers had been friends before. It was a kind of hereditary friendship with ups and downs as my friend’s family was rather lunatic and prone to take offence for anything they might think a slight. However we were in an “up-moment”, and her mother’s had suggested she would take us to see the three films, three Sundays in a row. Of course, she would be discreetly in a seat one row behind us. No apparent chaperoning for us, thank you.

The cinema was an old place with dusty red velvet seats. Dust permeated the whole hall and danced in whatever light there was when we came in. There was still a short film and a cartoon  plus adverts  before the interval when the cinema’s owner sent his wife to sell sweets and ice-creams. We had been provided with money and bought the most delicious ice-creams that we licked assiduously. There was an awkward moment when my friend’s mother told us not to giggle and to be careful with running ice-creams, otherwise it was delicious. Then the great red velvet curtain rose up again before the screen. We were engulfed in the throes of Princess Elizabeth von Wittelsbach and her family, and the engagement and marriage policy of the arch villain, her aunt, the archduchess Sophia von Habsburg. About an hour and half later, love triumphed, organ boomed, Sisi married Franz and we, girls, were sharply told not to waste more time looking at a blank screen since it was tea time. The dust motes danced again before my ecstatic eyes. I knew for sure that this was my destiny. I was to marry a prince, a king, an emperor, a general like the general De Gaulle, and would devote my life to his Nation. My friend decided on the spot to marry one of the same heads of State to get dresses and jewels. Without any care for our exalted persons, her mother propelled both of us towards the exit door, sunshine, heat, and her car to bring us home.

The engagement

The wedding

We lived the same experience during two other Sundays which fortified me in my will to serve the State and become a graceful diplomat for the sake of my husband.

I day dreamed with a purpose now. I ransacked the house for history and geography books. I asked Father questions about the Austro-Hungarian Empire and discovered that there were biographies about Kaiserin Elizabeth. I pleaded for a pocket money advance and a trip to the bookshops in Périgueux in order to buy at least one. My parents were ot too eager for the pocket money but as it was for history books, they relented. 

Empress Sisi in Vienna

Empress Sisi at the theatre


How sad we were when we emerged from the cinema after the last film on the third Sunday. Life was nor worthwhile anymore without this wonderful story. But I was both the most affected and the readiest to meet this deprivation: books were waiting for me and I was able to play the films in my mind – to re-enact them endlessly as well as to create a prequel and infinite ‘paraquels’ and sequels. In fact, I had discovered the power of imagination and the power of books.

*     *     *

The books are still here. We have bought the films in DVD format since The Girls have felt for them in their own time. I shall not be a diplomat negotiating peace in the Balkans. I shall not marry prince, king or emperor – and certainly not a general who would become head of a State.

Perhaps – only perhaps – one day, I shall be able to concentrate and write again – with more doubts than in childhood -, books that will be the follow-ups of the incriminating booklets in green ink. 

The Country Lady at her desk

I love April

glamis village in April patrick macintosh
Glamis Village in April (James MacIntosh Patrick

I love April.

It was Mother’s birthday month and I associate it with the big bouquet we made for her with the flowers of the garden, mainly with irises and apple blossoms. She had a fondness for irises and she nursed and raised the plants, exchanging rhizomes with friends and collectors near our house: they came in all sorts of hues from the simple, straight, blue ones to the fat gorgeous golden yellow others, going through browns, pinks, whites, slightly striped, zebra, cut out, bearded petals. It seemed that the variations were infinite. We kept to the simple dark purple ones that were swathed in the frothy apple blossoms, a candid white tinged with a blush of pink rose. We would have devastated the orchard so we were left two or three trees which gave each year a crop of acid apples that never matured and which we used in the early autumn as prime elements to our desperate experiences to make cider.

Life is to be compared with April according to William Cowper: “It is a sort of April-weather life that we lead in this world.  A little sunshine is generally the prelude to a storm.” And nowadays more than ever I do think so. What little joys we have are soon drowned by a shower of sorrows.

springtime in Eckdale - James Mackintosh Patrick
Spring Time in Eckdale (James MacIntosh Patrick)

Elder Girl is still in hospital. I have been told by our doctor that she does not want to get up by herself, to stand up, to walk. Her food is processed and rolled and she eats it with a spoon. She speaks when she is spoken to and she passes the day sitting in an armchair. “An ideal patient”, said Matron over the phone. She never complains and she never moves.”  Our doctor was enthusiastic about the notion of our joining her in hospital and was highly surprised when I refused, telling him we were not ill and asking him to hasten her return home. “She will be a weight upon you”, he said, eyeing me dubiously. “And she will need continuous care with nurses at least twice a day, special implements like an electric armchair, another chair in which she will spend her days, people to transfer her from bed to chair and from chair to bed. “That sort of things.” “All right”, I answered, let’s get the help we need and have her back with us in her own home and environment.” “She is aging, you know”, he said. ”She is an old lady according to her pathology. She is aging fast.” I bit my lips thinking that his prescription of antidepressants, anxiolytics and sleeping pills maintained her surely in a state of half dozing that could easily pass for early senescence. He is glad to have slotted Elder Girl into her proper little square: at long last, she is under the thumb of the medical profession and made to behave as a proper Down Syndrome person.

I feel guilty to have let her out of my sight. I should have passed over our doctor’s injunction to let her go to the main hospital in Périgueux alone. From there she was dispatched to this wretched country hospital where I cannot go and see her regularly to keep her in the world of the living. Guilty. Guilty.

In order to keep my mind busy, I thought about poetry. No, I will not talk about “April, the cruelest of month” and about T.S. Eliot. I tried to lift up my spirit with the thought that this month is the promise of gold and blue days.

April, 1885

Wanton with long delay the gay spring leaping cometh;

 The blackthorn starreth now his bough on the eve of May:

 All day in the sweet box-tree the bee for pleasure hummeth:

The cuckoo sends afloat his note on the air all day;

Now dewy nights again and rain in gentle shower

At root of tree and flower have quenched the winter’s drouth.

 On high the hot sun smiles, and banks of cloud uptower

In bulging heads that crowd for miles the dazzling south.

Robert Bridges, The Shorter Poems (1896).

Have you noted the internal rhymes within lines (delay/gay, now/bough, et cetera), the combination of end rhymes and internal rhymes across three lines (cometh/starreth/hummeth, shower/flower/uptower), and the internal rhymes across lines (smiles/miles, cloud/crowd)?

the cornish april - adrian paul allinson
A Cornish April (Adrian Paul Allinson)

The garden is sadly neglected but while going through it to open the gate for the cleaning lady’s car, I noticed how much the daffodils are on the wane, that tulip are perking up, that violets smile through perks of new grass, and that pâquerettes, these small, short-stemmed, wild daisies that are in full bloom for Easter (thus their name, as Easter is Pâques in French) are already dotting the whole grounds with the help of primroses and cowslips. April is a time of arrivals and departures.

In the Valley

On this first evening of April

Things look wintry still:

 Not a leaf on the tree,

 Not a cloud in the sky,

 Only a young moon high above the clear green west

And a few stars by and by.

Yet Spring inhabits round like a spirit.

 I am sure of it

By the swoon on the sense,

 By the dazzle on the eye,

 By the long, long sigh that traverses my breast

And yet no reason why.

O lovely Quiet, am I never to be blest?

 Time, even now you haste.

 Between the lamb’s bleat and the ewe’s reply

A star has come into the sky.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, Time Importuned (1928).

Here, “the dazzling south” of Bridges in the former poem meets “the dazzle on the eye” of Warner. And, coincidentally, Warner employs the same technique of end rhymes and internal rhymes across three lines used by Bridges:  sky/high/by; eye/sigh/why.

april, epping - pissaro
April in Epping (Lucien Pissaro)

April’s mutability is embodied in the trees:  their branches are still mostly bare, but, from a distance, they seem to be enveloped in a yellow-green haze.  Mutability and promise.  “Nature ‘s first green is gold” says Robert Frost.

April

Exactly:  where the winter was

The spring has come:  I see her now

In the fields, and as she goes

The flowers spring, nobody knows how.

C.H. Sisson (What and Who)

april sunshine - victor elford
April Sunshine ( Victor Elford)

But even how much I want to glorify spring, I cannot prevent myself from worry for Elder Girl and melancholy for the time “when we were young” (with A.A. Milne) and when we were roughly and rudely pruning the apple trees with laughter to please Mother on her birth day.

Wet Evening in April

The birds sang in the wet trees

And as I listened to them it was a hundred years from now

And I was dead and someone else was listening to them.

But I was glad I had recorded for him the melancholy.

Patrick Kavanagh, Collected Poems 

Time has gone by. Mother is dead. Elder Girl is aging. I am too.

GLAMIS VILLAGE - james mackintosh Patrick
Glamis Village (James MacIntosh Patrick