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27 November 2015

A tale of two Françoises: Madame de Maintenon (1635-1719)

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When little Françoise d’Aubigné came into the world on 27 November 1635, her future seemed unlikely to be dazzling. True, her paternal grandfather was the distinguished Huguenot poet and patriot Agrippa d’Aubigné, but his son Constant had proved a sore disappointment, and had ended up in prison for conspiring against Cardinal Richelieu. He had married the prison governor’s daughter Jeanne de Cardilhac with suspicious haste; Françoise was their last child, following two older brothers. At the time of her birth Constant was still in prison at Niort, and according to some sources she was actually born within the prison walls.

Even after Constant’s release in 1639, his profligacy made the family’s fortunes unstable, and in an attempt to restore them he swept his wife and children off to Martinique, hoping for a lucrative position in France’s Caribbean colonies. The venture foundered, their house burnt down, and Jeanne returned to France with her children in 1647 in such poverty that the two youngest were reduced to begging.  Shortly afterwards Constant died, and Françoise and her brothers Constant and Charles were taken into the home of their Huguenot aunt and uncle Louise and Benjamin de la Villette. This happy interlude ended abruptly when the family of Françoise’s godmother Suzanne de Neuillant insisted that she should be raised in the Catholic faith of her baptism and educated in a convent.

However, Madame de Neuillant introduced Françoise to a wider social circle in Paris and brokered a marriage for her with the celebrated author and satirist Paul Scarron. The bride was 15 and her bridegroom 25 years older, but despite this, and the fact that he was grotesquely crippled by rheumatoid arthritis, their shared literary interests made for a stable marriage in which she nursed him until his death in 1652. His pension was continued by Anne of Austria, enabling Françoise to remain in the intellectual world of Paris, but when Louis XIV rescinded it in 1666 she was preparing to set out for Lisbon in the retinue of the new Queen of Portugal when she was saved by an unlikely new friendship.

  Maintenon, Pierre Mignard portrait (1694)Portrait of Françoise d'Aubigné, marquise de Maintenon (1698), by Pierre Mignard (From Wikimedia Commons)

Françoise Athénaïs de Rochechouart de Mortemart, marquise of Montespan, had been a lady-in-waiting before catching the eye of Louis XIV and displacing Louise de la Vallière as his official mistress. She had dropped her homely Christian name in favour of the more ambitious Athénaïs as a member of the intellectual précieuses, and in these circles met Françoise, took a liking to her, and persuaded Louis to restore her pension. As the relationship with the king bore fruit,  ‘la veuve Scarron’ was appointed to care for the growing brood of illegitimate royal children in a house in the Rue de Vaugirard. Discretion was taken to such extremes that even essential workmen were rarely admitted, and the practical Françoise found herself hanging pictures and curtains and even turning her hand to plumbing when a leak threatened to flood the house.

However, not only constant child-bearing but an excessive fondness for the pleasures of the table (both feasting and gaming) and the bottle would prove the downfall of Athénaïs. Jean Teulé’s lively novel Le Montespan (English translation Monsieur Montespan: London, 2010; H.2012/.5122) vividly depicts her taste for fine clothing, her audacious hairstyle, and her capricious nature, which the king found increasingly wearing. Allegations that she was involved in the Affair of the Poisons  did nothing to help her cause, and in 1691 she retired to a convent.

Meanwhile Françoise had become governess to the royal children at Saint-Germain following their legitimation in 1673, and was rewarded by the king with the wherewithal to buy an estate at Maintenon the following year. In 1675 she was granted the title of Marquise de Maintenon, by which she is generally known. Louis appreciated her serene and steadfast temperament, and by the late 1670s had grown to enjoy her witty and well-informed conversation more and more. His Queen, Marie-Thérèse, also benefited from the calmer atmosphere at court following Madame de Montespan’s departure in 1680.

Inevitably detractors were eager to attach scandal to the Marquise’s name, and anonymous satires appeared, including La Cassette ouverte de l’illustre Criole, ou les Amours de Madame de Maintenon (1694; 1480.a.6.(1.), possibly by Pierre Le Noble, and Scarron aparu à Madame de Maintenon et les reproches qu’il lui fait sur ses amours avec Louis le Grand, in which the ghost of Scarron materializes to upbraid his widow for her unseemly familiarity with the king.

Maintenon Scarron aparu
Scarron aparu à Madame de Maintenon et les reproches qu’il lui fait sur ses amours avec Louis le Grand (Cologne, 1694) 8005.a.37.

By this time, though, Louis had legitimized not only his children but his relationship with their former governess. Not long after the death of the Queen in 1683, he married Madame de Maintenon in a private ceremony conducted at midnight by the Archbishop of Paris. Their unequal rank meant that the marriage could only be morganatic and was never officially announced, but it provided both, now well into their forties, with an emotional security and true companionship hitherto lacking in their lives. Her lack of a formal position as queen made her more approachable, and she exerted a considerable and largely benign influence on Louis, who admired her good judgment and shared her religious as well as her cultural interests. Among devotional works dedicated to her, the British Library holds the anonymous Réflections sur quelques parolles de Jésus-Christ.

Maintenon, Reflections
Réflections sur quelques parolles de Jésus-Christ... (Paris, 167?)  RB.23.a.36014

Notable among her enterprises was the school for impoverished girls of noble birth which Madame de Maintenon founded at Saint-Cyr. Planning a theatrical performance by the pupils, she commissioned Jean Racine to write two plays on edifying themes, Esther and Athalie, for them with great success, though not surprisingly there were those who insinuated that the first suggested the rivalry between Mesdames de Maintenon and Montespan in the virtuous Esther’s displacement of the scheming Queen Vashti. Her experience as a royal governess equipped her ideally for her work with her young protégées, who regarded her with great affection. When Louis died in 1715, she retired to Saint-Cyr, where she died in 1719 and was buried in its chapel. In an age whose pursuit of celebrity cults rivals that of the 21st century, her discretion, resourcefulness, wit and tact prevailed over more obvious attractions, and have much to teach us today.

Susan Halstead, Content Specialist (Humanities and Social sciences), Research Engagement.

25 November 2015

Wojtek, the soldier bear from the Polish Army

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On 7th November an unusual ceremony took place in Edinburgh: a monument to a soldier bear was unveiled to hundreds of people gathered in the middle of town. The statue had been commissioned by the Wojtek Memorial Trust, an organisation set up in 2008 by Aileen Orr. She is also the author of the book Wojtek the Bear: Polish war hero (Edinburgh, 2010; British Library YC.2011.a.10359), which makes a good read.

The story of the brave soldier bear started in Persia (today’s Iran) in 1942. Found in the mountains as an orphaned cub, he was sold to Polish soldiers for a few cans of corned beef. The Polish Army, newly formed in the USSR under General Władysław Anders, was on its way through Persia to Palestine.  Corporal Piotr Prendysz was appointed as the cub’s guardian, and the bear was given the name Wojtek (Voytek) meaning “joyful warrior”. The legend has it that Wojtek was enlisted as a soldier with the rank of Private and his pay was double food rations. In fact, he was adopted by the soldiers of the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the 2nd Polish Corps and became their mascot.

Wojtek 1
Wojtek in Iraq, 1942. Courtesy of the Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum.

Initially Wojtek was fed with diluted condensed milk via an old vodka bottle. He quickly grew huge, weighing 250 kg and measuring almost two metres in length. He loved beer and cigarettes, eating instead of smoking the latter.  His favourite game was wrestling with his fellow soldiers, but due to his gentle nature he never hurt anybody.  He liked human company so much that at night he often slipped into tents and slept beside his mates’ beds. Wojtek soon became the soldiers’ best friend. Although he settled well into army routine his record of acts of mischief was steadily growing.  In a large Allied forces’ military camp in Iraq Wojtek stole a washing line of women soldiers’ underwear to the horror of the terrified women.  On Christmas Eve after a traditional Polish feast he made his way to the camp food store. In search of his favourite jams and fruits he devastated the place. Spilled cooking-oil was mixed with flour, grain and other foods on the floor.  However, in June 1943, in an attempt to commit another crime, he captured an Arab spy. Wojtek was barred from taking his much-loved showers due to the shortage of water, a precious commodity in the Middle East. The door of the bath house was locked but he would hang around outside.  On this day he spotted the unlocked shower door, and upon entering he found a man hiding in the showers whose screams alerted the camp guards.

Wojtek 2
Wojtek wrestling his comrade. Courtesy of the Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum

In 1944 the Polish Corps was transferred from Egypt to Italy to fight in the Italian campaign with the British forces. To embark on the ship Wojtek needed a special permit. Convinced by the argument that he contributed hugely to strengthening the fighting spirit of the soldiers, the British authorities approved his travel warrant just in time for him to join the Company on their voyage to Italy. However, the height of his fame came during the Battle of Monte Cassino in May 1944. Wojtek helped his comrades carry artillery shells to the front line. He watched what the soldiers were doing and stood upright with his front paws outstretched, indicating his intentions.  He carried the large boxes of ammunition from the supply lorries to the artillery positions even under heavy cannon fire.  After the battle Wojtek featured on the 22nd Company logo showing a bear carrying a shell. The Company fought in the battle of Bologna in April 1945, the last combat in the Italian campaign.  A year later they finally sailed for Glasgow and this time Wojtek was officially on the passenger list.

Wojtek 3
A happy Wojtek, Italy, October 1944. Courtesy of the Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum

Wojtek had spent one year at Winfield Camp in Scotland together with his mates before the company was demobbed, and was  then transferred to Edinburgh Zoo in 1947. Though he was the main attraction for numerous visitors to the zoo he greatly missed his comrades in arms and always reacted joyfully to the Polish language. He died there peacefully in November 1963.

  Wojtek 4Wojtek’ statue in the Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum. Courtesy of the PISM.

Magda Szkuta, Curator East & SE European Collections

References/Further reading

Wieslaw A. Lasocki, Wojtek spod Monte Cassino (London, 1968). X.631/769

Geoffrey Morgan and W.A. Lasocki, Soldier Bear (London, 1970). X.809/8265

Krystyna Mikula-Deegan, Private Wojtek – soldier bear (Kibworth, 2011). H.201/6712

Wojtek album (London, 2013) LC.37.a.1031                                      


23 November 2015

1267 Shots Later

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The Stefan Zweig Collection of manuscripts, donated to the British Library in 1986, has been described as ‘the most important and valuable donation made to the Library in the 20th century’.  The manuscripts are not those of Zweig’s own works but a selection of the autograph manuscripts of great composers, writers and historical figures which Zweig collected throughout his life.  A catalogue of the music manuscripts was published in 1999 and these have all been digitised. Now it is the turn of the literary and historical manuscripts. A digitisation programme was begun in early 2015, and nearly all of the manuscripts can now be viewed via the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts catalogue. A printed catalogue is due for publication in 2016, and the full catalogue descriptions will also be found online. In this post,  Pardaad Chamsaz, a collaborative PhD student working on the collection, considers the challenges involved in digitising Honoré de Balzac’s proof copy of his novel Une ténébreuse affaire, with its myriad corrections and editions.

When the first marked page of the corrected proof for Balzac’s Une ténébreuse affaire (British Library Zweig MS 133) prosaically gives its title, author and status as “épreuves”, we may linger on this last word, as it signals both its stage in the writing process as well as the “test” that its reading threatens. This innocuous page sits on top of a pile of over 600 sheets, both typed and handwritten, where the typescript is aggressively handled and manipulated, so that the physical struggle for the work is eternalised on the underbelly of its published variant.

  Balzac Folio 1
The unassuming first leaf of Une ténébreuse affaire

This unassuming opening faced the Imaging Studio team, as Une ténébreuse affaire was delivered for digitisation earlier this year. They were all too aware of the “test” they were about to embark on. Indeed, translations for épreuve include equivalents such as “hardship”, “ordeal”, “trial” – words not inappropriate to the task at hand. Once the conflict of logistics around when to attempt the digitisation was resolved (the difference between the “let’s leave it until the end of the project” and “let’s get it out of the way” schools of thought – both implying trepidation), the photographer entered the proof, labelled by its collector, Stefan Zweig, as a ‘Höllenlabyrinth von Korrekturen’, an infernal labyrinth of corrections.

Zweig MS 133 f 18r
The ‘infernal labyrinth’ within: f. 18 of Une ténébreuse affaire

Zweig considered the proof as a key document in his collection that could provide immense insights into the secret of literary creation. When Zweig purchased the item in 1914, he wrote in his diary that as soon as he saw it in the famous Parisian antiquarian bookseller, Blaisot, he bought it ‘lightning-quick, rashly, greedily, in spite of feeling like I might have overpaid’. Now, the library’s Zweig MS 133 is one of the most unique and complete examples of a Balzac corrected proof outside of the Spoelberch de Lovenjoul collection in the library of the Institut de France in Paris.

This mass of workings around the detective novel’s ever more complex intrigue, contains printed pages of uneven lengths and widths overlain with thick handwritten corrections, often with an indecipherable set of symbols linking old and new text. The reader will find slips of paper glued onto some pages to indicate replacement text, as well as, from the very beginning of the “labyrinth”, around 200 inserted small leaves of manuscript additions. It was rumoured that Balzac would go through this correction process 10-15 times for each work, and Zweig was in awe of how Balzac’s physical work was so tangible in these proofs.

Just as Zweig senses the artist wrestling with their art, like Jacob with the angel, the photographer fought with our corrected proof, unfolding its pages, pinning it down (for the count), before focusing the camera (one, two…) and shooting it still… only to turn the page and for the battle to recommence. ‘Jedes Blatt ein Schlachtfeld’, every page a battlefield, in the words of Zweig. Weeks of labour, in Balzac’s rewriting, in Zweig’s reading, in our digitizing. If the corrected proof opens a door onto the workshop of the writer, where, in the stroke and the trace of the ink, we experience the fugitive presence of the hand manically at work, we should retrace our digitisation in the same way and detail the actions behind the stillness of a photo.

Balzac pinned down
Balzac pinned down  (photo: Pardaad Chamsaz)

Balzac resisting
Balzac fights back (photo: Pardaad Chamsaz)

Balzac digital
Balzac captured on the Imaging Technician’s screen (photo: Pardaad Chamsaz)

With the majority of the manuscripts in the Stefan Zweig Collection now digitised and available online, we are presented with an awkward idea: the unique material object, with which Zweig experienced the writing process, has lost its materiality through its digital cloning. No longer the actual trace, the photograph becomes, in the words of Sonja Neef, an ‘imprint of a trace’, a step away from the unique encounter. In the same way as Zweig draws attention to the “underground” compositional stages of writing, perhaps, by re-embodying the digitisation process, we can give the screen shot the texture it deserves.

Pardaad Chamsaz  Collaborative Doctoral Student


Stefan Zweig, Die Welt von gestern. (Frankfurt, 1955). F10/3573

Oliver Matuschek, Ich kenne den Zauber der Schrift: Katalog und Geschichte der Autographensammlung Stefan Zweig, (Vienna, 2005). YF.2006.a.13265

Sonja Neef Imprint and Trace: handwriting in the age of technology (London, 2011). YC.2011.a.14184