The Most Famous Woman You Never Heard Of

According to the author of this fascinating biography, the three most talked-about women in the 18th century were Catherine the Great, Marie Antoinette and Elizabeth Chudleigh.

Who was she?  A luxury-loving, experience-hungry Englishwoman who was dubbed the “Duchess-Countess” because of having married a duke and an earl.  Rising “from obscure West Country gentry” and though her finances were sometimes uncertain, she eventually moved in the highest circles of London society, was a royal maid of honor–and a bigamist. 

Though her impulsive and rocky first marriage was mostly a marriage in name only, it was never legally ended when she married one of England’s richest men, The Duke of Kingston.  She eventually stood trial for bigamy, complicated by complex legal maneuvering over what she inherited from her second husband.  Where there’s a will, there’s a fray. . . .

Chudleigh’s bigamy trial when she was in her fifties was an international sensation and in England it even overshadowed the growing war with the colonies.  As described in vivid detail, it had all the ceremony and magnetism of a coronation, given how rare it was for a peeress to be on trial in Parliament.  One newspaper reported “Imagination can hardy picture a more solemn, august, and at the same time brilliant appearance, than the court in Westminster Hall.” That trial wasn’t the end of her legal troubles, and readers will be fascinated by them as well as by her taking root in Russia of all places–for a while anyway.

The book offers dazzling and sometimes bizarre insight into a world of stupefying luxury: weird do’s and don’t for those who served royalty, mammoth dinners for a cast of thousands, lavish country and city homes decorated at an unbelievable cost, clothes and jewels worth millions.  It was all part of a highly rarefied lifestyle as decorous on the surface as a minuet, but treacherous if one made a misstep.

In 18th century England, Elizabeth Chudleigh almost always managed to dance that real and figurative dance with envious grace, style, and panache.  She wasn’t just beautiful and decorative: she was smart, educated, multilingual, charming, a wonderful conversationalist, intensely charismatic.  And as famous and controversial as any Kardashian today.

It’s too bad nobody recorded her conversation the way Boswell preserved Samuel Johnson’s bon mots and observations to make them a part of history.  We hear her letters crying for help at various points but don’t get to hear her at her most relaxed and impressive.

She was a woman of great appetites, loved commissioning new homes, loved doing a Grand Tour in Europe when that was still a man’s prerogative.  She was way ahead of her time in making sure she had good publicity–or trying to.  And of course the brightness of her star earned her plenty of detractors and even enemies.  Some of the best moments in this book are the sour comments about her in letters and diaries–you almost feel you’re reading trolls on a Twitter feed.  Their criticism is often sexist but sometimes legitimate as she was impetuous, impulsive and her plans sometimes led to “drama and debacle.”

At one point when she fled England for Rome, where the pope was a supporter, “as far as the locals were concerned, the voluptuous, peculiar, emotional Elizabeth was…a one-woman carnival.” Her travels here and there across Europe, especially when she was ill, are sometimes beyond belief and the author milks them for every juicy detail.  

The book is so filled with so much richness, however, that at times you might feel overwhelmed by names, banquets, vendettas, scandals, legal actions, and above all titles of nobility. It also seems a stretch for the author to keep speculating about whether Chudleigh suffered from borderline personality.

Duchess and Countess Elizabeth Chudleigh lived amazingly large, had amazing adventures, misadventures, famous friends and allies–and famous detractors.  She was a figure of admiration and emulation, and the focus of a unique trial.  This bountiful biography is the perfect material for a miniseries–not least for the grotesque Dickensian frenzy that erupted when Chudleigh died in Paris right before the French Revolution.

Lev Raphael’s first love as an English major was literature of the 18th century.  He is the author of twenty-seven books in many genres and has taught creative writing at Michigan State University where his  literary papers were purchased by Special Archives at MSU’s library.

“Echoes” on Netflix is Dumber than Dumb

Now and then I stick with a mystery novel or series not because it’s engrossing but because it’s such a mess I keep wondering if the writer or writers can possibly fix it by the end.  And I also wonder if it’s going to get much worse, which I guess could be classified as morbid curiosity.

That’s the case with the new Netflix miniseries Echoes, which is the dumbest mystery I’ve seen this year.

The twin sisters in Echoes aren’t just close, they’re interchangeable. Or so they believe. One lives in LA, the other in Virginia and every year they have a birthday together someplace fun like Paris.  Before they leave their joint celebration, the twins change clothes and identities. Then they go back home for a year until the next birthday bash and the next switch.

Okay–without any spoilers–we’re supposed to believe that each one sleeps with the other’s husband and neither husband notices the slightest difference in how they’re touched, kissed, fondled, whispered or cried out to.  Let’s forget sex for a moment. What about how they move, smile, laugh, read, walk and every other element of being themselves?  Are we supposed to believe the husbands are stupid and grossly unobservant?

It’s not just their husbands who seem completely blind. Their elderly father can’t seem to tell them apart either, and just as bizarrely, Eli’s daughter Mattie doesn’t notice that one year her mother is Gina and the next one it’s Eli.  One twin says their mother was the only one who could ever tell them  apart.  Yeah, right.

When the switching is finally revealed, one of the people affected by it actually thinks it’s just fine and all about “self-discovery.”  That scene is laughable and psychologically ridiculous.

The whole miniseries feels badly edited, badly written and badly thought out, with Michelle Monaghan looking as vexed as viewers might be when they wonder “What?  Seriously?”  time and again.  There’s a plot, apparently, involving a stolen horse that never makes much sense because it’s not clear why the horse is in Eli and Jack’s stable.  And they have money troubles that everybody in town seems to know about but are never fully explained.  Oh yeah, Gina goes missing, sort of.  There are thugs and jarring, cryptic flashbacks too.  And a murder.  Of course.  And a third sister who is never fully integrated into the story.

Just as bad as the general vagueness and unbelievability is the obnoxious score that says “This is ominous!” every few minutes no matter what Eli or Gina are doing.  You want to say to the composer: give it a rest, dude.

The cast of Monaghan, Matt Bomer, Daniel Sunjata and Karen Robinson are wasted on very thin material that might have worked better as a 2-hour TV movie than a 7-episode miniseries.  Might have–without the totally ridiculous ending.

Lev Raphael is the former crime fiction review for The Detroit Free Press and author of 27 books including 10 crime novels.

How James Bond Saved Britain

Have you been wondering who the next James Bond will be after Daniel Craig?  James Norton?  Idris Elba?  Theo James?  The maddening possibilities include Richard Madden, who’s the same height as beefy Daniel Craig, and the slighter and somewhat shorter Tom Holland.  Lots of women have been suggested too, actors like Ruth Negga, Lily James, Emilia Clarke, Claire Foy, Charlize Theron and Thandiwe Newton among others.

Have you exhausted yourself re-watching every single Bond movie with every single Bond?  Even the less-than-stellar films? 

Well, there’s a great book to engross and entertain you till the revelation of the New Bond is vouchsafed to eager theatergoers and streamers: Simon Winder’s hilarious The Man Who Saved Britain.  It’s my second read and I have to report that when I first had this marvelous book in my hands, I was on an author tour across the U.S. and startled passengers on planes and in airports because I kept laughing aloud at his wit.  Luckily this time around, I’m at home and can only alarm my dogs.

Part memoir, part geopolitical analysis, part literary survey, part history, part standup routine, the book explores the role of the wildly popular Bond books in the 1950’s and 60’s a time when Britain was exhausted by WWII, broke,  and losing the empire that had given it a feeling of being a world class power.  Early on in that period, Britain lacked food and fuel and despite having won the war, there was a widespread feeling that the country was a beggar at what was becoming an American feast (with Europe seated below the salt). 

Winder notes that the Bond novels’ “entire purpose can be seen as carrying forward the certainties many felt about the war into the disorienting bitterness of an ever more impotent Britain.” Winder pursues his own purpose of entertaining and skewering through sardonic humor and metaphors:

“The British governments of the 1950s now give out an overwhelming sense of weariness.  This was less true at the time because there was such a hail of events that they appeared quite busy, but it was only the seemingly busy behaviour of a corpse being dragged around by dogs.”

“James Bond can exist only because he is British.  No other country has developed an ideology over so many years that makes ever other nation so available, so pitiful and funny.  This has come from either ruling them or attacking them at various points.”

Bond’s creator Ian Fleming had an intelligence background, was part of the British elite, and created a tough hero who could save the world, or most of it, single-handedly. 

“As the 1960s progressed, Bond’s ability to maim and kill foreigners became a great consolation to millions of embittered and confused people whose traditional world picture had changed with alarming speed.  Bond in fact became in the 1960s pretty much the only British national capable of damaging anybody at all.”

Among many fine distinctions, Winder points out that the novels are far less gadget-focused than the movies and not nearly as flashy, but enough of them make for good, quick and dirty reads.  

And Bond in the novels isn’t as promiscuous as he is in the films, though the view of sex demonstrates what Winder calls “the male fantasy of a permanent, never-aging present in which an infinity of girls from around the world could be sampled in the manner of cigars.”

Winder is a deft analyst of every aspect of the books and the films, some of which he’s seen dozens of times.  So there’s something to ponder, deplore or laugh about on almost every page thanks to a dazzling, chatty, very British raconteur. The Man Who Saved Britain is a must-read for Bond fans and a superb window into a time when Britain was very different than it is today, though lingering animus towards Europe and general griping about its place in the world seem a flame that hasn’t died.

Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books including 10 crime novels.  He has taught creative writing at Michigan State University and Regents College in London.

(Full disclosure: Winder was one of my editors at St. Martin’s Press in New York thirty years ago and when I first found this book I didn’t know that he was also a writer, a comic, and a Bond aficionado living in London)

𝘿𝙖𝙧𝙠 𝙊𝙗𝙟𝙚𝙘𝙩𝙨 is a Solid Police Procedural

Soon after a body is found at a bizarre and brutal murder scene in London, we discover what the title of this police procedural refers to.  The dark objects are the “overturned and sometimes overlooked” things at a murder that may explain what happened.

However, one of the objects laid out in ritual fashion near the victim is anything but overlooked.  In fact, it’s a blaring message.  This object is a book about how to “read” murder scenes, written by Laughton Rees, the police commissioner’s long-estranged daughter.  Rees is a criminologist with “almost preternatural abilities to observe, process, and recall information.” In her university lectures, she only uses cold cases or solved cases, but she’s pulled into investigating this murder case at an ultra-chic, multi-million-pound home because of that book.

The discovery of her book opens up a whirlpool of grief and misery because years ago, her father led a high-profile investigation whose suspect ended up killing her mother.  And she saw it happen.  Rees blames her father, rejected all his offers of connection and has become obsessive compulsive to cope with her trauma.  She’s a deeply sympathetic character because it seems that her dark past “always catches up with her and swallows her whole, no matter how fast or how fast or how far she runs from it.”

Rees’s “partner” in the investigation is the resonantly-named inspector Tannahill Khan, but he’s not nearly as interesting as her or the sleazy reporter, Brian Slade, who will do anything to get a story with long legs into the tabloid he writes for.

The book’s strength is the detailed and fascinating police work and the focus on Rees’s suffering and attempts to stay stable, though a few things get in the way, including the slow pace.

It seems obligatory these days that any major figure in a mystery or TV crime series is the parent of a troubled teenager and Dark Objects checks off that box in spades. 

The writing could also have been more polished to avoid various kinds of repetition and lines like this one: “Tannahill watches, his brain trying to catch up with what just happened.” Then there’s the awkward and unattractive mix of fonts and spacing at various points. 

None of that truly damages the book and the fault lies with the editing and design, not the author.  A bigger issue is the trick ending with a wildly unbelievable confession. 

All the same, filled with biting social commentary, Dark Objects has enough for police procedural fans to enjoy on a few hot summer nights.

Lev Raphael was the long-time crime fiction reviewer for The Detroit Free Press and is the author of ten crime novels.

Goodreads Goofs on Bogus Author Quotes

Back in 2017, I contacted Goodreads to let them know that this top-ranked quotation by George Eliot is bogus, and I sent proof:

It is never too late to be what you might have been.

Yes, you’ve seen it attributed to Eliot everywhere: Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, t-shirts, kitchen magnets, mugs, bookmarks, tote bags, tattoos. But there’s no source.  None.

I read George Eliot in college religiously, and read about her as well because she was a major inspiration to me as a budding writer. So the first time I saw the quote it felt off to me — a bit too peppy, more like something from a Hallmark greeting card.

I poked around the Internet, and though it’s inescapable, there’s no attribution. Nobody who knew Eliot records it as a comment she made, it’s not something she wrote in her diary, and it doesn’t appear anywhere in her writing. That’s been proven by Eliot scholars, as reported in The New Yorker. It’s also been researched by a great web site, Quote Investigator, which shows a long history of misquotation.

Eventually, someone at Goodreads asked me to post on the “Librarians page” and said the team would investigate. I did, but what was there to investigate? That had already been done by scholars who I imagine have more expertise than the intrepid Sherlocks at Goodreads.

Well, the bogus quote is still there.  A Goodreads “expert” recently emailed me to say that Goodreads doesn’t take down quotes.  It’s now listed as “source-unknown” which is just plain wrong:  The source isn’t unknown, it’s nonexistent.  But the “quote” makes great click bait.

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk! and 26 other books in many genres. He mentors, coaches, and edits writers at writewithoutborders.com

Image Credit: Pete Linforth from Pixabay

The Perfect August Read for Spy Novel Fans

 

In my many years as crime fiction reviewer for the Detroit Free Press, one of the best mysteries I ever reviewed was Dan Fesperman’s Lie in the Dark, set in war-torn Bosnia. It was brilliantly plotted, beautifully written, and stunning in every possible way.

His latest book is just as thrilling.  Set in the chaos of a crumbling communist East Germany not long after the Berlin Wall has been breached in 1989, Winter Work tells twin stories of an American CIA agent and a former Stasi agent whose lives connect in surprising ways. 

Long before East Germany (the DDR) was falling apart, high-ranking Emil Grimm felt “irretrievably” convinced “that the state he served had become corrupted beyond salvation, and that he had become a willing party to its inevitable decline.”  Having relished his Stasi privileges and having used his own power for revenge, he was filled with remorse–and that’s not his only secret.  Grimm’s personal life involves a bizarre sort of ménage-à-trois which might condemn him in the eyes of even liberal-minded Westerners.

Grimm and a Stasi colleague have hatched a plan to escape from the ruins of their country which hasn’t even reached its 50th birthday, by attempting to trade information to the Americans.  But they’re not the only ones on the market as “CIA people were scurrying all over the Berlin area, seeking to make friends of their old enemies in hopes of prying lose their secrets.”

One of those CIA operatives is young Claire Saylor, tasked with contacting a Stasi agent whose name she doesn’t know and whose information is mysterious but presumably valuable.  Her on-site boss is critical, suspicious and withholding, and Saylor has to rely on a retired agent for backup on each rendezvous.  His spycraft augments hers and they forge a dynamic and entertaining  bond.  Unbeknownst to Saylor, however, the KGB has her and Grimm in its sites and a mission that looked relatively simple becomes hair-raising, dangerous, and bloody.

That’s because in the DDR, someone is always watching: “After more than forty years of training their citizens to keep their eyes one another, one could never take lightly the idea of having your movements go unnoticed in the German Democratic Republic.”

Inspired by real events and deeply researched, Winter Work has everything you expect in a top-notch mystery/thriller: characters to care about, a fascinating setting, and a plot that keeps you guessing and on edge.  Fesperman was a Berlin-based journalist and his knowledge of the city is crucial in making this book both intimate and electrifying.  There aren’t many crime novels I lose sleep over, but this was one of them and I didn’t mind because the rewards were so rich and satisfying.

The short opening paragraph of Winter Work perfectly sets the book’s tone:

In winter, the forest bares its secrets.  Hill and vale are revealed through disrobing trees.  Mud and bone arise from dying weeds.  Woodpeckers, taking notice, pry deeper on leafless limbs and rotting logs.  Their drumbeat goes out like a warning.

Lev Raphael is the author of ten crime novels and seventeen other books in many genres.  A former guest author at Michigan State University, he currently mentors, coaches, and edits writers at https://www.writewithoutborders.com.