Tuesday, February 12, 2008

So Who Are Your Famous Relatives?

In the 8th grade, I went to the cheap movie theatre in downtown Brigham City and fell in love. Cary Elwes as Wesley in the Princess Bride was the fulfillment of every romantic fantasy. (The love-affair with the British Pirate motiff only came in a close second to the Australian foreign exchange student whom I would fall madly in love with.) Some time later, a friend told me that Cary Elwes had been in a movie called Lady Jane.

I had seen Helena Bonham Carter in another film and thought she was quite wonderful, so I decided to give it a try. Well, it became one of my favorites and my fascination with the historical figure of Lady Jane, as well as the events immediately preceding and following her death, became almost an obsessive interest.

When visiting London just a few months before my 17th birthday, I found the site, in the shadow of the Tower Bridge, where Lady Jane was executed. I took pictures, feeling an almost reverence for the spot of her, well, martyrdom. I've often wondered how much of the love story between she and her husband was real, and how much was imagined. The following year, my two best friends went on the same tour (one of whom had gone with me as well), and I stayed home licking my wounds for a week and a half. One of those friends brought me a print of this painting from London's National Gallery:

I was deeply touched that he would even remember my near-fettish with the subject matter and I carried the print with me everywhere I went for years before having it framed. (A few of you have probably seen it in my house.) It always makes for interesting conversation when new people come to visit.

In my early 20's, I was speaking with my mom's brother who has a deep and a abiding love of all things English and is extremely well-read. He is a real scholar of British history, particularly the Tudor Period. He told me that our genealogy had been traced back to that era and an exciting discovery had been made. My mother's maiden name is actually an Americanized version of the rare surname Fitzpen. "Fitz" was added to a last name to denote bastard royal lineage. The first Fitzpen was actually a child of, you guessed it, Henry VIII.

His revelation didn't really shock me, instead, it was more of an affirmation of my fixation with this British era of weak, lustful men and powerful, disciplined women.

This is the background I took into my viewing of Elizabeth: The Golden Age late last night. It is a good film. Or maybe a mediocre film with a great performance. It is hard to say. Cate Blanchett is really an incredible, believable Elizabeth. The movie, however, was a little disjointed and fuzzy. The final Armada action sequence, which has been building up the entire movie, was confusing and quick. I believe the director was trying to create a portrait of Elizabeth moreso than focus on the Armada, but it was a bit anti-climactic. Maybe the reality was too. As I viewed the film, many parts of the story seemed totally improbable to me, but my later research (I spent an hour on the Internet after watching the movie) showed that much of the story was accurate (even the armor-wearing pep-talk to the troops). I actually wish I had done the research first, instead of after. I would probably have been less distracted by aspects of the story and would have been able to put things in better context.

One of the most contrived parts to me seemed to be Elizabeth's love-of-my-life attitude toward Walter Raleigh. While it seems true that he was favored by Elizabeth for a time, she really was in her mid-fifties when Raleigh was at court (the movie never says, but Blanchett's Faerie Queen is hard to accept as older than 40 or 45). Also, she was, for many years, most greatly attached to the man she had made her Master of Horse. (Who, incidentally, was Lady Jane Gray's oldest brother-in-law. Hmm . . . what do they say when your family tree doesn't branch? Apparently, he was thrown off as a traitor in the first film, so he could not re-appear in this one.)

The next bit won't make much sense unless you have seen the film, so be warned. The director did a good job of juxtaposing Bess with Elizabeth, although there are times (like the way they always wear the same colors, just slightly different shades), it seems a little forced. By the end I was like, "Okay! I get it! Bess is Elizabeth's alter-ego, leave me alone!" Their relationship opens up questions of power, loyalty, the desirability of marriage and freedom. The movie portrays the queen as forgiving Bess and Walter Raleigh's indiscretion very quickly--for England, and because she needs her own forgiveness, and even offering a blessing on their child when he is just a few months old, but the reality is not as pretty. Queen Elizabeth stayed angry for a long time, and Raleigh was imprisoned for as long as five years. Bess, as his wife, was in exile with him. She gave birth under severely impoverished circumstances and the baby died when he was less than six months old. The movie makes it seem that Bess and Raleigh will travel together to the New World and live the life that Elizabeth wishes she could have had. Again, the reality is much starker, more difficult.

The reasons that Elizabeth never married have never been clearly pegged by historians, and the movie makes great use of legend to give motivation. Cate Blanchett's Elizabeth is strong, too strong to allow room for any other person in her life. She needs no support and is complete without any spouse. Historical sources tell us that the reason may have been less modern feminist, and more sexual abuse suffered as a child at the hands of the couple who were supposed to be her protectors.

Anyway, I was fascinated by the reading I did last night and if you get a minute (yeah right), I think the link above is worth visiting, as well as several of the connected articles. It is true that the sources are Wikipedia sources (not perfect), but they are well cited and several different articles seem to mostly repeat the same information. Or, if there is no time to read, next time you are looking to rent a movie that is smart and interesting and well-acted, this would be a great pick. (I'm thinking of getting the first tonight, hubby is out of town, though the content doesn't seem to be quite as tame.)
So, famous relatives? Historical interests?


FoxyJ said...

As far as I know I'm not related to anyone famous at all. Although we might have Arab blood back in there somewhere. My dad is very dark and has black hair. He has actually worked in the Middle East a lot and has been told more than once that he looks Arab. He certainly looks like his brothers, but is darker than them. His ancestors are all either Swedish or British. However, one day a lady who is a family history expert told my mom that during the Crusades and even later during the Renaissance, British families would "adopt" (or kidnap) Arab children, give them English names, and basically "Christianize" them. So it's possible that we have some hidden Moorish blood in us..

Anywho--I've been wanting to see the Elizabeth movies with Cate Blanchett but just haven't gotten around to it. In my class on women writers of the Renaissance we actually read several of Elizabeth's speeches and talked about her rhetoric and persona as a leader. She really is a fascinating person. (By the way you should read Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History--it's good)

Yankee Girl said...

That painting of Lady Jane in the National Gallery is one of my favorite! It is so stunning--even in print form but even better in person.

Thank you for your review of Elizabeth. I wasn't overly interested in seeing it, but now I think I will (I didn't realize that it was a sequel to the first--when it first came out I kept thinking why would a director use the same actress for the same role as another director had used for a different movie. Not overly brilliant on my part)

My historical interest would have to be World War II--romance fantasywise this would be World War II in London with a tall, dark, and handsome Londoner rescuing me during a bombing raid or some kind of a hero spy scenario.

And at the risk of breaking the anonimity code--and I realize this is a long shot--but my Mom's family is from Brigham. Do you know the Hepworths?

Science Teacher Mommy said...

I'm not actually from Brigham: I grew up in Pleasant View/North Ogden area. We would ocassionally hit that BC theatre because it was so cheap and as close as driving to Layton. I knew some Hepworths in Texas that were members. She was originally a Pratt (as in Parley P.), but he was from Utah?

I need to read more about WWII. I only ever took basic history classes through high school (and NONE in college). If you like WWII, you need to read Rosamunde Pilcher--try Shell Seekers, but especially Coming Home.

The American period that I am fascinated by is the Civil War. When I see what civil wars do to other countries in modern times, I think it is one of the greatest miracles of all time that our country actually survived it.

Science Teacher Mommy said...

Oh, and I didn't put together that it was a sequel until a few days ago myself. :) Same director, several of the same actors. I'm sure it would have all come together had I actually SEEN the first. The second really is a stand alone, though. I think even if I had seen the first there are bits about the history that would have been murky.

Oh, and I re-watched Lady Jane last night. The soundtrack really dates it, but there are a few spots where the dialogue is really so meaningful. There are speeches that are not only well-written but very well acted. Bonham-Carter was only 20 when she played this part: even at such a young age she was already a fantastic (little) actress. She is the smallest person in the room, but with wide eyes and remarkable hair and brows, it is impossible to take your eyes off of her for a moment.

By the by, I noticed that the actor's name that plays Mr. Bingley in the BBC Pride and Prejudice is named Crispin Bonham-Carter. This cannot be a coincidence, can it?

Yankee Girl said...

Not the same Hepworths I think. Thanks for the reading advice--I just picked up Eragon on advice of your blog sidebar. I also love the Civil War (I was born in Gettysburg, PA and lived in 2 homes there that were used as hospitals during the battle so it is a bit personal). And I'm glad the new Elizabeth movie stands on its own so I don't have to go and get the first one again. I'm going to have to look into the Lady Jane movie and no I can't imagine that Crispin Bonham-Carter is a coincidence.

Karin said...

We're descended from William Wallace (Mel Gibson in Braveheart, I think). my dad's side had some great stories, but my favorites are my mom's. When my grandfather's ex-wife was very ill and *very* medicated she finally spilled the beans. Nobody in that family would ever talk about their heritage and now we know why. my grandfather's father grew up in a brothel. His mother was the madam. :-) Apparently, it was a high-end establishment that catered to the aristocracy of Prussia. Not sure that there is any way to corroborate the story, but she had tons of details.

Anyway, fun family skeletons. :-) As for historical periods...I'm all over the place. I love all sorts. Tudor England, prehistoric pagans, and Civil War. If it's romantic, I love it. :-)

Desmama said...

Wow. Cool stories from everyone. My grandmother's mother died when my grandma was about two, so her father distributed the siblings around to relatives and orphanages and then . . . took off. One of the aunts swears she saw him in a store in, like, Oklahoma with a new wife and child, but that was the last they really saw of him. I always think of that story as a starting place for a really interesting novel, if I ever get the chutzpah and skills to write one. I mean, how do you just do that? Take off and forget about your kiddos? I don't even understand it, but that story has always fascinated me.

Science Teacher Mommy said...

The big skeleton in our family closet is that part of my grandmother's family joined the church in the south and brought slaves of the same surname with them to Utah. There is some suggestion of intermarrying . . . or at least children of two races.

Even normal families can be so dysfunctional. My maternal grandmother's life would make a fantastic novel, but it will have to wait a generation or two to be well-received.

on.the.run said...

I think Edward Partridge is as exciting as it gets in my line. Of course there is Thomas Ricks for whom Ricks College was named; but even the church agreed that wasn't so impressive... after all they changed the name.

Kimberly Bluestocking said...

My family line gets into royalty a few centuries back, and once you're related to anybody you're related to everybody. My favorites are Henry "Hotspur" de Percy, and King Duncan who was killed by Macbeth. There are also some Vikings, and someone who was charged with witchcraft and acquitted.

Interesting that so many of us are interested in the Civil war. I love the idealism of that age - most people seemed to care so much about everything. How tragic that so many of those hopes were cut short.