Friday, June 15, 2012

still more Tudors! plus: tight pants

In the last week I finished my Early Reviewers book, Catherine Fletcher's The Divorce of Henry VIII: The Untold Story from Inside the Vatican. It follows the fortunes of the Casali brothers, Italians who for many years were Henry VIII's ambassadors to Rome and did their best to obtain his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. This book was, well, as interesting as papal diplomacy can be. Fletcher tries her best to liven it up, but the story bogged an awful lot, especially since the Casali brothers never succeeded.

Because of all the Tudor-ness in my life right now, I also re-read Elizabeth's Women: Friends, Rivals, and Foes Who Shaped the Virgin Queen, by Tracy Borman. My sister-in-law gave me this book a while back and I just loved it. It was even more fascinating the second time around, feeling as I do that I know the historical personages well from all my recent reading. I have a secret sympathy for Mary Tudor (Queen Mary I); she was admittedly nuts but who, in her circumstances, wouldn't have been?

Then, because I have no built-in quality control, I proceeded to read a bunch of Baroness Orczy's Scarlet Pimpernel novels, which are abject trash.

Let me back up. While watching the "Pallisers" miniseries, I was delighted to see a baby Anthony Andrews playing Lord Silverbridge (he was twenty-four at the time but looked sixteen), and then I had to queue up the 1982 hilarity which is "The Scarlet Pimpernel". It is the type of made-for-TV movie in which one character says, "If you look out that window, you will see my yacht anchored just off-shore," another character looks out the window, and then you get stock footage of a three-masted ship moving rapidly ahead under full sail, in the middle of the ocean. It actually appears to have had a decent budget, but I'm just saying that where the budget (and the acting) fails, it fails spectacularly.

I probably saw it for the first time in 1982, when I was far too young to understand why these lithe men in extraordinarily tight trousers were so compelling, and I then watched it repeatedly* for the next ten years (it was also the first thing in which I saw Ian McKellen, and I was not too young to realize that he was some sort of god). The appeal of the tight pants did eventually become clear. According to Bill Bryson, men of the time not only wore the tightest pants they could find but avoided underwear. Hey hey. The romance novels are not so wrong after all!

Speaking of romance novels, that is precisely what the Scarlet Pimpernel books are, albeit chaste precursors to what we have now (in the first one, I'm not sure there are even any kisses other than on the hand). Sir Percy, far from being whippet-hipped à la Andrews, is constantly described as "massive", which for me is not only violently un-sexy but reminds me of the two most ludicrous romance novel descriptions of male ginormousness that I have come across: one featured a man with "shoulders wider than a longbow", which meant his shoulders were about six feet across, and the other had a heroine realizing, with a shudder of desire, that "each of [the hero's] thighs was, without a doubt, bigger around than her waist". Yes, I am aware that as a romance novel heroine, she's supposed to have a roughly fourteen-inch waist, and it's possible Lord Hamhock is in training for the Paris-Roubaix, but I still cannot read that without picturing a tyrannosaurus in a doublet.

The heroine in the Scarlet Pimpernel books is dumb as a bag of hammers, and in proud romance novel tradition it's supposed to be "impulsive" - she does the "I'm going to do something that endangers everybody, because I am so spunky!" thing constantly, including at one point putting an entire town under threat of the guillotine. The villain keeps hatching complicated schemes which depend upon her doing something very stupid, and she never fails to come through. And just as the hero is always described as massive, she is always described as tiny and childlike (oh sweet jeebus the emphasis on her tiny hands and tiny feet), and in that childishness apparently lies her irresistibility to all men. You can imagine the face I am making right about now. 

Mary Tudor is not impressed.

(In one book she swoons while saying her impassioned impulsive good-bye to the hero, and he's like, "Thank heavens for that," and dumps her in a hedge. Of course he kisses her tiny feet before leaving, but it was still my favorite scene.)  

But after watching the movie again, and laughing my ass off at its cheesy melodrama, and enjoying it enormously, I found that all the novels are free for Kindle, so I downloaded them and turned off most of my brain. This is especially necessary in pro-aristocrat French Revolution literature, because my sympathies are thoroughly with the peasants. A Tale of Two Cities walks a line with this, establishing the horror of life under the nobility's thumb, but then writing the deaths of many of the aristocrats as tragic, at which I scoff. Go, mob, go! One of the Scarlet Pimpernel books brings up, for pathos, the death of Madame de Lamballe, and all I could think was, "Does this pike make me look fat?"

In conclusion: even for someone as easily entertained as I, the movie is far better than the books, and I am going to be mainlining some Margaret Atwood short stories over the weekend, because I am now starved for good writing.

Also, to the person who found this blog by googling "Cormac McCarthy stories": I'd say I'm sorry, but I'm not.

*I mean repeatedly. Twenty years after the last time I saw it, I still knew all the dialogue.


  1. I still cannot read that without picturing a tyrannosaurus in a doublet.

    //snorks tea OW. Ow.

    I found that all the novels are free for Kindle, so I downloaded them and turned off most of my brain

    ....OMG you did not just tell me that. //cries

    Which Atwood stories?

    1. Oh no, don't read the books. They're awful. Seriously.

      I have a whole bunch of Atwood collections from the library right now. Should be fun.