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Thursday, 25 September 2008

True Beauty

The most striking aspect of Grand Duchess Elizabeth has always been for me, her natural inclination to create beauty in everything. Renowned as 'the most beautiful princess in Europe', far from being possessive about that gift, she used it to the full both for herself and for others. When young, she paid great attention to her appearance; as time passed, that beauty went deeper and deeper and culminated in bringing beauty into the most 'ugly' places - into slums and hovels, into lives devoid of dignity, and into a world thrown into confusion by murder and war.

Now, more than at any other time in history, I believe that message is vital. We have made such advances in technology and science - wonderful advances, bringing people together - but I cannot help but feel sometimes that, along the way, we have forgotten the true meaning of beauty. One only need browse the shelves of video shops to see how many films are made about destruction and violence - 'action films' they are called. One only need glance at billboards or watch a couple of adverts to see how beauty is narrowed down to some designers' ideas of how we should all look, what we should wear....what beauty means.

I live near a wood filled with ancient trees, beside which is a new wood planted for the millennium. To see the young trees growing so quickly is amazing! To see the ancient trees with their gnarled roots, their twisted and heavily-laded branches, the marks in the bark, the intertwining of their limbs is truly breath-taking. Not one tree quite resembles another. Yet, there they all stand having absorbed centuries of wisdom and their beauty is ineffable. They don't fit a pattern. They don't do anything in the way of 'action'. But, strong and solid, they sometimes seem to me to have watched and listened and absorbed centuries of thoughts of passers-by, like me, and they are truly uplifting.

There is, I think, a beauty that doesn't ever try to be anything other than itself at its very best. I think Ella knew that so deeply and, unlike Rasputin, who felt a need to debase people in order to destroy their pride, she simply drew that loveliness from others.

In the midst of financial crises, toppling of governments and ending of empires; in the midst of turmoil in politics and the power-seeking scare-mongering of some politicians, true beauty cannot be destroyed. It is. And, like the ancient trees growing happily beside the newer woods, it simply continues because it is real. And reality is eternal.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

3rd excerpt from "Most Beautiful Princess"

It was early evening as she walked alone on the shores of the Sea of Galilee...
...A fishing boat moved silently over the water and a solitary seagull soared through the pale blue sky. The setting sun spread an amber glow across the horizon like a heavenly vision and, for a moment, breathlessly she paused. Perhaps it was indeed a heavenly vision: a vision of serenity, simplicity and perfection, so far, far removed from the shallow world of glittering ballrooms and palaces. So deep was the sense of peace that tears filled her eyes and a kind of sadness flooded her soul. She raised her hand to her heart. What a strange pain this was: nostalgia for something she had never known? Or a glimpse into another world of ineffable beauty?
She had known this feeling before but never to such depths. Like the glimmer of a candle caught through the corner of her eye, something so close and yet just out of reach; something so simple yet too profound to grasp; like a whispered word or the echo of a sigh; something…something…familiar yet different. She recalled one amber evening as a child, running through the meadows of Osborne, suddenly arrested by a sense that she was running through her childhood, running through her life, running through the whole of history; no longer simply an isolated being running on summer lawns, but a part of the great stream of Spirit, timeless and changeless yet endlessly flowing, creating, evolving. Even then, came the paradoxical awareness of the transience of the moment, captured forever in one eternal now..
Now, as the silent boat sailed across the Galilean sea, it seemed but a shadow of other boats, sailing the same waters long, long before she was born. She could almost hear the voices of fishermen calling to the other boats to help with the miraculous catch; and see the outline the Man walking across the waves. Christ, the fishermen, the apostles, all humanity seemed as close to her as her own self, woven into the fabric of her being as they were woven into the fabric of history; woven into everyone’s being, into Being Itself.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

2nd Excerpt from "Most Beautiful Princess"

....“Murder?” she thought, “Can murder ever be justified….Thou shalt not kill….” And yet, when the whole of Europe was engaged in such bloody slaughter, the removal of one dangerous man, one source of evil, seemed so small a thing. Had all this bloodshed and horror hardened her heart, she wondered. Five, ten years ago it would have been unthinkable to even entertain such a notion but now…desperate times, desperate remedies. She flicked through the pages of her Bible to the Gospel of St. John: “It is better that one man should die for the people, rather than that the whole nation should perish…”
“Matushka,” Mitrophan gently tapped her shoulder, “forgive me, but you look so troubled.”
“I am troubled, Father, deeply troubled.”
He knelt down beside her, “Is there anything I can do?”
“It is better that one man should die for the people, rather than that the whole nation should perish…” she read aloud. “That’s what they said of Christ. Those who killed him believed they were acting for the common good. Do you think that the death of one man could prevent the destruction of a nation?”
“Every nation chooses its own scapegoats. It is easier to lay the responsibility for all our ills at the feet of someone else than to accept that we have brought calamity onto ourselves.”
“But if one man were truly destroying the country and…”
“Could one man do that without the tacit consent of all his fellow countrymen? Evil is like a plant - it can’t flourish unless it is fed and watered.” He gazed towards the infant in the crib, “By our carelessness and selfishness, we all contribute to its growth and then when we see what a monster we have created, we attempt to destroy it as though it is external to ourselves.”
“Something terrible is about to happen,” she whispered. “I have neither condemned nor condoned it but in my heart I think it’s the only way.”
“With or without your agreement, this terrible thing will happen anyway?”
She nodded.
“Then it’s out of your hands and all you can do is place it in the hands of God. Pray that if it is his will, this thing might be averted but, if there is no other way, pray for everyone involved.”
She stared at the serene expressions of the statues in the crib. How she longed for peace, for an end to all this horror, and a return to the beauty that was once her sole preoccupation.
“There was time once,” she murmured, “to contemplate everything; to reflect, to feel..."

Saturday, 13 September 2008

Excerpt from "Most Beautiful Princess"

....That afternoon, Serge sat in his study, staring to no obvious purpose at the papers spread across his desk. But for the steady scuffing of his boot over the carpet the room was silent, and yet, in that steady shuffling of his foot, Ella sensed a scream of desperation, so loud and clamorous that it almost compelled her to block her ears. For some seconds she stood in the entrance gazing at him, longing for him to look up, but, whether he was unaware of her presence or had no desire to see her, his eyes remained fixed on the papers. She yearned to rush to his side, kneel at his feet and beg him to share whatever burden troubled him so intensely but twelve months of hoping had taught her that any attempt to penetrate his thoughts only drove him to a deeper silence. She pushed the door until it creaked but even when the floorboards rasped beneath her feet he did not look up.
He raised his head slightly.
“Are you very busy?”
He shook a wad of papers, “I need to read through these before I leave.”
“May I talk with you?”
“Of course.” He picked up a pen and struck out a few lines on his documents. She drew closer and waited but his only response was a fleeting glance and a swift, questioning raise of his eyebrows.
“Could you at least…” an unintentional irritation crept into her voice, but she restrained it with a shake of her head. “Shall I come back later when you’re less busy?”
He sighed, put down his pen and pushed back his chair. She tried to catch his eye but he looked beyond, or rather through her as though she were a ghost hovering invisibly before him. Even an impatient word would have been preferable to his asphyxiating silence. Her eyes wandered desperately around the room trying to find some common link to start a conversation but there was only the starkness of his study, his papers, his own private world in which she played so small a part.
There was so much she burned to say and her thoughts ran so quickly that she half-expected to hear them tumbling uncontrollably from her tongue, ‘Why don’t you love me? Why can’t you love me? What have I done to repulse you?’
“Please,” she murmured pathetically, “will you sit over here?”
He flinched but stood up and followed her to the sofa where he sat half-turned towards her. He raised one hand to his chin, wiping his index finger to and fro across his lips. Her fingers moved tentatively towards his other hand, resting flat on the cushion between them. When she touched his skin with the lightness of a pianist playing a gentle melody, he neither responded nor moved away....

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Biography v. Fiction

If you were asked to write your autobiography, where would you begin? "I was born...I did this, I did that...I went to school, college, university....met so & so etc. etc."?? Or would you write: "The first thing I felt was...." or "I hurt..." or "I was happy...."? Which would be closer to your essence and to who you really are? Which would be more real?

If you were asked to write someone else's biography, where would you begin? With the same questions? Or, because we feel such a sense of separation from each other, would you feel like Thomas Gradgrind in Dickens' Hard Times, when he says:

"Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!"

And more than facts...stick to sources!! State your sources, sir - how can you know this, how can you prove this??? In a biography or factual account of any life, these things are necessary, otherwise real historical people become dstorted and nothing but the projections of the writer. But how can I prove in my own life - how can you prove in yours - that you once felt humiliated, destroyed, elated, ecstatic??? Do you have sources for that?? Did you write it down? Did you make sure it was stored in archives?? How did you feel when you first fell in love?? Can prove it??

I can't. I have no sources for my own life...how much less anyone else's.

I am totally opposed to turning real historical people into projections of ourselves (something most of us do, with most people we meet, much of the time anyway!!) and for that reason, always found it objectionable when people fictionalised actual events and people. However, there are times when (to quote Dickens again):

"Some persons hold," he pursued, still hesitating, "that there is a wisdom of the Head, and that there is a wisdom of the Heart. . . ."

Sometimes, reading the spoken words and letters of people of the past, one has such a feel for what that person is saying, that it goes beyond what can be proved or cited to sources. Any novel is a projection of the author but so, too, is any biography in that the author places some kind of interpretation on the 'facts'. It is my belief that if a novel is clearly labelled as a 'novel' the author's intention is clear - it is an interpretation of truth. That is no less valid than something that is labelled 'biography'. Perhaps, in some ways, the former is closer to truth than the latter because the former is patently the author's interpretation.

When I was at school (a thousand years ago!), those who studied science subjects for 'A' level, were generally considered somehow 'cleverer' than those who studied arts subjects. I suspect this is a result of patriarchal societies where classifying things into boxes is more important than getting to the heart of the matter.

There are many ways to approach a person's life and none of them is as true as the person him/herself, but when it comes to presenting a life in any particular genre, I firmly believe that the bottom line is respect for the person. Many people have written from accurate sources and have written without love. Many people have written inaccuracies and novels, without love. When one writes from the heart and the head, I honestly don't think it matters which genre one chooses.

New Novel Based On The Life of Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia

Based on the true story of Queen Victoria's granddaughter, Grand Duchess Elizaveta Feodorovna, "Most Beautiful Princess" follows 'Ella' from her arrival in Russia to marry Grand Duke Serge Alexandrovich, brother of Tsar Alexander III, through to her horrific murder at the hands of the Bolsheviks.

Adored and yet vilified as a German spy; childless, yet loved by children; gentle, yet capable of virtually single-handedly engineering the marriage of her ill-fated sister, Alexandra to Nicholas II, last Tsar of all the Russias; devoted to her difficult husband, yet so often the object of slander and gossip, at first glance her intriguing life seems one of extremes. Yet there is one unchanging thread running through this story - from all the glamour of Royal Courts in the halcyon days of the 19th century monarchies, to the abject poverty of Moscow's slums; she maintained an unchanging determination to bring beauty into the world. Far from being simply a story of an another era, the life of Ella, Grand Duchess Elisabeth Feodorovna speaks directly of so many issues facing the world today. In a life which encountered terrorism, the need for religious tolerance, the bridging of the gap between the rich and the poor, and the joining of the material with the spiritual, Ella's is not only a fascinating historical life but perhaps, more importantly, a template for the future of all our lives.

Although this is a novel, all the characters in the book actually existed and, having already researched and written the biography of Ella, I have ensured that it is grounded in historical accuracy.
Some historical biographers take exception to the fictionalisation of real people - and I completely understand and appreciate that opinion. Over the next few days, however, I shall explain why I chose this genre to present my understanding of the beautiful life of Grand Duchess Elizabeth.