Sea Biscuit, Man o’ War, War Admiral…these are the names of some of the most famous race horses of all time and while there may be six degrees of separation for everything and everyone, at first glance, there may not seem to be much connection between them to Jane Austen.
My daughter (along with at least half of the seven year old girl population) is currently fascinated by horses and I recently picked up Marguerite Henry’s King of the Wind for her to read. The story is a fictionalized account of the Godolphin Arabian. I had not realized that it was a true story when I first began to peruse it, but I quickly became engrossed in the story, which reads like any fairy tale (and, of course, has a happy ending!)
According to Wikipedia, “the Godolphin Arabian (c. 1724 – 1753), was an Arabian horse who was one of three stallions that were the founders of the modern Thoroughbred horse racing bloodstock (the other two are the Darley Arabian and the Byerley Turk). He was given his name for his best-known owner, Francis Godolphin, 2nd Earl of Godolphin.
The Godolphin Arabian was foaled about 1724 in Yemen, but moved several times before reaching England. At some time in his early years, he was exported, probably via Syria, to the stud of the Bey of Tunis. From there he was given to Louis XV of France in 1730. It is believed he was a present from monarch to monarch. Even so, he was not valued by his new French owner, and it is believed he was used as a carthorse.
The Nutcracker and the Mouse King (German: Nussknacker und Mausekönig) is a story written in 1816 by E. T. A. Hoffmann, a German Romantic author of fantasy and horror, composer, music critic, and caricaturist.
In the tale, young Marie Stahlbaum’s favorite Christmas toy, the Nutcracker, comes alive and, after defeating the evil Mouse King in battle, whisks her away to a magical kingdom populated by dolls. In 1892, the Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and choreographers Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov turned Alexandre Dumas père‘s adaptation of the story into the ballet The Nutcracker, which became one of Tchaikovsky’s most famous compositions, and perhaps the most popular ballet in the world.
Hoffmann’s story begins on Christmas Eve at the Stahlbaum house. Marie, seven years old, and her brother Fritz, eight, sit outside the parlor speculating about what kind of present their godfather Drosselmeier, who is a clockmaker and inventor, has made for them. They are at last allowed into the parlor, where they receive many splendid gifts, including Drosselmeier’s, which turns out to be a clockwork castle with mechanical people moving about inside it. However, as the mechanical people can only do the same thing over and over without variation, the children quickly tire of it. At this point, Marie notices a Nutcracker doll, and asks whom he belongs to. Her father tells her that he belongs to all of them, but that since she is so fond of him she will be his special caretaker. Marie, her sister Louise, and her brother Fritz pass the Nutcracker among them, cracking nuts, until Fritz tries to crack a nut that is too big and hard, and the Nutcracker’s jaw breaks. Marie, upset, takes the Nutcracker away and bandages him with a ribbon from her dress.
When it is time for bed, the children put their Christmas gifts away in the special cupboard where they keep their toys. Fritz and Louise go up to bed, but Marie begs to be allowed to stay with Nutcracker a while longer, and she is allowed to do so. She puts Nutcracker to bed and tells him that Drosselmeier will fix his jaw as good as new. At this, the Nutcracker’s face seems momentarily to come alive, and Marie is frightened, but she then decides it was only her imagination.
The grandfather clock begins to chime, and Marie believes she sees Drosselmeier sitting on top of it, preventing it from striking. Mice begin to come out from beneath the floor boards, including the seven-headed Mouse King. Marie, startled, slips and puts her elbow through the glass door of the toy cupboard. The dolls in the cupboard come alive and begin to move, Nutcracker taking command and leading them into battle after putting Marie’s ribbon on as a token. The battle at first goes to the dolls, but they are eventually overwhelmed by the mice. Marie, seeing Nutcracker about to be taken prisoner, takes off her shoe and throws it at the Mouse King, then faints.
Marie wakes the next morning with her arm bandaged and tries to tell her parents about the battle between the mice and the dolls, but they do not believe her, thinking that she has had a fever dream caused by the wound she sustained from the broken glass. Drosselmeier soon arrives with the Nutcracker, whose jaw has been fixed, and tells Marie the story of Princess Pirlipat and Madam Mouserinks, who is also known as the Queen of the Mice, which explains how Nutcrackers came to be and why they look the way they do.
The Queen of the Mice tricked Pirlipat’s mother into allowing her and her children to gobble up the lard that was supposed to go into the sausage that the King was to eat at dinner that evening. The King, enraged at the Mouse Queen for spoiling his supper and upsetting his wife, had his court inventor, whose name happens to be Drosselmeier, create traps for the Mouse Queen and her children.
The Mouse Queen, angered at the death of her children, swore that she would take revenge on the King’s daughter, Pirlipat. Pirlipat’s mother surrounded her with cats which were supposed to be kept awake by being constantly stroked, however inevitably the nurses who stroked the cats fell asleep and the Mouse Queen magically turned the infant Pirlipat ugly, giving her a huge head, a wide grinning mouth and a cottony beard, like a nutcracker. The King blamed Drosselmeier and gave him four weeks to find a cure. At the end of four weeks, Drosselmeier had no cure but went to his friend, the court astrologer.
They read Pirlipat’s horoscope and told the King that the only way to cure her was to have her eat the nut Crackatook (Krakatuk), which must be cracked and handed to her by a man who had never been shaved nor worn boots since birth, and who must, without opening his eyes hand her the kernel and take seven steps backwards without stumbling. The King sent Drosselmeier and the astrologer out to look for the nut and the young man, charging them on pain of death not to return until they had found them.
The two men journeyed for many years without finding either the nut or the man, until finally they returned home and found the nut in a small shop. The man who had never been shaved and never worn boots turned out to be Drosselmeier’s own nephew. The King, once the nut had been found, promised his daughter’s hand to whoever could crack the nut. Many men broke their teeth on the nut before Drosselmeier’s nephew finally appeared. He cracked the nut easily and handed it to the princess, who swallowed it and immediately became beautiful again, but Drosselmeier’s nephew, on his seventh backward step, trod on the Queen of the Mice and stumbled, and the curse fell on him, giving him a large head, wide grinning mouth and cottony beard; in short, making him a Nutcracker. The ungrateful Princess, seeing how ugly Drosselmeier’s nephew had become, refused to marry him and banished him from the castle.
Marie, while she recuperates from her wound, hears the King of the Mice whispering to her in the middle of the night, threatening to bite Nutcracker to pieces unless she gives him her sweets and her dolls. For Nutcracker’s sake, Marie sacrifices her things, but the Mouse King wants more and more and finally Nutcracker tells Marie that if she will just get him a sword, he (the Nutcracker) will finish him off. Marie asks Fritz for a sword for Nutcracker, and he gives her the sword of one of his toy hussars. The next night, Nutcracker comes into Marie’s room bearing the Mouse King’s seven crowns, and takes her away with him to the doll kingdom, where Marie sees many wonderful things. She eventually falls asleep in the Nutcracker’s palace and is brought back home. She tries to tell her mother what happened, but again she is not believed, even when she shows her parents the seven crowns, and she is forbidden to speak of her “dreams” anymore.
As Marie sits in front of the toy cabinet one day, looking at Nutcracker and thinking about all the wondrous things that happened, she can’t keep silent anymore and swears to the Nutcracker that if he were ever really real she would never behave as Princess Pirlipat behaved, and she would love him whatever he looked like. At this, there is a bang and she falls off the chair. Her mother comes in to tell her that godfather Drosselmeier has arrived with his young nephew. Drosselmeier’s nephew takes Marie aside and tells her that by swearing that she would love him in spite of his looks, she broke the curse on him and made him handsome again. He asks her to marry him. She accepts, and in a year and a day he comes for her and takes her away to the Doll Kingdom, where she is crowned queen and eventually marries the Prince.
My favorite local secondhand bookshop (St Mary’s Books) is blessed with a split personality; in the back there’s a tidy room of locked glass cases containing special expensive editions, but to get to it you pass through two small rooms turned into a short maze of dusty shelves that display anything the proprietors think they might sell to someone…anyone. At the foot of some private stairs (that you pass by to reach the second room) there’s even a disorganized paperback section where you can find the odd Catherine Cookson pressed tightly between Chaucer and Ian Fleming or some long dead Greek playwright. It’s a very egalitarian bookshop. I went in hope of finding a cheap anthology of middle English poetry, but I couldn’t find anything other than Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (which I haven’t yet desired to read). I kept browsing. In the second room, the far left corner holding European history is separated from the shelves of literature by a grubby stand with more paperbacks, most of them cheap editions of great literature published in the fifties and sixties. I spun it round and caught sight of a book with a cover portrait of a beautiful young man with intelligent eyes. I’d never heard of Robert Bage or his book called Hermsprong; Man as He is not. Flipping it open I found the novel was published in 1796. Reading the back it said it was funny (and as it only cost £1) so I bought it.
Yesterday I finally picked it up. I was enjoying the narrator’s voice, but being a curious wench, the footnotes drew me to the back of the book and I was soon taking notes on the explanatory notes. I was quite interested to learn that the author, a self educated paper mill owner, had radical viewpoints on women. I turned back to a noted passage in the middle and started reading and kept reading. It is funny (if you enjoy dry ironic English humor) and the characters burst off the page. The hero of the story, Mr Charles Hermsprong, is a truth-fairy (he speaks truth as he sees it) and he explodes into the polite society of the local gentry. Raised in America, the son of a an English father and a French mother, he has returned to England to claim his inheritance. It’s a romance, but woven around what would have been termed in 1796 as ‘radical politics’. I don’t think it has any long boring speeches (some writers can’t resist euphemistically using a pile their books as a soap box which I find dead boring), just a lot of witty dialogue that must have made more than a few of Bage’s contemporaries gasp. Women be considered rational creatures and allowed mental liberty and legally considered man’s equal? Shock horror! (In England this didn’t really come about ’till the 1960’s so he was ahead of his time.)
I’m surprised the BBC hasn’t been made Hermsprong into a television production. The book has so much dialogue that a good cast of actors would bring it to life by showing all the unspoken dialogue. The original readers were no doubt familiar with the socially accepted body language and the faint visual clues to distinguish the speakers meant exactly the opposite of what they were saying. Another great thing about watching an older story being performed is that the set moves a lot of unimportant details into the background and allows the tale to be uninterrupted (at least for people like me) with checking footnotes and the dictionary.
It turned out that the beautiful young man on the cover was Gainsborough Dupont (circa 1770-75) painted by Thomas Gainsborough (no doubt a relation). I’m now going to have to go back to where I left off at the beginning and read the first half of the book (after sitting up late into the night reading the latter part), because the characters and dialogue are that great. I wish I’d written it!
Hermsprong is available in many formats both new and used from booksellers such as Amazon.co.uk. It is also available for free from Google Books.
Cari Hislop discovered Regency romance novels at the age of twelve and it changed her life from wanting to be an author to wanting to write romances. Her current novels can be found on her website, Regency Romance Novels by Cari Hislop and are also available for Kindle readers, through Amazon.com.