THE HOUSE OF WINDSOR

Prince Harry And The Golden Dog Bowl

Or in cauda venenum

A fairytale*

By Elena Vassilieva

“O tempora! O mores!” – Cicero. Image is by Elena Vassilieva

“The night was well advanced, when he reached his own house, having met no interruption on the way, proud of his well-planned stratagem, elated by success, and flattered by the hope that he had extricated himself by his own energy from all the perils which had of late appeared so dark and difficult to shun. Duri magno sed amore dolores Pollute, Notumque furens quid faemina possit [Virgil].” – Henry William Herbert, the old Etonian, in The Roman Traitor (1846).

Once upon a time, Harry was a dashing British prince. He must have caught Meghan Markle’s eye on May 9, 2013, when the Prince was warmly welcomed by the First Lady, Michelle Obama, at the Mother’s Day tea party, at the White House. One needn’t be present there to feel the pleasant atmosphere and all the waves of fascination for the guest of honour, since all the TV channels seemed to be wrapped in a cloud of giddiness while broadcasting the event. Mrs Obama herself looked very jolly and lovely, clad in a romantic floral dress that matched her mood and hairdo. Enjoying the Prince’s company, the First Lady kindly invited children to the party, and the British Prince didn’t fail to charm them. Harry’s team’s win at the charity polo match, at the Greenwich Polo Club in Connecticut, only added to his success on this week-long visit to America. Prince Harry was also well received at the Russel Senate Office Building. The flock of giggling girls were delighted to be in such close proximity to the prominent guest. In fact, the young ladies were over the moon and, of course, they wanted to take home a souvenir that would mark the occasion. They photographed the Prince, who was sent on the Warrior Games mission to America, from all angles, but they also were eager to take a selfie with Harry. At that precise moment, the Prince had caught my eye as well because he happened to say to the girls, disapprovingly, that he was very much anti-selfie. He believed the quality of selfies was very low, and that one would get much better results if one asked someone for help. Not only was his remark reasonable, I thought, but he also made clear that he wasn’t afraid not to confirm to the fancies of contemporary fashion.

Meanwhile, Meghan Markle, about whose existence the world happily knew nothing, must have desperately wished she were at the tea party and most certainly envied Mrs Obama for being such an elegant First Lady who was to receive the Prince. Moreover, Ms Markle might have produced sigh after sigh after sigh, after all, Harry was out of reach at the time, the Prince was in a relationship with the beautiful and levelheaded Cressida Bonas, with whom the unknown American actress stood no chance to compete. Nonetheless, Prince Harry’s charming and smart manners at the White House inspired Ms Markle and boosted her aspirational power to get what she wanted. Precisely then, she must have started making her plans and tedious preparations for the future. Her notes on logistics would begin with the elementary, such as how to make herself visible to the Prince and how to meet the most eligible bachelor in person, how to present herself to him right after, and, finally and most importantly, how to dazzle him. She pondered what type of woman she would rather be and what she would rather not be for the Prince, dismissing the Duchess of Cambridge as a paragon of virtue resolutely and absolutely, but seriously considering Diana, the Princess of Wales, as a helpful book to study from cover to cover, so she decided. Also, she found in Wallis Simpson’s predatory brazenness an invaluable source of inspiration.

Ms Markle’s own hunting instincts dictated to her that, in the beginning, it would suffice to be perceived simply as American as apple pie: sweet and funny, outgoing and poised, practical and unceremonious, and, like a teenager, flashily in love with her Prince, clinging on to him as if he were about to be grabbed by an invisible other woman, the villain. But she’d better be in good standing, too, with as many good deeds on her resume as possible, even if the deeds would be done in a hurry and one time only, so she thought. Later on, however, she might want to shed the image of the cute and awesome American apple-pie-like woman, replacing it with that of the flamboyant femme fatale, who is capricious and demanding, ambitious and desirous of power and attention to such a degree that she would dare seriously think she could dismantle good old House of Windsor in a trice.

To everyone’s amazement, she showcased her inexhaustible stratagemical energy par excellence, when she had deployed every means available to her to reach the unreachable. She, somehow, connected with the right people who knew the Prince. She arranged an engagement at the UN (there weren’t too many details about it in the Netflix docuseries, just a photo of her at the UN headquarters was shown for a second so that we would know she set a foot there to corroborate that instance on her Curriculum Vitae). She also didn’t shy away from less credible enterprises that might have helped her get closer to her goal. Thus, she paid a visit to one wizard who emboldened her by predicting a grand wedding in the near future. It certainly makes one wonder whether the wizard’s job hadn’t ended with his prediction? Perhaps, he did more than that, who knows? Naturally, these are pure speculations of my silly mind, and for now, let us follow the Shakespearean logic of all is well that ends well.

Time will tell sooner or later what really happened. A love potion or not that might or might not have been prepared for the Prince, it shouldn’t matter at all, especially when people genuinely fall in love with each other, one reckons. But one thing that matters is how utterly busy Ms Markle must have kept herself before our Prince came to visit America for the second time, in 2015. President Obama was exuberant to have Harry as a guest of honour in October of 2015, in the Oval Office: “It is a great pleasure to welcome His Royal Highness Prince Harry to the Oval Office. I’ve had an opportunity to spend a lot of time with so many of his family members, but this is the first time we had a chance to talk directly. He has gotten to know Michelle very well, for a range of reasons, but in particular, he’s here to talk about the Invictus Games, an initiative that is bringing together the wounded warriors around the world, under the leadership of Prince Harry and others, to make sure that we see not simply the sacrifices they’ve made, but also the incredible contributions, strength, and courage they continue to display.” (President Obama’s speech is quoted as in the USMagazine, October 28, 2015)

Again, Meghan Markle must have been quite envious of the delightful Mrs Obama who visited the USO Warrior and Family Center at the Fort Belvoir military base in Fairfax County, VA with the Prince and seemed to have had a good rapport with His Royal Highness, as the President himself jokingly noted. During that visit, President Obama and Prince Harry had a private conversation about the 2016 Invictus Games, which were going to be played in America. Ms Markle must have realised precisely then that she ought to act, and fast, because Harry, then single and free as a bird, was publicly expressing his despair and concern whether he was, perhaps, doomed to carry on as an eternal bachelor, as there seemed to be no woman on this planet who would be willing to marry the poor thing. And to order and fetch a bride from another planet had still proved quite difficult, albeit the engineering genius, Elon Musk, had already, no later than since 2012, been sleepless while working on his beloved Spaceship-project. But Harry had no patience at all to walk on this planet as a lonesome bachelor till the day the Spaceship would be built and equipped to make interplanetary bride deliveries. Searching and waiting for the right woman, even for two years, seemed to Harry unbearably long. As it turned out, the Prince had a far more complicated task than Mr Musk. Little wonder that this period of bleak solitude quietly drove poor Prince if not to insanity, then definitely to desperation.

Now, in the circumstances, one would think nearly any woman would appear to a man as sweet and delicious as Turkish delight, no? So when, one day, out of the blue, Ms Markle had landed on Harry’s screen, disguised as a dog (sic! Cave canem!), our Prince couldn’t help but think she was heaven-sent. Despite the disguise, the dog-woman intrigued him at once and took his breath and sleep away. Hence, he didn’t hesitate to ask the friend through whom the dog-woman’s image flew to him: “Who on earth is this?” Not quite extraterrestrial, no, but rather appealing in her own trivial and bold way, he reasoned. He already imagined her being the incarnation of the promised bliss, not knowing that later, he would learn firsthand that ‘what Meghan wants Meghan gets,’ and that he himself would soon make not a very soft landing on the dog bowl in Nottingham Cottage, when his sensible brother would try to dispel the dense fog that had enveloped Harold’s impressionable mind. Prince William also hoped to shake off Harold’s naivety and gullibility, for the good of Harry himself, alas, to no avail.

This account comes from the Prince’s book, Spare (2023), so we can’t fully rely on it. The scene might have been dramatised by Harry’s ghostwriter, J.R. Moehringer, for the sake of the Shakespearean tension, which the melodramatic and gossipy book would have lacked completely, despite the Prince’s quite intolerable tendency to overshare. But if there had been any other purpose of that histrionic, blood-and-thunder scene, such as exposing his brother as a steadfast man who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, Prince Harry succeeded in doing so, but he also, embarrassingly, placed himself into the dog bowl, not only making a laughing stock of himself but also presenting himself to his reader as a distrustful and immature man who, clearly, is in discord not only with his Royal relations, but also with his conscience and reality.

Prince William, on the contrary, if the wrangle occurred indeed, earns respect and even admiration from the reader like myself, because he chooses to stand up for all those who were callously reduced to tears by Harry’s wife, whereas Harry adamantly refuses to believe it. The argument should have been left behind the scenes, of course, but the book needed some sensationalism, after all, what was Harry paid for? Definitely not for his Hamlet-musings in the Frogmore gardens. “Good money can make one say anything at all, regardless of whether certain events happened or not, if the one is desperate enough and doesn’t play by the rules,” was the conclusion of the majority of Britons and a good deal of Americans, too. But if Harry just entertained his newfound home, America, with his opus, the prodigal son slapped his good old motherland, Great Britain, on the face, leaving their relationship at daggers drawn. By all accounts, not a very wise chess move. “Check, Harry!”

When the two Princes had disagreed at Nottingham Cottage in 2019, Prince Harry must have already been going through a rapid transformation from the Prince everyone used to be fond of into someone entirely different. The old Harry had been vanishing into thin air by the day. The dog bowl, metaphorically speaking, was turning into a gold-making machine and as well a trap for him into which he lured himself because of his poor judgement and estrangement from his brother who had dutifully looked after him ever since they were children, even if Harry diminishes his significance now, although, ironically, still looks up to William. Who would forget that moment when Prince William, while volunteering in Southern Chile during his gap year, in 2000, had Harry on his mind all the time? He said to the journalist that, after he had been done with his chores (at the moment of the interview, he was cooking and then cleaning a toilet), he would write a letter to Harry. Prince William has cared for his brother, probably no less than their mother, who was as strict as loving, not rarely at all scolding Harry for his naughtiness.

The Princess Diana’s reflection in the Prince William’s behaviour towards Harry is hard to miss. To this day, William handsomely resembles her looks, and that is, of course, merely a genetic coincidence, which, by no means, should be emphasised by Prince Harry, as if it were the wormwood and the gall to him. Harry allowed this rather fatuous comparison to see the light, but he blundered again, showing his own rough corners, not his brother’s. It might be that his ghostwriter either insisted on the passage or didn’t think it was awkward. I certainly thought it was maladroit. But, again, maybe those aren’t Harry’s own remarks? Has Harry been really that jealous of his brother’s looks? And if so, how preposterous! Didn’t Princess Diana joked once that William is destined to be a king, whereas Harry has more freedom of choice, and, besides, all the girls would be his?

But Harry didn’t want all the girls or any girl, he wanted ‘the List,’ ‘the love of his life.’ Fair enough, it’s his choice, but how could this love of his possibly dare to demand from the Royal Family to change their traditions for the sake of her vulgar caprices? Aside to being Harry’s wife, who is she, anyway? The book would’ve been more attractive, had it not contained various comments about Harry’s relatives, who, understandably, would dread any invasion of their privacy and intrusion into their personal space. And who wouldn’t? It does sound a trifle as if the Sussexes might have even resorted to chantage to negotiate the Megxit deal. They even expect the Royal Family to offer them an apology now. Most believe, however, that it should be the other way round. But the Sussexes, I daresay, have been debilitated by their wondrous gold-making dog-bowl-machine so much that they have completely forgotten which one is the left foot and which one is the right foot.     

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only instance in the book when Harry’s candid verbosity was hardly endearing but very much repugnant, despite some truly touching moments of self-reflective contemplation, e.g., in the preface-essay in Spare. There, he is sharing his emotions and thoughts from the gardens at Frogmore, on April 17, 2021, right after the funeral of Prince Philip. He is conflicted with Hamlet in himself. Oddly, he doesn’t pay enough attention to Prince Philip, given the circumstances, while waiting for his brother and father. I think it is as sad as the fact that Harry’s memory seems to deceive him, and his recollections are often truly equivocal. It’s unlikely, therefore, he would remember the care and love he received from his brother and father. Not now, after he had married not only ‘his List,’ his ideal woman, that is, but also, as some braved to utter, his ‘mother.’ I disagree with this point of view. Harry didn’t ‘marry his mother,’ he married an impostor with excellent calculating skills and with an ardent desire to reincarnate Princess Diana for Harry, in order to open the doors for them to everything they had been denied before.

But who said Diana wouldn’t disapprove of it and would support Harry’s wife’s demeanor? That’s very unlikely for a number of reasons. And it’s a great pity that Harry’s wife has misconstrued Princess Diana’s personality so grossly, and Harry allowed it. Despite her rebellious nature and just one or two public incautious moves, which by no means imperiled anyone’s life, Princess Diana was a conservative enough woman. She knew how not to cross the line and what was good and what wasn’t, unlike Harry and especially his wife, who sees the world through a very peculiar lens, that of her looking-glass self, which isn’t her true or authentic self at all. If one saw the Netflix documentary, one might have noticed how she is (re)imagining herself all the time, here she is the wannabe Gwyneth Paltrow, there the wannabe Julia Roberts, but rarely if ever her own self. Princess Diana didn’t have such a conflicting personality at all, she might have had a self-deprecating humour, but she knew who she was, and she fearlessly, to the heart’s core, defended her true original self, Lady Diana Spencer, not permitting others to influence her self-perception and identity. Harry’s wife wants to be this and that, and that’s fine, not fine is the means she chooses to achieve her personal goals. Hysteria and blackmail are favourite devices used by those who want, consciously or unconsciously, to harm others and make them suffer. The consequences thus from Meghan Markle’s actions are dire for others, but even more so for Harry and Meghan themselves. By the way, when one derives enormous pleasure from cruelty, what is one called, then?

Harry’s identity as a prince began to crumble the minute he met Meghan Markle. He, all of a sudden, became an enthusiastic selfie-taker, as the Netflix documentary paraded a bunch of selfies taken with his wife. Of course, it’s too miniscule a thing to mention even, compared to the fact that he abdicated himself as a prince, thus distancing from his blood relations, which Diana would’ve never done. She was proud of being Lady Diana Spencer, but she was also very proud and honoured to be part of the Royal Family. “I’ll never let you down,” she said to Her Majesty The Queen Elizabeth II. Her divorce from Prince Charles was a crushing moment for her, but not for her identity; she stood up bravely for herself, resisting negative emotions as much as she could, cultivating and elevating her kindness to the highest degree possible. And, as time tells us now, she didn’t cause any damage to the Royal Family at all. Also, it’s very unlikely that Princess Diana wouldn’t have noticed right away how manipulative Meghan Markle is. Would she have accepted it? I think not. There would’ve been an inevitable confrontation between the two women. Then, Harry would’ve faced the Hamletian dilemma of ‘to be or not to be,’ indeed.

Moreover, given that Princess Diana is not only Harry’s mother, but also Prince William’s, and that she is a beloved historical figure, it’s a Gargantuan carnivorousness not only to usurp Harry but also Princess Diana’s persona, commodifying her figure for their only benefit. But at the same time, Harry’s wife depreciates Diana’s significance (read: ‘unconscious bias’!), degrading her publicly to the role of Harry’s mother and their children’s grandmother exclusively, choosing to disregard that Princess Diana is a cultural phenomenon, an icon and an inspiration for others, and has been that for decades. I’m thinking of the moment in the Netflix documentary when Meghan Markel is holding their baby in her arms and looking at the portrait of the Princess in their Montecito house, cooing to the baby: “It’s your Grandma. Yes, it’s your Grandma.” She is enticing herself through this pseudo-mother construct into Harry’s personal space in the hope of replacing Harry’s memories of his mother with her own daily self, making him depend on her (not positively!), instead of his mother, the ideal-like, dream-like, mythical almost, human being, who had been, in fact, quintessential to Harry’s existence and personality, for Princess Diana could also be viewed as his conscience. He said it himself in the preface of Spare that she is to him like the Morning Star that has been guiding him. And attempting to take it away from Harry completely, is very dangerous for him, it would mean that part of his personality would suffer tremendously from this loss, a second time round, which he shall regret later. Of course, this gives Meghan Markle the opportunity to exercise her power over Harry, enslaving and even colonising him this way. She would prevent any other person to enter that space, where Meghan is striving to replace Diana for Harry, so that she could never lose control over him. And if that makes Harry happy, why not, after all, it’s his life? The problem is that the new guiding star of Harry’s, despite some good qualities, has serious shortcomings, most of them are of ethical nature.

It appears to be an attack with a vengeance on all levels of Meghan’s consciousness on nearly everyone whom Harry had known prior to meeting her. And bringing the class shifts into their relationship this way, she imagines herself and acts as Harry’s quasi-Empress, while publicly denigrating him and disregarding nearly every single one of his relatives, never mind their rank or historical and cultural significance. Harry, the slave, becomes a mere source of fame and material enrichment for her and that of notoriety and scandals for his Royal Family. The late Queen Elizabeth II is just Harry’s Grandmother to her, Prince William – ‘your brother,’ as she barks indignantly in the documentary, after Harry had showed her a text message from Prince William. One might forgive it if it’s done in a private conversation, but she does it publicly, as if she wanted to prove her superiority to the Royal Family. What would give her the right for such an unheard impertinence, many wonder? And what would ever justify such an insolent conduct?

However, it’s time for a flashback. When the Prince had found out that the dog-woman had also an interest in meeting him, he was oblivious of festina lente, alas, and rushed to hold on Fortuna’s hair as tight as possible, in order not to let the chance slip by. And if the wizard provided Ms Markle with a certain love potion (a rhetorical figure here only, God forbid!), the latter seemed to work like a magic wand. Prince Harry didn’t think twice, he just seemed to know instantaneously that she was that woman who knew how to charm him, and, sadly, she also knew how to mislead him, and, eventually, to destroy him as a prince, lowering him to her own level of incessant ruthlessness and never-ending acquisitiveness. Besides, she also knew how to stir the pot, out of jealousy, malice, Schadenfreude, fun, and what not, while trying tirelessly to glamourise and popularise her own image, making it a household name. One isn’t surprised at all, then, why Ms Markle was a professional social media influencer. And I object to this a great deal, because she happens to undermine the cultural and social values I had been introduced to as a child.

But then, in 2016, Harry found himself under her spell, having encountered ‘the love of his life,’ at last. To confirm his feelings, Harry took out of the drawer the list of all the traits he wished to see in his dream-woman and thoroughly went through it, making sure that the woman was not going to end up a mere mirage for him any minute. After studying the list carefully, he ticked all the boxes on the list and decided that the American actress happened to fulfill all his requirements, besides, she appeared to remind him of his mother, he said. The awesome American, apple-pie-like, woman was shortly offered the Prince’s heart and a ring that he designed for her by himself, the lavish wedding followed, the bride, yesterday’s divorcée, was even given permission by the ever gracious Queen Elizabeth II to wear a white dress and a veil, after all, Harry had never been married before. The couple seemed to have the endless train of all kinds of stories and demands surrounding their wedding preparations: the wrong tiara, the ill-fitting bridesmaids’ dresses and missing stockings, the bride’s father’s overjoyed heart that suddenly commanded him into hospital, the bride’s stolen letter to her father, her niece that was abruptly uninvited from the wedding, etc., etc. (One wonders what Shakespeare would have thought about this eventful Windsor wedding?) Our newlyweds started their married life at the historical Nottingham Cottage in the grounds of Kensington Palace, and at this point, the fairytale should have ended with the usual ‘And they all lived happily ever after,’ not this time, however.

‘Love wins,’ triumphed their supporters. ‘Harry is ruined,’ sighed their adversaries. ‘She’s a manipulative gold-digger!’ cried one half of the world. ‘No, she is Harry’s saviour!’ cried the other half. And all this time, with the poor Royal Family in the middle! One can rest assured that the Royal Family haven’t seen anything of the sort ever since the King Edward VIII’s abdication. Only it has turned out to be a much worse saga that seems to have no end. Neither its historicity nor the splendid entourage of roses around Nottingham Cottage were good enough for Harry’s wife, and like all nouveaux riches, she wanted more, much more, something that is larger than life, something that is colossal and ostentatious, something that would have her name on the deed to the house. Did it matter to her that good old Nott Cott is probably one of the very few properties in London that is still sui generis and has the original bones? Of course, not. Why would she care about that? Especially after the brash remarks of her dear friend, Madame Oprah, who, after visiting the Cottage, surprised by its modest size, exclaimed: “No one would believe it!” “No one would believe it!” repeated our heroes in tandem in their Netflix documentary shortly before Christmas 2022.

But the most likely truth is that, in a century or two, no one is going to believe how on earth such a petty individual with such low ethical standards became a British Duchess who wrapped the prince around her little finger, disrupted all his relations, and took him away from his country, blaming the British media and the Royal Family for all the sins of the world. And while Prince Harry and his wife try continuously to invalidate the Royal Family’s mantra, ‘Never complain, never explain,’ their own mantra seems to be ‘Stir the pot and cash in as much as you can’ at the expense of those whose credibility, nobility and kindness they are shamelessly exploiting. Responsibility of being a historical figure that had been instilled into Prince Harry’s mind ever since he was a little boy has been overturned by irresponsibility of his wife’s irreverent attitudes towards History. Somehow, they convinced themselves that, despite their scurrilous conduct, History would still grant them a privileged place when the time comes, forgetting that History can be as ruthless and unforgiving as they are themselves, when it comes to settling accounts with the historical figures. They also seem to be oblivious of the fact that glory, which may be gold and roses for them now, will eventually turn into historical soot and dust. Thus, they have already reserved a place for themselves in the chronicles of Time, and it’s not the most prominent or pretty one, in the Perifereia of History, thanks to all the noise they are making today. Also, the Hamletian dilemma of ‘to be or not to be’ has never been a matter of crucial importance for Harry, except on the first pages of Spare, because Harry’s new guiding star, his material girl, thought he’d rather be consumed by the conundrum of to have or not to have. And he chose ‘to have,’ of course, to Meghan Markles,’ great satisfaction.  

*This postmodern fairytale is a work of fiction. All the characters, events, incidents, and discourses are fruit of imagination and under no circumstances should be perceived as real. Any resemblance to actual events, places, names, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

(Written on the rainy night of January 14, 2023, in the Sky Control Room, on Cape Cod.)

Copyright © 2023 by Elena Vassilieva. All rights reserved.

THE CULTURAL ICON

The Everlasting Enigma of Brigitte Bardot’s Star Power

Part one.

By Elena Vassilieva

Brigitte Bardot on the Shalako set in Almeria, 1968. Photo by © Jacques Héripret, © Groupe Eyrolles, 2013.

It probably wouldn’t be an exaggeration to state that the star power of Brigitte Bardot’s iconic persona had been evident already after her first appearance on the screen in Jean Boyer’s comedy Le Trou normand (Crazy for Love) in 1952. In fact, it was love at first sight with the ballet-trained, happiness inducing and affection inspiring French actress. Unwittingly, ever since, she has launched an enormous follow of admirers, among which have not only been men, but also women and children (most notably teenagers) who all literally seemed to have lost their sleep in pursuit of finding the key to the enigma of the French cultural icon. The enigma that distinguishes her so much from other cinema personalities to this day.

At the time when Brigitte Bardot made her movie debut, she had already been an accomplished ballet dancer who grew to be one of the brightest talents (she graduated forth in her class) at the Conservatoire de Paris. She later took ballet lessons from the Russian ballet dancer and choreographer Boris Kniazeff. She said that her ballet studies made her a stronger and very disciplined person and her work ethic acquired at the Conservatoire has always been to her advantage. The photographer and her dear friend, the late Jacques Héripret, whom she met on the set of Shalako in Almeria, in 1968, wrote in the afterword of BB en liberté. Photos hors plateau (2013) that “[o]n set she was a great professional. She knew her lines by heart and, as we say in the film industry, she ‘was on the razor’s edge’. […] She was attentive to details given by the director Edward Dmytryk, focused, always in a good mood, remarkably nice to the technicians, friendly, courteous with her partners – Sean Connery, Stefen Boyd, Peter Van Eyck – never once was she difficult or temperamental during all those months. I wanted, for once and for all, to put an end to the rumor claiming she was unmanageable on a set.” (Héripret 2013, p. 153)

But not only wanted he the unfair rumour to be disqualified and to vanish, Jacques Héripret, like many others before him, also strived to comprehend what exactly makes Brigitte Bardot so utterly special and otherworldly. I doubt he had ever said that to her, not directly, anyway, unlike many other professional men, such as cinematographers and journalists, but none the less he received her permission to photograph her whenever he pleased on the Shalako set, and that was certainly proof of his curiousity and high regard for her. She, therefore, didn’t pose at all, all the pictures of her are spontaneous, “unbeknownst to me,” she said, and document the precious moments of that period of her life. When a trustful and friendly relationship between the photographer and the actress had been established, soon after, Brigitte Bardot seemed to have taken a fancy to photograph by herself, as there are quite a few shots of hers with a camera in her hands. By then Jacques Héripret must have realised that to the camera, she was a true and rare photogenic perfection from any given angle or vantage point, but had he been able to grasp the enigmatic side of her persona then? He photographed and photographed her endlessly during those four months, there had been total one thousand and five hundred photos of Brigitte Bardot: talking to her colleagues, sitting and waiting in her chair, playing a card game, dancing and singing, resting on the ground, riding a horse, or playing with her dog Hippy. She looks exquisite on each one of them, and, of course, for that she praised his talent. But there are also the pictures that are less traditional, such as a close-up of her hair or her hands or part of her face where one can see the wrinkles of the mortal when she is smiling. The naturalness and sheer liveliness of such images indicate that she, like anyone else, is a human being who may have wrinkles on her face, yet, despite it, she is not like any other human being. She is different, as Héripret’s pictures remind us. And that is exactly the paradox of the situation, the photographer must have thought; one can have all the wrinkles of the mortal, yet still be majestically surrounded by the impenetrable air of the goddess. But how is it possible?

The question still remains not fully answered, in spite of Héripret’s conclusion that it is her wholesomeness and personal traits that made her glorious and celebrated such that General De Gaulle would firmly believe “that Brigitte Bardot brought in more foreign currency to France than Renault.” (Héripret, ibid., p. 154) And who would dare to disagree with that? Her cultural significance is so great that one should never underestimate the influence of her personality that has contributed immensely to her iconic status. “She is a free woman. Her loyalty is legendary. She is straight as an arrow. Her word is a contract,” wrote he. (Ibid.) And this is what Héripret’s interpretation of Brigitte Bardot as an icon differentiates from the mainstream view. From the start, he refused to see her exclusively through the erotic lens and as a sex symbol. Clearly, upon meeting her in person, he understood quickly that the eroticism, as alluring as it seemed, was not enough to comprehend her persona fully and fairly. Moreover, it was simply too limiting because of the lamentable untenability of the erotic construction towards her whole personality. Instead, he chose to see her as “an anti-star, an unpretentious woman, a woman with her doubts, her joys.” (Ibid.) And by doing so, he did a magnificent job. (To be continued)

Written in the breezy hours of the night, on 27 September 2022, on the shore of Little Harbor, on Cape Cod.

Copyright © 2022 by Elena Vassilieva

Essay Review

Wagner and the Secret of Success of the Australian “Walküre“

Notes on Die Walküre premiered at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne on 9 February 2022

By Elena Vassilieva

Die Götter machen auch Fehler und deswegen leiden… Ach, übrigens – was hat für Sie mehr wert: Tugend oder Reichtum? – Words by Elena Vassilieva. The image was taken from the livestream of the opera from Her Majesty’s Theatre, © Melbourne Opera.

On 14 January 1870, King Ludwig II of Bavaria wrote to his beloved composer that Das Rheingold and Die Walküre might be onstage in Munich that year. Indeed, despite the King’s doubts, on 26 June 1870, Die Walküre had the world premiere at the National Theatre in Munich, leaving Wagner in a gloomy mood. Wagner, that Master of the Masters on Earth, was notorious for his capriciousness and rigorousness as for the production of his own works. He was very particular about how his music dramas should be mounted, and every single detail mattered to him a good deal. And if something in the production happened not to coincide with his fancy, he would fall into the bleakness of utter despair at once. He dreaded to be misunderstood and misrepresented. Therefore, every time, when as a spectator, I have a chance and privilege to participate in an event honouring the glorious heritage of Wagner’s, I keep this fact in mind and always play an imaginary guessing game during the event, wondering whether the Master himself would have loved the spectacle or not? And, suppose, he loved it, what would his words be? And if he didn’t, what would he be saying, then? But that’s a rather silly game, of course, pursued by the naïve and unwary mind of mine.

The skeptical Wagnerian in me would probably argue that it makes no sense at all to play such futile games, as it’s all about interpretation and reception of Wagner’s work, which, naturally, largely depends on the will, desire, and talent of those who are preparing the masterpiece for the audience. By no means it’s about his, a priori assumed, approval or disapproval. For goodness’ sake, and alas, the great man isn’t here anymore as a man of flesh and blood for more than a century, that same Wagnerian in me would rage. Why should it still matter what he would have thought or said? In any case, we can only speculate about his possible reaction, based on his writings. I don’t know, I would still disagree. It just matters to me, perhaps, because, like everyone else who loves him dearly, I know perfectly well how much he cared for the nuanced precision of the articulation of his artistic ideas. When one is working on his operatic masterpieces, one had better be mindful of that fact, in order not to upset his spirit. For this very reason, until now I had never uttered a word, not in exhaustive detail, anyway, on any production of his gems, fearing the responsibility of the whole endeavour, although I consider myself fortunate enough to have been able to see his work performed on the most interesting, old and young, stages.

One may remember how disappointed and crestfallen Wagner was after he had read an article about his music by Hector Berlioz, where the latter praised the German titan, but made a costly mistake ascribing to Wagner the notion of la musique de l’avenir in the sense of school in music, which Wagner denied harshly and offendedly, as he believed the term didn’t mirror his philosophy at all. On the contrary, it was misleading and misconstruing his very ideas of Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft (1849), which, for this reason, he regretted having published at all. Besides, he complained that the notion of la musique de l’avenir was not his invention, but Professor Bischoff’s, a music critic from Cologne and Ferdinand Hiller’s friend. The outrage led Wagner to dedicate many hours of his time to a thorough and exasperated letter to Berlioz in February 1860, in which he had not only scolded the French composer for being inaccurate and even gullible, while using the phrase coined by Bischoff, but also for lacking artistic understanding of the conceptual side of Wagner’s works and his artistic vision. He feared his texts could really be grasped only if read in original, which might have prevented Berlioz from the accurate and full comprehension of Wagnerian aesthetics. In his letter, Wagner tried to explain to Berlioz what his concepts were based upon. He had a great admiration for Berlioz, especially after a closer encounter in London in 1855 where Wagner had some concerts at the Philharmonic Society. One of them even included the Queen Victoria in the audience, who thought highly of his music and made an entry of the occasion in her diary.

Wagner said personal unhappy circumstances and his creative quest for a most wholesome and rounded art led him to the key concepts of his Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft, a manifest of the philosophical ideas based on the inevitable and necessary interdependence of life and art. On the other hand, Wagner was tremendously bothered by the triviality and lack of depth of the performed pieces at the opera houses throughout the Old World at that time. He believed the theatres had distanced themselves from the genuine art that, like the classical Greek tragedies, is supposed to overwhelm (erschüttern) the audience on so many levels and make theatregoers want to connect to this art and consequently reflect on it on their own, without the help of critics. Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft, or das Gesamtkunstwerk, should not be lowered and degraded by the artist to the trivial mentality and frivolous taste of the “Publikums großer Städte” (read bourgeoisie), he insisted, but instead be desirous and desirable, even by the above mentioned audience, cultivating a taste for a much finer and deeper art than the one this audience is used to.

He desperately wanted to avoid the superficial quality of the artistic piece. Therefore, the seeming simplicity of such a multifaceted Gesamtkunstwerk would appeal not only to a connoisseur of music, but also to an inexperienced spectator or even a simpleton without repelling and leaving the latter in need of a translator or a critic. The emotional and intellectual Erschütterung of the audience by the Gesamtkunstwerk’s aesthetics, so much relatable to any man’s life experience, can only be achieved through the synthesis of different arts, as he wrote it in the letter to Berlioz, “so frug ich mich auch, welches die Mittel zur Hervorbringung jener außerordentlichen Wirkungen waren, und ich erkannte, daß sie eben in der Vereinigung aller Künste zu dem einzig waren, großen Kunstwerke lagen.“ Aristotle’s notion of catharsis, obviously, was very important for him. The main purpose of his famous letter was to be understood by Berlioz the way he meant it, but by everyone else as well, as the context suggests.

I often, therefore, wonder if a performing success of Wagner’s work depends much on the prioritising of his immense desire to be interpreted the way he imagined it? It may well be the case with the most recent Australian production of Die Walküre which turned out to be victorious just because they seemed to have followed closely the Master’s script. Contrary to what Wagner’s music dramas may seem to require, say, grandeur and opulence of space, of décor and of costumes, Her Majesty’s Theatre’s modest size accommodated the opera so well that not for a second the audience missed the larger spatial scale of the setting. The proportions seemed to be just right, whether it’s the material and symbolic centrality of the giant ash tree in the opera, or the magical place where the gorgeous Valkyries dwell and fear no one but their powerful and yet vulnerable father, a victim of self-inflicted curse. The set designer (Andrew Bailey) even thought of a very clever trick to make the Valkyries look as if they were really riding, bravely crossing the stormy sky to and fro. Luckily, the real horses were left in their stables, but the ones they used so splendidly, featuring the two lovely sway pole performers, Emily Ryan and Ashlee Grunberg, not only made the space appear much larger, but also very multidimensional, where realism and magic blend so harmoniously.

‘Less is more’ seemed to prevail in the style of the Australian Walküre. I didn’t notice any unnecessary or superfluous details in the ornamental stylistics of the production. Every single thing seemed to justify the music and libretto of the opera. The lighting design (Rob Sowinski) was very smart, stressing the symbolism of the few main colours in the opera: the dark blue along with the imagined pitch black with the contrasting paleness of the characters’ faces and the red flame in the end. The only thing that might have been avoided, and whose absence wouldn’t have been noticed, was the occasional neon light thrown on the sword, Nothung, on the ash tree; the neon was a tiny drop of tackiness to my eyes. The costumes, designed by Harriet Oxley with great care and love for the libretto, accentuated the characters’ main traits, yet did not seem to overburden and weigh the opera singers down. For instance, Fricka’s fanciful dress reflected her attractiveness behind which wickedness was hiding. The Valkyries’ dresses were tremendously handsome with the right amount of gold and silver not to be considered gaudy or tacky, let alone the most charming headpieces. In fact, the costumes and accessories in the production, slightly reminiscent of the Pre-Raphaelite style, were so elegant that I would love to wear them as a spectator to Wagner’s event myself if I could. No doubt, the decorative part of the production, aside to the plot, must have inspired the singers’ acting which was such a convincing and organic affair that it moved one to tears (speaking from my own experience), be it the first act when the twins (Lee Abrahmsen and Bradley Daley) exchange tender glances with each other and share love at first sight, or the second act where Wotan (Warwick Fyfe) and Fricka (the marvellous Sarah Sweeting) have their fateful argument, or the scenes with Wotan’s and Brünnhilde’s (Zara Barrett) tumultuous personal matters in the second and third acts. Those were very memorable moments.

It is a well-known fact that Wagner was a passionate perfectionist to the degree of being a rather intense and trying person at times, and he certainly knew how to move passions in his masterpieces as well. The subtle and romantic eroticism is another significant attribute of his music dramas, which certainly wasn’t overlooked in this production, but fulfilled with superb acting, both dramatic and vocal. The love duet, Sieglinde (Lee Abrahmsen) and Siegmund (Bradley Daley), excelled at it. Lee Abrahmsen effortlessly repeated her dazzling success of the last year’s Rheingold. The ease and beautiful crystal-clear freshness of her vocal style, complimented so nicely by Bradley Daley’s very attractive nervous sensibility, was great pleasure to watch. Sieglinde’s husband, Hunding, that insufferable exemplar of Wagnerian machohood, was portrayed very skillfully and brightly by Steven Gallop; he added so much dramatic energy to it. Wotan (Warwick Fyfe) and Brünnhilde (Zara Barrett), both immensely strong and perspicacious performers, impressed the operagoers a great deal, breaking their hearts with their remarkable vocal dialogue. The brilliance of the famous Ride of Valkyries (Walkürenritt) will stay with the audience long after they had left the theatre. Everything in this scene seemed to excite the spectator’s imagination to no end. Brünnhilde and the eight Valkyries (Rosamund Illing, Eleanor Greenwood, Jordan Kahler, Olivia Cranwell, Naomi Flatman, Caroline Vercoe, Sally-Anne Russell, and Dimity Shepherd), that captivating troop of the most sprightful warrior maidens, brilliantly showcased their mythological qualities with such an awe-inspiring singing and acting. The orchestra, led so gracefully and expertly by Maestro Anthony Negus, who today, after so many years of engagement with the German composer, probably knows every whim of Wagner’s as well as his own, did carry Die Walküre on their wings unfailingly and securely, producing an astonishingly genuine dramatic soundscape. The chosen tempo throughout this tempestuous and passionate music drama seemed highly suitable and desirable, keeping the operatic tension on stage appropriately high, yet, under control. Energising everyone, the singers and the audience alike, the orchestra played breathlessly from beginning to end.

Given his utter strictness, one is left guessing, of course, whether Wagner would have been as pleased as I, member of the lucky audience, was. On the other hand, his passionate nature might have been tremendously satisfied and thrilled, as this production was by no means short of delivering human emotions so tastefully wrapped in the right attire of the sound and spectacle. Besides, the opera seems to have been produced according to his precious ideas of Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft, keeping his heritage as much intact as possible, and that is the key for a successful performance of his masterpieces, in my – some would argue rather conservative – view. Also, it is a laudable, heroic even, achievement by Melbourne Opera to manage to raise funds for the production of the opera independently, from private sponsors, in such challenging times (Henkell Brothers, Lady Potter, Dr Alastair Jackson, The Ian Potter Foundation, The Angior Family Foundation, The Robert Salzer Foundation, The Sylvia Fisher Fund, Dr Douglas and Mrs Monica Mitchell, Roy Morgan). Thus, Wagner’s opera in Melbourne, with Suzanne Chaundy as a director and Greg Hocking as a producer and with all Australian cast, crew and creative team, is a Gesamtkunstwerk, a truly moving piece of art, but also a formidable team of talented and enthusiastic people.

One thing is certain: the audience left home wanting more. Luckily, we have something to look forward to in the future. Siegfried will already be onstage in September this year. And as Lady Primrose Potter, Melbourne Opera’s patron-in-chief and one of the principal sponsors, said, there are plans for three full Ring Cycles for March and April 2023. This is a marvel that would lure a whole lot of Wagnerians to Australia. For those who are unable to travel, I hope a livestream will be graciously offered by Melbourne Opera to the audiences around the globe, just like last (the spectacular Das Rheingold) and this year, for which we all are very grateful.

An excerpt from Wagner’s letter to Hector Berlioz from February 1860 was cited here from Wagner, R. (1871) Gesammelte Schriften und Dichtungen, Leipzig, E.W. Fritzsch, p. 118.

Written on the windy night of Saturday, 12 March 2022, in the Sky Control Room on Cape Cod.

Copyright © 2022 by Elena Vassilieva. All Rights Reserved.    

REVIEW Essay

Three Fictitious Days in the Life

On the “Spencer” film

By Elena Vassilieva

“C’est un conte vrai.” “Non, c’est un vrai conte.” “Vous êtes dans le vrai.” Image* and words by Elena Vassilieva.

The closest movie theatre where you could watch Spencer, a new cinematic opus about Princess Diana, was on Martha’s Vineyard. So on Sunday, the 14th of November, despite my utter aversion to any kind of biopics, I decided to head to the MV Film Society in Vineyard Haven and give it a shot. Who knows, the film might be good enough and worthy of my time, I thought. After all, Kristen Stewart said she was able to grasp Diana’s spirit, which should put both women in a favourable position, or so it seemed after reading an interview with the actress in the LA Times earlier this autumn.

Whilst on the boat, I couldn’t help but reminisce my frequent trips to Edgartown, to the Charlotte Inn, in the fall of 2020. The unique place I got so curious about from reading up in the island’s newspapers on the owners of the hotel, Gery and Paula Conover. The couple, almost religiously devoted to the Charlotte Inn, their chef-d’oeuvre and baby-like project for decades, had been an inspiration for a light-hearted movie, A Godwink Christmas, themselves. Little did I know whilst relishing the authenticity of the Edwardian style furnishings at the Charlotte Inn that Princess Diana was once a guest on the premises and their youngest son, Tim, was assisting the Princess with her daytime activities on the island while she was visiting her good friends, the Brazilian ambassador and his wife, Paulo-Tarso and Lucia Flecha de Lima, in the summer of 1994. Neither Gery and Paula Conover nor Tim had mentioned that fact to me, not even once. Had they done so, it would have been very much out of their characters of true New Englanders, reserved, of quiet disposition, yet, kind, friendly, and hard-working. I found out about the Princess Diana’s visit to the hotel’s restaurant from the book about the Charlotte Inn, but there was just one sentence stating the fact.

Cut off from the world and travelling in 2020, having cancelled all trips, including to England and Australia, I seemed to think the island nearby was a blessing-like. The hotel has staff from all over the globe: the chef at their well-liked restaurant comes from France, the maids are from Eastern Europe, I even met Kevin, a Melburnian, there who looks after the Inn’s antique furniture. After learning about Princess Diana’s vacation on the island, I wondered whether she was happy there? I didn’t dare to ask the Conovers about it, because I knew they would say nothing about their acquaintance with the Princess. But I found one public account going back to August of 2017 when Mr Conover was asked by the local NPR station to share his reminiscences of Princess Diana. Reluctantly, he kindly agreed to be interviewed by Marilyn Schairer. (The radio station wasn’t as lucky with their son, Tim, I’m afraid.) Gery Conover didn’t say much, just how memorable that encounter was when he was giving an excursion around the island to the Princess on his 1923 classic yacht. “It was just a nice experience chatting with her. […] [She was] just really nice in every way. Just very natural, and not at all pretentious. I guess the most significant thing is that she told Tim she had never had such a vacation, where the paparazzi were not always there, and wanted to do a little kind of a thank you party for him at the Inn, which was also very nice.” I did eventually ask the Conovers about their perception of A Godwink Christmas that was based on their personal story. They both were disappointed that some facts were misrepresented in order to satisfy the moviegoer and to justify the commercial interests of the production. For instance, nearly the entire film was shot in Canada, not Martha’s Vineyard, and Gery and Paula met on the island in the summer, not around Christmas, as it was stated in the film.

The moment I had disembarked from the boat that chilly November afternoon, I wondered whether the director, Pablo Larraín, and the script writer, Steven Knight, had done justice to Princess Diana and had sheltered her private persona in the film, given how much she suffered from the round-the-clock paparazzi and media surveillance throughout her life? Or, rather, had Larraín and Knight twisted or exaggerated the facts to the advantage of the conceptual side and the commercial success of the picture? Had they put pressure on the viewer about the complexities of her public and private life? And had Kristen Stewart, an American actress, who had blindly and audaciously, without even reading the script first, agreed to play the role of the Princess, had done a good acting job indeed, as she herself and Larraín believed she did, according to their interviews?

After the film, on my way back from the island, I had leafed through every scene one more time and had come to the conclusion that, sadly, once again Princess Diana fell victim to the professional people’s unscrupulous and brazenly arbitrary interpretation of her life and highly inaccurate depiction of her personality. Right after the first scene, I found myself repelled by the character Larraín, Knight, and Stewart created: a confused, frustrated, and upset woman who gets lost while driving, she swears and moments later enters a sort of cantina and asks for help. She looks depressingly disoriented and distressed. And the character remains in this state of self-destructive alienation and horrid Selbstentfremdung throughout the film. A striking contrast to this is the scene with the military men bringing none other than Christmas food provisions for the Queen’s family to her Sandringham House. The Queen’s character here is also far removed from reality: a woman, who is very conscious of her good looks and her social standing, basks in this glory of hers and with scorn and superiority of a bourgeois dame (!) looks down on Diana, who happens to compliment her dress rather than her speech. Now, think of the real Queen: would she ever be like this? I think not. She may seem reserved and deceptively aloof occasionally, but never self-important, haughty or snobbish like a bourgeois who only yesterday was promoted to a higher social rank and was still thoroughly enjoying this happening. On the contrary, she would probably be calmly compassionate, considerate, and very realistic, at worst, she would say to Diana, as she once did, “But what can I do? Charles is hopeless.” The romantic Diana perceived it at the time as a very tepid compassion, by the way, but that’s the Queen, who would doubtless prefer the bitter truth to the sweet lie, no matter what. Why would she give false hope to Diana, anyway?

The other characters from the Queen’s company, except for Prince Charles and the children, are just secondary and props-like, they have no significance in the film, whatsoever, and Diana barely interacts with them. For all that the intensity of Diana’s interaction with the servants and ordinary people is really striking. From the very beginning, she startles them with her unrestricted willingness to share her unhappiness and frustration. Most of them act well, and Major Alistair Gregory, played by Timothy Spall with ease and aptness, is perhaps the most sympathetic and interesting character in the movie. But even his company didn’t seem to have inspired Kristen Stewart with a vision of freedom from Diana’s persona. Had she freed herself from a burden of Diana’s personality, she might have done a much better job. The figure of Princess Diana may thus have prevented her from developing a deeper and more persuasive portrayal by imposing constraints on her acting. And the further into the movie, the farther the character is moving away from the real Diana. You see here a narcissistic, self-obsessed, cold, and repulsive woman who isn’t even that interested in her own children, let alone anyone else around her. Is that supposed to be the Princess Diana, who had “smothered [her sons] in love” (Prince William), who had great admiration and respect for the Queen, who adored Prince Philip and Princess Anne, let alone all the strangers she had inspired and embraced through her charities? Also, the stark Marxian social stratification in the film with the characters divided into two categories, quasi-Machiavellian villains and their prey, is too simplistic a view. The real Diana, smart and observant, grew up at the Park House, which is on the premises of the Sandringham Estate. By no means was she an outsider or a stranger to the Royal Family, and she knew very well from the very beginning all the peripeteias of her future life as a Royal member. It’s preposterous therefore, as the film quite explicitly does, to blame the Establishment for Diana’s eventual unhappiness. They didn’t insist that Diana had a proper protection after her divorce, and this is the only thing the Establishment could have been scorned for.   

It’s largely because of the Freudian construction of the main character that one is reluctant to draw any serious parallels between the movie character and the real and historical figure of Diana. Most Freudian constructs are destined to fail miserably, and they are known for their limits and dangers because Freud predominantly considered only two factors for his analysis of personality: childhood of a person and her sexual propensity. Spencer is flooded with so many obvious psychoanalytical objects that it’s hard to miss the coerciveness of their symbolism for the viewer. There are Chanel suits and bags, Porsche, pearls, a book about Anne Boleyn, a wire fence, and even a plier (at none other place than inside the antique drawer in one of the bedrooms at the Queen’s Sandringham House!), and what not. Overall, too much, just too much for one movie. On top of this, Kristen Stewart played rather unconvincingly, in my view, right from the start. In the scene at the cantina, she appeared mimicking Diana’s manners and her discoursive style too hard, looking rather awkward and helpless in the role. Clad in Chanel and despite her own attractive frame, Ms Stewart comes across as rough, irascible, and utterly unrefined throughout the film, which Princess Diana had never managed to be. Not even in the darkest moments of her life, when she was overwhelmed by the pressures of being constantly in the public eye. Although the real Diana struggled to hide her emotions, nonetheless, she had never been the way she was portrayed in the film, not in public, anyway, and I doubt very much, in private either, definitely not a conspicuously selfish character, like the one in the movie, she was. Had I accidentally seen a fragment from Spencer without prior knowledge that the main personage was supposed to be Diana, I would have never guessed that this laborious portrayal was that of her very persona.

Some would argue that if it’s a fictional account of the Princess, then it’s futile and senseless to even try to compare the real Princess to the played one, let alone to attempt to contest the intentions of the whole movie project. But I still strongly disagree with such a take on this. Yes, it’s a piece of fiction, indeed, but it’s based on the life story of the real person, the movie character has the name of that person, and not by coincidence. It’s also true that the person happened to be a public, historical figure, “a world icon,” as the director said himself. But nevertheless shouldn’t there be deployed at least minimal ethical filters and moral limitations as to what extent it is permissible to select the facts from this person’s biography and interpret them loosely, let alone misinterpret them, so that the viewer like myself isn’t left in total bewilderment and disbelief? To what extent the factual ground may be tackled and reinvented as the creators please in order to support the film’s main idea? In Spencer it is all about the social awareness of mental health, seemingly, if not this, what else, then? But it’s done at the cost of the one who isn’t here anymore to defend herself, and, clearly, the real Diana was no more mentally unstable than anyone of us who is in the midst of personal disillusionment and disappointment at how certain cultural things in our society function and how easily they may drive one to eating disorders, loneliness, and isolation. As for Diana, it got to the point in her life that she didn’t know whom she could turn to and trust anymore. Way too many pretended to be her friends, breaking the rules of basic civility in the end, when it comes to taking advantage of this “friendship” and capitalising shamelessly on it. But given the circumstances, such as the perpetual media’s attention, paparazzi’s hunting, and betrayal by many people, the trustful Diana had to deal with, it’s quite astonishing that she showed so much strength and grace and appeared to maintain more sanity than most of those who had been put under the similar pressures.

Oddly, instead of stressing this fact, the Spencer biopic highlights her eating disorder, which was the thing of the past for her, anyway, when she had disclosed it to the public, and yet, Larraín cynically dares to make a statement about the Princess Diana’s mental health in the film and his interviews. Besides, it’s not as if Diana lived centuries ago that no one remembers anymore what she was like in real life, and therefore we need another (alas, quite unscrupulous and bigoted!) opinion on her very private terrain, her soul. Diana had impeccable manners and a natural tact, but at times she could indeed spill the beans and let the cat out of the bag in such an unexpected way that one would be baffled for a long, long time, asking oneself why she would do something like this? But then, one would realise that she was young, inexperienced, sincere, and perhaps motivated by the desire to be heard, but one would never think she was self-indulgently wicked, narcissistic or mentally ill, as the biopic chooses to portray her. Very emotional – yes, but self-centred and mentally unhealthy? – Give me a break, Mr Larraín and Mr Knight!

Even during that infamous BBC interview with the disgraceful Martin Bashir when she might/must have been pressured somehow psychologically, she didn’t utter anything that would be offensive to the others. That’s my pure speculation, of course, as for the psychological pressuring, but it’s not impossible, the way Bashir tricked her into the interview, he could well have arranged that too, so that the Princess would feel very uninhibited to say whatever he pleased to hear from her; I’m not accusing him, as there is no proof, I’m just saying he had been capable of it, given the recently surfaced facts about how the interview was organised and obtained by him; however, any psychological pressure is very hard to proof. But the surprising smoothness of Princess Diana’s discourse during the interview despite the harshness of the discussed topics makes one want to know whether she hadn’t been indeed pressured, as she shared very private things about herself, which, normally, she would have never done, not in public. However, she told the truth, critiquing herself in the environment she was, not the environment itself, all of which, alas, backfired when her statements were taken out of context, then greedily expropriated and appropriated, and consequently used as a trump card by professionals in the journalism, biography, and cinema business.

Yes, she had showed her resentment, but you could still feel the love, care, and appreciation she had for Prince Charles, for instance. I found nothing of the sort in the movie. The Larraín’s Diana is a fictional character that has little to do with the real Princess Diana, despite the director’s disingenuous claims that he isn’t “chasing controversy,” he is “just trying to chase something that feels real,” in his own words. Then he continues in his interview with “The Independent”: “I think the movie does a proper depiction of Diana’s internal distress. And that’s what I care about. An eating disorder is never just an eating disorder. It’s a consequence of a mental health problem.” – Qui vous a constitué juge, Mr Larraín? The film focuses on the eating disorder, which was candidly acknowledged by the Princess herself, but Larraín forgets that she also said that she had successfully fought it. It’s unfair that those who might not know much about her (the younger viewers, for example) may believe that she was like that in real life. To me, it’s an unforgivable distortion of the facts when a public figure gets treatment like this in a creative piece. What a shame that the Spencer creators are no better than the paparazzi who stalked the Princess to the death.

“Princess Diana was like a Greek tragic character,” Pablo Larraín commented in that same interview in “The Independent,” priding himself on having done the deed. Is it why he decided to make a biopic rather than simply a film about an unknown princess? Had he done the latter, he wouldn’t have disclosed his poor ethical skills to his audience, of course. Diana endeared herself even more to people by disclosing her malady back then, making it clear that one has nothing to be ashamed of if one happens to be overcome by something like this, one just has to fight it instead of struggling in silence. Ethically, that differs a great deal from what the creators of Spencer did. It was her life and she had every right to make public whatever she thought would help her and the others. But do the movie creators have such right, especially for such a dubious portrayal of the Princess? I also wonder whether we are witnessing in the film not so much the awareness of mental health as that of potential commercial success? In that regard, Princess Diana is, no doubt, a hot ticket for such endeavours. If so, Larraín certainly wouldn’t be the first or the last one to capitalise on this, it’s a cultural machine of propagating certain social values and at the same time taking advantage of others.

The persistent commercialisation of Princess Diana’s persona or any other similar public figure who generates profit and has influence isn’t new, and it’s sad that people in cinema seem not to shy away from such an exploitative practice. Tragic is certainly not Diana, she transcended the tragic death by leaving her love for people and by becoming a beloved historical figure, tragic are the ethics and morals of the contemporary popular and celebrity culture and hence our society in general. Mentally unstable is not Diana, either, it’s our culture and society where utter desperation for celebrity status, fame, and profit, gained dishonestly at the cost of other people’s privacy and well-being, determine the “health” of its members. Alas, Pablo Larraín and Steven Knight have contributed to this with their own work ethic and moral standards, which all fall short of those of the Princess Diana. “It makes you feel dirty,” my librarian friend said when we had discussed the movie, and it certainly does.

And the last thing, my dear moviegoer, if you would like to see a film about a princess, you shall watch William Wyler’s Roman Holiday (1953) again and again, and, unlike Spencer (2021), it will not bring you into a state of mental discomfort, on the contrary, it will do good to you and those around you.

*Image: photographed are the books, “Princess” by © Robert Lacey, © NYTimes Books, 1982 and The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, © Random House, 1944.

(Written on Sunday, November 22, 2021 in the Sky Control Room on Cape Cod.)

Copyright © 2021 by Elena Vassilieva. All Rights Reserved.

THE CULTURAL ICON

La chevelure de Bérénice

Or the eternally inspiring power of Brigitte Bardot.

By Elena Vassilieva

“Approchez, que je vous embrasse.” – C’est ici que l’espérance nourrit l’amour. Image (the photo of Brigitte Bardot used in the readymade is by © Douglas Kirkland; the Cheetah fur is fake!) and words by Elena Vassilieva.

Recently, when I had been on the hunt for documentaries on Brigitte Bardot at the local library, the search engine delivered me a curious title that caught my eye at once. The book was called In an Elevator with Brigitte Bardot (2007) and was written by a Cape Codder, Michael Lee. Once, as a teenager, by the greatest stroke of luck, he rode with the French actress in an elevator at the Plaza Hotel in NYC. He doesn’t say when exactly, but he mentions that Brigitte Bardot was wearing a leopard coat then. So maybe it was in the 60s when leopard print coats became very popular? The memory of that brief (25 floors!) encounter hadn’t been revealed by him to the public for 40 years until one day, at the neighbourhood cocktail party in his house, while joining a company of the New Year’s resolutionists, he hesitatingly declared: “Well, ah, I’m going to give up Brigitte Bardot”. Naturally, his neighbours had a puzzled look on their faces, the minute he said that, as if he were a lunatic: “Give up on Brigitte Bardot?” One hardly has to be a madman or a stalker who finally came to his senses to say something like this, as the force of her aesthetic powers has been superior and ubiquitous throughout the years. Not only male minds and hearts she has held captive, but also those of women, children, and the elderly.

Many cinema appreciators would probably recall the film “Dear Brigitte” (1965) with James Stewart, Brigitte Bardot playing a cameo role there, and a child actor Billy Mumy, who was left in awe of the actress saying that he will never forget the lucky occasion of meeting her and seeing first-hand how not only otherworldly beautiful she was, but also very kind and warm. I have never met Brigitte Bardot in person, but I remember how my Grandmother took me to a department store on my 6th birthday, and there I saw one doll that took my fancy at once. Made in Germany and named Brigitte, she looked just like Brigitte Bardot about whom I had little knowledge at the time, but my Grandmother was overjoyed to buy this doll for me. I still have Brigitte, and she gladdens my heart every time I catch a glimpse of her. Another grandmother, a relative of my friends, was over the moon when her granddaughter of the kindergarten age resembled the French star with her long blond hair and her irresistible loveliness so much that she could have easily been Brigitte Bardot’s twin. “This is our little Brigitte Bardot,” the girl’s grandmother playfully introduced her to others. Alas, to her huge disappointment, later, when the granddaughter grew up, Brigitte Bardot seemed to have left her for good, the girl’s appearance was taken over by her own nature instead. But even if she had retained Brigitte Bardot’s striking looks, she would have lacked the singularity and the very essence of Bardot’s personality. If her animals could talk human languages, they would reveal to us too that their dueña has charmed every single one of them in the Animal Kingdom. Especially now, since she has been for decades such a fearless and persistent advocate of the animals’ rights. Hugh Lofting’s Dr Dolittle-series is a must-read in my household, and every time I read it to one of my very young relatives, Brigitte Bardot comes to mind, surrounded by her family of animals.

In his essay, Michael Lee reminds us that his fondness for the French actress was by no means such an out of the ordinary thing, because utter obsession with her was more than just a personal circumstance of one particular man, it was a cultural trend, if not craze, that had universal quality to it, sort of “a generational secret”: every American [and not American!] man who was born between 1943 and 1955, he writes, “has at one time or another been locked into a mental affaire d’amour with Brigitte Bardot”. And while he doesn’t disclose many details of the conversation with his guests that day, he shares, self-deprecatingly, his feelings with the reader how Brigitte Bardot, the Golden Goddess, in his words, had been burning his heart and occupying his thoughts for decades. Although based on strong and intense emotions, infatuation is a fleeting thing that lasts only a short period of time, particularly if one thinks of male preoccupation and adoration of woman’s flesh. What precisely was it, then? His wife thinks his “teenage crush with Brigitte Bardot is cute”, but he disagrees with her firmly: “Puppies are cute, not my relationship with Ms. Bardot”. Of course, it’s very audacious to call one’s obsession a relationship without quotation marks, if there is only one person in this game, as any relationship, by definition, presupposes the other, who exists not only on an imaginary level, but who also communicates with that other person in real life. However, it’s forgivable, since he implies it himself that it’s only his flights of fancy which aren’t transgressive or harmful, on the contrary, he finds them very satisfying, otherwise his feelings wouldn’t have lasted for 40 (!) years. As for his wife’s choice of words, the adjective ‘cute’ is a very tricky one, in the American social and cultural context at least, it may often contain pejorative undertones of judgementalism or even hypocrisy, according to my personal observations.

Obviously, it must have been much more than just an obsessive desire for Brigitte Bardot’s physique. It wouldn’t be completely wrong to assert that although he idolises and worships her persona, to his credit, he manages not to objectify her at all. His unceasing admiration for her had given him much more than only aesthetic pleasure and the phantasmagoria of the erotic dreamscape. And it’s hard to explain, why an ordinary person, who might have been in the same physical space with him, had been unable to do the same. Brigitte Bardot had been influencing him, a perfect stranger, so powerfully from a distance, from her unreachable to others space that was perceived by her admirers as sacred, untouchable, and hopeful, which was absolutely essential to them in order to feed their imagination and love, whatever love is, speaking with Prince Charles. That space was observed by them through the cultural lens of her movies, posters, and photographs. To most, that was the only way to get a glimpse of this alluring space of hers. The first row at the St George college’s movie theatre seemed to bring him closer to his heroine’s space, yet the physical obstacle of the movie screen made Brigitte Bardot an unattainable love aim, but simultaneously a highly desirable ideal. And even when, finally, he decided to abandon his idee fixe, surprisingly, he gave the impression of being not quite ready to part with it. Moreover, his own resolution saddened him a great deal, as if he were about to lose something very important, which had become a significant and necessary part of his existence. Even if the short accidental meeting in the elevator didn’t entirely change his life, and despite its randomness, it most likely made him feel special and chosen, the very sensation might have kept him afloat, above the monotonous greyness and tediousness of the everyday. It might have even given him indeed the strength to overcome difficulties in life. And, best of all, it inspired him to write the collection of essays.

La beauté qui le captive. Brigitte Bardot in Cannes, 1956. The photo by © Edward Quinn from his book “Stars, Stars, Stars off the Screen” (1997).

Brigitte Bardot had interested him prior to that momentous ‘togetherness’ in the elevator, since he was eagerly following all her artistic endeavours. Although her image depended on a movie role she was playing, there isn’t a single film where she would come across as false, vulgar or uninspiring, even when she had to play anti-heroines, such as Dominique Marceau in La Vérité (1960) by Henri-Georges Clouzot and Jeanne in Don Juan ou Si Don Juan était une femme… (1973) by Roger Vadim. And she played them superbly, without sacrificing her personal space. But the fact that he didn’t expect, let alone plan, to see her in person at the moment when the elevator door opened must have had a tremendously large effect on his teenage self. The sudden appearance of his idol out of nowhere neared a dreamlike experience, which transferred him into a state of spellbinding and disorienting trance to the point that he lost his ability to speak or to think for the entire ride. Brigitte Bardot blinded him with her smile and deafened him with her warm and kind ‘Hello’, and those were the only things she explicitly and deliberately did. He, on the other hand, was unable to return civility and politeness in the elevator until they were brought down to the lobby, and when the actress was about to step out of the elevator and disappear, in the last moment, he dared to transgress that sacred space of hers by timidly touching the sleeve of her coat, but found a way to rehabilitate himself discursively: “Ms. Bardot. Thanks. Thanks for everything. Everything. Thanks for everything.” Brigitte Bardot didn’t say a thing to this, she just smiled at him and left. He didn’t follow her, but returned to the confinement of the elevator space instead and, thinking she might have given him wings, was transposed straight back to heaven, figuratively speaking, of course. I wouldn’t be surprised if the brevity of this memorable elevator ride equaled timelessness to Mr Lee. Isn’t it truly amazing what two polite, but very sincere smiles and one ‘Hello’, uttered by the Golden Goddess, can do to the mere mortal?  

Brigitte Bardot’s inspirational powers will always be forceful: men will sigh and groan and fantasise the wildest things known and unknown on Earth, aside to writing songs about her and dreaming about encountering someone who would have at least her hair; women will always envy her and her hair, some lovingly, some rancorously, but everyone would agree that as a cultural icon she is par excellence, unmatchable and unreachable. She will always be longed equally as much by men as by women. Men will make their women have her hairdo, women will be desperate for the Brigitte Bardot look. But there will always be the one and only Brigitte Bardot, no matter how hard women continue their efforts to emulate her. She herself has never tried to imitate anyone, and she has never envied anyone, speaking only well of the men and women with whom she worked in the past. She will always lure and seduce people with her most exquisite beauty that has the power to melt the stars, along with the brilliance of her authentic persona, and with the straightforwardness of her strong and bright personality.

Brigitte Bardot’s hair, just like la chevelure de Bérénice, has become the entity in its own right, destined to be as legendary as her whole artistic persona. That topic deserves another round of musings, which I shall pursue in the future. Besides having Brigitte the doll, given to me by my dearest Grandmother, I have the Brigitte Bardot boots, almost identical to the ones she wore when she was performing the Harley-Davidson song, and I must say they are awfully unsuitable for a motorcycle ride. I also own a similar fake cheetah jacket from the Moon landing epoch when she wore her cheetah print coat, but neither the boots nor the coat will ever make me look like she does, not in the slightest degree, and that isn’t tragic at all. But in case I must ever make a New Year’s resolution using Mr Lee’s exact words, it would sound only like this: Well, I’m not going to give up Brigitte Bardot! Why should I, if she inspires me so much for the good of mankind? And I’m endlessly grateful to her for this.  

(Written on Cape Cod, in the Sky Control Room on the windy night/morning of Tuesday, September 28, 2021.)

Copyright © 2021 by Elena Vassilieva. All Rights Reserved.

REVIEW

The Foibles of the American ‘Prince’

Or the faux pas of the HBO Max series “The Prince”.

By Elena Vassilieva

“S’il vous plaît soyez bon prince !” “Oui, ma princesse !” Image and words by Elena Vassilieva

On 29 July this year, the HBO Max aired The Prince, a new series about a royal family. I’m deliberately using minuscule letters in a phrase ‘a royal family’, so that it’s clear from the start that this animated series has nothing to do with The Royal Family of the House of Windsor. Of course, Gary Janetti, the creator of the series, might have had them in mind while writing the script, as he had brazenly appropriated their names, and it may delude one in the first few seconds as if it were simply a cartoonish take on the Royals. However, any cartoon, particularly a satirical one, is based on good, solid humour and fine, substantial wit, and at least a vague resemblance to the reality that is being spoofed. But none of this you will find in The Prince, an idle fantasy that isn’t bright and sparkling, but rather dull and utterly unfunny.

Besides, it seems to rely heavily on the creator’s background, his own life philosophy, behavioural modes, ethical codes, and preferences rather than those of the Royal Family members’. Also, it’s so conspicuously un-British, in spite of the involvement of a bunch of the UK actors (Alan Cumming, Orlando Bloom, Frances de la Tour, Iwan Rheon, Lucy Punch, Dan Stevens, Sophie Turner) in the series, that one is left guessing why Mr Janetti hadn’t chosen one of the fabled American families, say, the Kardashians, these relentless publicity slaves, or even one of the crews of the White House (Donald Trump would do, but so would Joe Biden), instead of bothering with the House of Windsor? The utter un-Britishness of the discourse and manners of the supposed royal characters are so striking a fact here that one can’t possibly take this creation seriously, and even less so as a comic piece. The mode of the contemporary American popular culture, whose hegemony on the global scene is hardly deniable and whose social dress code of the ubiquitous and infectious ‘look at me’ and ‘gimme’ self-exposure, combined with the urge for everything royal, are very oppressive in The Prince, ad nauseam, indeed. And if there had ever been the spirit of the British monarchy in the creator’s mind in the phase of conceiving the series, it got quickly evaporated in the process of its preparations for the audience. I would be afraid to call it even a translation, possibly, “lost in translation” would be a better phrase in this context. Please forgive me the banality of this comparison.

Even Prince Harry, whose every article of value has been contaminated by Meghan Markle’s system of values, wouldn’t say things in real life the way he is uttering them in the cartoon. For instance, in the episode where he is sharing matter-of-factly, yet in a lazily detached fashion, his astonishment of how unlike all the palaces he had ever been to the dwelling in LA is. It does sound flat, doesn’t it? And it’s a factual inaccuracy, as Harry, clearly, is fond of his new home, but it’s also a psychological distortion of reality, because he is very proud of their beautiful house, and he stated that himself in the infamous Oprah-interview, unless the creator knows something we don’t know yet. Regrettably, the series is filled with such truly sad discordances throughout: the cartoon’s characters, very American in every imaginable way, absurdly, have the real British Royal names; the children, e.g., Prince George and Princess Charlotte, sound as if they were teenagers already, on top of the fact that it’s rather tacky, vicious even, and done in poor taste, having presented the children of that young age as very unlikeable and spoilt characters, who in true life are nothing of the sort, on the contrary, they are as good-hearted and lovely as any child of their age. If it’s an animated satirical film, naturally, the characters are allowed, in fact, supposed to have some features of exaggerated proportions, but they ought to be truthful to the nature of those who are being portrayed, they can’t be forged and reimagined as the creator pleases. If the latter is the case, it’s not a satirical or even comedic enterprise anymore. All of the heroes of The Prince without exception are ill-conceived, in my view, and don’t therefore meet that criterion.

One also is puzzled, for what audience precisely the series is being made? Since it fails to release comedic effect and a crystal clear concept of the series seems to be absent as well, it can’t possibly excite imagination of any adult who possesses at least minimal intellectual curiosity, and, at the same time, it’s way too nasty and unenticing for a child, even a teenager. Though the music (by a British composer Rupert Gregson-Williams), which might be here the only thing that deserves a round of applause, suggests the younger generations of viewers. Perhaps the cartoon was thought to suit someone who is consumed by any royal topic and who would be triggered to watch it, once he hears the word ‘prince’, sort of the Pavlov’s dog bell reflex? Maybe the writers (Gary Janetti, Alain Bala, and Tom McDonald) just tried to offer their, strictly American, view of the royal everyday where the nuances got carefully filtered through the American mentality of a typical well-to-do middle-class man, a bourgeois, and a prince-wannabe? But for the lack of the appropriate circumstances, this can happen only on the very primitive level of the creator’s imagination, of course. Not surprising is hence that the only characters that are being spared from the creator’s repugnant vision are the bourgeois members of the Royal Family, Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle, for instance. Janetti’s sympathetic attitude to the women could be explained through his capability of grasping their mentality, because they share the same or similar social background (and a bourgeois mindset).

I also have difficulty to define the series as for its genre. It doesn’t appear to be a comedy because it isn’t funny. Acidic as it is, it lacks all the sharp, fair points and all the right angles of the societal peripeteias to be regarded as a good satire. Travesty would probably be the closest notion that would do justice to the series. Willingly or unwillingly, the Royals have been the centre of attention and a magnet for creative minds continuously throughout the centuries, but until now, the discourse had probably never been instilled with so much unforgivable balderdash, if not to say rubbish, and tastelessness. The latest pop-cultural ‘royal’ endeavours, such as The Crown and this HBO Max series The Prince, confirm and exemplify it so poignantly. One only wonders which one of the innumerous Royal commentators and experts has consulted The Prince?

(Written on Sunday, 22 August 2021, the day of the hurricane Henri, here, on Cape Cod.)

Copyright © 2021 by Elena Vassilieva. All Rights Reserved.

OPINION

Not Diana, the Princess of Wales, We Had Known, and It’s Hard Lines on Us

Notes on the Diana-statue unveiled on 1 July 2021 in the Sunken Garden at Kensington Palace

By Elena Vassilieva

Rosa est pulchra. Sequor te. Iuvo te. © Elena Vassilieva; Photo by Richard Young from “Princess” by © Robert Lacey and © Michael Rand, NYTimes Books (1982).

“Omnes ita perterriti erant, ut nemo resistere auderet. Alle waren so erschreckt, daß niemand Widerstand zu leisten wagte.” – August Waldeck (1891)

The ancient secret to a triumphantly successful sculpture is hidden in time, space, and divine afflatus. While I was catching glimpses of the first Royal Family-commissioned statue of the Princess Diana, I couldn’t stop wondering, why some artists are capable of curving quasi-fetishistic pieces that would be looked at with adoration and veneration, whereas others, although having skills, reputation, and accolades, are nonetheless losing the game? I realised that those breathless ones, who sculpt their pieces with zeal and love, forgetting themselves, must possess the power of turning lifeless material into something that would transcend the boundaries of its own space and influence a human being in such a profound way that the latter would believe indeed the statue empowers him with strength, gives him hope, and galvanizes him into action.

For instance, I still remember when I had stepped inside the garden of the Rodin Museum in Paris for the first time. It was in the morning, after the rain, and all the statues were covered with raindrops, the place was filled with the aroma of roses; I was instantly spellbound and couldn’t leave the garden for a very long time. All the statues there seemed to breath and exude that mysterious something that is called inspiration which brings you utter joy. I thought I would burst into a thousand pieces, that overwhelmed I was by the whole splendor of Rodin at that particular moment. A similar effect I had been expecting from the Diana-statue in the Sunken Garden at her home, while contemplating my future visits there.

High expectations? Not at all. When one thinks that it is Diana, the supernal woman with the air of being once the Roman goddess, from whose image a statue was made, say, of the Diana of Versailles, Diane a la biche, at the Louvre. All of a sudden, magically, she seemed to have stepped down from the pedestal, and then began to live among us. The Roman goddess in appearance and a rather bashful, humble young woman in her demeanour, she started captivating hearts even before she became the Princess of Wales, but when she did, everyone thought that she adorned the title and not the other way around. Now, who would dare to be called the Princess of Wales again? The Duchess of Cornwall, an intelligent woman, turned the title down quite adamantly, kudos to her for this! Perhaps, in one hundred years there will be someone in the House of Windsor who would resemble Diana and will be given the title again.

And perhaps, one day, there will be a sculptor who will be able to capture Diana’s spirit and her unforgettable beauty that was so generously supported by her kind, bright, conscientious, honest, passionate, effervescent, and romantic nature. The nature that is similar to that of goddess in classical mythology: to be a god or goddess but be devoid of the sanctimonious saintliness, in the sense of uprightness and self-righteousness (in classical culture, I find it difficult to name at least one god or goddess, let alone simple mortals, who would have it), little wonder, she had such a strong and complex personality of a perfectionist. The way, for example, she greeted the Italians in flawless and accent-free Italian, while on honeymoon on board the legendary Royal Yacht Britannia in the summer of 1981, reveals a lot about her character, her sense of duty, and her attitude towards the people. One can easily see that she made her best effort preparing this excellent greeting speech in the language of the people she was visiting. One can also guess that when she loved, she loved wholeheartedly and passionately, expecting reciprocity. Another important thing that manifested, I dare say, in her nature of a goddess, was her intolerance to any kind of betrayal, especially by those who were/are brazen enough to claim they knew her that well they were/are allowed, to this day, to judge her public and particularly her private life, be it her former best friend or employee, e.g., the butler, equerry, biographer, or journalist as if desperate to diminish her persona and to steal a piece of the glory and love she has received from the people all around the globe, not knowing that this way they only belittle themselves. There was no dissonance between the external and internal side of her personality, and if there were, then her beauty would’ve been fleeting. But it wasn’t the case.

Depiction of her face and body in the statue in an exact, realistic, manner, as the Princes might have wished, is a task that is per se relatively easy, given that Diana is a classical beauty, and therefore any idealisation of her image is superfluous. One just must go to Paris and spend days and nights at the Louvre, with the Diana of Versailles, copying her boldly; afterwards, one may want to add some refinement and the finishing touches that would make the Princess of Wales recognisable. There is no other way to do it if the precise physical likeness to the Princess Diana is sought, and if the artistic style of sculpting should be realism (naturalism), and if the sculptor doesn’t want to stumble. When one was born with divine looks, one can’t possibly be deprived of them, for the simplest reason that looks are a fact, the truth. Remember what Gertrude Stein once famously said: “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose?” This fact matters a great deal here. Every single part of her figure should be studied carefully in order to avoid postmodern kitsch and the effect of “the Diana in name only.” For any experienced and classically trained artist with good logical, spatial, and mathematical skills, it shouldn’t be very difficult to do it at all, particularly because of the initial striking resemblance between the two Dianas. Also, the Princess Diana as a statue shouldn’t be necessarily wearing what she wore in real life, even if the Princes insisted (they aren’t sculptors, after all, and how I wish they were!). Instead selecting an attire that would mirror her spirit and accentuate her personality would be much wiser. Her real clothes are not going to make the statue look like Diana, anyway, if the “it” that brings her back to us sculpturally isn’t there. No doubt, it’s the luxury to know an artist you could trust blindly, only then he can be given full creative freedom, and only then you are going to delight in his creation. But if one has no luxury of the sort at one’s disposal, then the commissioner ought to guide the artist through the process with his approval or disapproval of what is going on in the studio. It’s worth being vigilant to ensure that the artistic vision doesn’t divorce from the commissioner’s vision.

Of course, there are many other ways how the Princess could be portrayed. I shall take the liberty of imagining at least one of them, which might be a marble sculpture of the Princess, inspired by her image on the photo, taken superbly by Richard Young, when Diana and the Prince of Wales were on their summer voyage on Britannia in 1981. It may have also been one of the happiest moments of her life, because she radiates as much happiness there as later, when she is in the company of her beloved Princes, William and Harry. On that photograph, she wears an oversized white blazer and a triple strand pearl choker with a turquoise and pearl flower clasp, a present from the Spencer family on her 18th birthday (see the photo above). It’s hard to say what time of the day it is, but the exquisite airiness of her face has that fragile freshness of the morning and reflects her grace with such an elegant ease. The colours, including the light, are not only gorgeously right here, they are also incredibly harmonious with her whole being, creating an impression of the unity between the Princess and Nature, the space around her, that is. The composition and perspective are so successful that there is the fluidity of the contours and lines between the space of the Princess’ figure and the surroundings. And one thing one simply can’t miss here is the poetic nature of the Princess and the fineness of the moment. Should the sculptor decide that the Diana’s blazer in this marble statue shall be a line diffused into the pedestal, that will do, but should s/he think that the legs are necessary, that’ll do, too. But only if those will be the Princess Diana’s legs, not someone else’s. I would give preference to the first version, simply out of fear that the sculptor won’t be able to curve her legs in a proper fashion. In the end, it doesn’t matter at all which version it is, the sculpture just ought to entrance the spectator and give him aesthetic pleasure.

The statue in the Sunken Garden is executed in the style of realism, yet, it is not the Princess Diana. I don’t know who it is. It does remind me a little of one of the faces Mr Rank-Broadley had sculpted in the past, and did it very well, splendidly, in fact, but the handsome face of the Opening the Lock Gate’s character has little to do with Diana. And whose idea was it to politicise the sculpture by adding children who aren’t her sons? Diana’s personality needn’t be squeezed into any ideological frame and be peppered with the momentous messages of political correctness, for she was, still is, the epitome of kindness and compassion herself. Who would forget her as one of the most public-spirited human beings who ever walked on this planet? As a result, the sculptural ensemble is so inept in its composition, so intimidating in its nearly Herculean size and proportions, and the overt political editing/messaging only adds to its absolute soullessness and sad detachment, all of which is upsetting to a viewer like myself. And had the Princes decided not to unveil the statue on her birthday this year, the world wouldn’t have lost anything, on the contrary, we would’ve been still nursing hopes for THE statue of Diana, the one that would do justice to her. On that note, did I interpret it correctly, Earl Spencer, that you might have been as baffled as many of us upon seeing the unveiled statue in the Sunken Garden? There was a moment on one of the photos where you looked as if you just had a bite of the sourest apple you had ever tasted. Or was it just a wink caused by the sun?

One may wonder who is going to venture to sculpt the Princess Diana next? George Herbert Tyson Smith would have been best, of course, given his deep interest in ancient Egyptian and Romano-Greek culture. Alas, he is on the other side. Nigel Boonham perhaps then? He created a fairly good bust of the Princess and got her gracious approval despite the fact that he aged her mercilessly, in my view. Lesley Pover, a very interesting and fine artist, got Diana’s bones and bashfulness quite well, but lacked the desired likeness. Tom Murphy, a very thoughtful and skillful sculptor with such a sparkling enthusiasm, he might give it a try, since he has already been experimenting with a few Diana-sculptures. Besides, his Above Us Only Sky-John Lennon-statue (2002) at the Liverpool airport is such a successful work that it had received high praise from Her Majesty the Queen and Yoko Ono. If Mr Murphy could repeat this triumph of his with the Princess as well, that would be a dream come true. However, other talented sculptors may also reside and create outside of Great Britain.

P.S. Oh, but I still have to come and see all the flowers in the Sunken Garden redesigned by Pip Morrison.

(Written on 9 July 2021 in my white clover garden on Cape Cod.)

Copyright © 2021 by Elena Vassilieva. All rights reserved.

The Books and the Duchesses of the House of Windsor

Books for sale! Books for sale! Or the Royal case of assorted goods.

By Elena Vassilieva

Image: The Honeymooning Couple: “What are you in the mood to do next, honey?” “I just feel like whining again.” “Me, too.” © Elena Vassilieva

All those, who are interested in Royal affairs, have been offered so much food for thought lately by some of the duchesses of the House of Windsor that I don’t know where to begin. The hard-working women had to transform themselves, even if temporarily, into true Cinderellas, probably sacrificing their beauty sleep, matcha cocktails, tea with homemade cookies, and God knows what else, in order to add a check on the list of their deeds and to dazzle millions of their loyal social media followers and fans with… the books. Yes, the duchesses nowadays seem to be quite preoccupied with the books, no, not reading, but writing them. I wish they did read first, at least the books, written by their Royal predecessors and relatives, say, HRH Prince of Wales, before taking a daring journey into little-known waters. Had they read, some of them would have known better as for the quality standards set up by their family members.

Of course, some are weathered in the business already, Sarah Ferguson, for instance, as she has so many books of various genres in her collection. The Duchess of York is conquering a new genre now. She is busying herself with royal historical romances. “Her Heart for a Compass” will see the light in a couple of months. But I wonder whether her “The Enchanted Oak Tree” (2020) had inspired the Duchess of Sussex to produce her aspirational, but ill-fitting “The Bench?” There will be more on her book later.

Firstly, a few words about “Hold Still,” a book, curated by the Duchess of Cambridge, who, being the most conservative out of the three duchesses, chose the safest road, taking on a role more of an organiser and curator rather than a creator in a joint venture project with the National Portrait Gallery. Also, “Hold Still” is not a work of fiction or art, but a photo documentary, “[a] Portrait of Our Nation in 2020,” filled with the moments wonderfully captured by the people of diverse background during the pandemic. Conceptually, the book is a reflection of the ordinary people’s emotions and circumstances at that or this instant during the challenging year. To her credit, the Duchess had also interviewed them, showcasing organisational skills of a businesswoman. No wonder that the book turned out to be a solid and soul-stirring photo album. Another notable and laudable fact is that the proceeds from the sales will go to charities. The only disappointing and very puzzling thing is the title. Why would anyone think of the title that had already been taken? The same title belongs to Sally Mann’s memoir book with photographs (2015). I know that musicians steal titles from each other occasionally, often from their commercially more successful fellows, presumably, to draw attention, and although I cringe every time I see it, I can understand them. But the Duchess of Cambridge’s project isn’t seeking commercial success. Instead, the book’s social message, to document how people cope and support each other in hard times, is the main purpose of this endeavour. So it’s hard to follow the logic and logistics behind such a rushed and inexplicable decision, especially when one considers the seriousness of the project’s theme. Of course, there is no copyright for titles, but, nevertheless, there shall be nearly a natural desire to avoid the sameness at any cost. After all, the prospect of earning a reputation of copycats, God forbid, is quite daunting.

Now, back to the duchess who, unlike her sister-in-law, is as unpredictable as a loose cannon, and exhibits the most erratic and contradictory behaviour to the degree that at times it seems that ‘that woman’ is driven entirely by her impulses. Her drive to compete and overshadow the other duchess, to daze the public and to make profit is so strong and overwhelming that I wouldn’t be surprised if she hasn’t been able to sleep well at all lately. There is also much ado about her noble title, which she doesn’t want to lose, after all, it’s her ‘Pushmi-Pullyi’ that opens the doors for her to all kind of lucrative enterprises, but also a sacred cow (thanks so much for reminding me of this, YRH Prince Philip!) that shelters her, at least, on her home soil from dire straits of criticism. In a frenzy, during her many PR actions, Ms Markle often forgets that shamelessly using her Royal title and displaying it like the ‘Pushmi-Pullyi’ in a circus for self-advertising purposes requires certain social obligations as for her behavioural style in public, even when under American sky. It’s about time that she gets reprimanded by the Firm’s “grey men in suits” whom she mistrusts and despises so much as she had admitted herself in the interview with her friend Oprah Winfrey. Perhaps, it isn’t a bad idea either to ask her for the royalties for exploiting the Royal title, which adorns her opus and which is, in my view, the only extraordinary and remarkable thing in the whole book.  

The Bench” is written for children of age 3-7, according to Ms Markel, but its social messages are so aggressively promulgated here that the book doesn’t come across as a children’s book at all. She says one of the main ideas of the book is “inclusivity,” and that is, no doubt, an honourable idea, but this is exactly where the book as a children’s book becomes fatally flawed. The author proclaims equality and the feministic stance of the father, but she fails so miserably to include the main reader, a child, that is, for whom the book was made for. The book doesn’t seem to excite the child’s imagination at all, nor does it awaken his curiosity. And since it lacks humour, imaginativeness, and playfulness, the key features that define a good children’s book, I doubt it will circulate for a long time, if at all. Although the illustrator made efforts to revive it, the lack of the literary input from the author leaves the book very disengaging and non-organic.

As a side note, today, in my archive, I’ve found some silly poems by Fiona Trumbull, a relative of mine, who was 7 years old when she wrote it at school. I’d like to cite one of her poems here in order to illustrate what kind of rhymes a child of this age finds fanciful, even if it’s only a case of one particular child. And although Fiona isn’t a little girl anymore, she’s a teenager now, her lovely rhymes still make me laugh.

The Bees

Do bees wish they were trees?

Do they want to jiggle like keys?

Do they want to be green like leaves?

Do they hate to be yellow?

Do they have a nice fellow?

Have you noticed the colours, sounds, and even a tiny bit of philosophy and social critique in her poem? I wish Ms Markle took a field trip to school in order to learn how to write for children and what exactly children of that age prefer, if she had failed to read the most inspiring Scottish tale “The Old Man of Lochnagar” (1980) by the Prince of Wales. The tale that has withstood the test of time.

While she offers a catalogue of different benches and fathers with their children in the book, one bench remains in focus, the one Ms Markle had gifted to Prince Harry and their son, with a very daring inscription-poem: “This is your bench/ Where life will begin/ For you and our son/ Our baby, our kin.” It’s hard to miss her self-importance, resentfulness, and an instructive tone of a prophecy-monger here. ‘Where life will begin’: might it be that she implies her Prince had no life before they had met? Most likely. Given that Harry hadn’t had the foggiest idea that he was a poor prisoner, trapped inside the House of Windsor, until his saviour, Meghan Markle, arrived on the scene, falling from the sky, out of the blue. And thus, beyond the shadow of a doubt, Prince Harry got the surprise of his life. We all heard that in the Oprah-interview. Now we also know that many statements from those friendly conversations contained numerous inaccuracies and lies. Hence, everything that had happened to Prince Harry before his ‘saviour’ appeared shall be erased? That, too, we had displeasure to witness in one of his other public faux-pas-moves. In any event, Ms Markle is taking a lot of risky responsibility on her shoulders. It’s her nearly maniacal desire to emaciate the Prince’s memory of everything that doesn’t have to do with her and give him instead tabula rasa. There is something deeply and frighteningly Shakespearean in this strategy of hers, remember how some of the heroes in “A Midsummer-Night’s Dream” woke up and had no clue how on earth they were able to change overnight that much that they couldn’t recognise themselves? Therefore, the Prince’s past shall be deleted and replaced with everything that refers to ‘our kin,’ Ms Markle probably decided. Out of all words to use such a heavily loaded word ‘kin’ can only be dictated by resentfulness towards Harry’s former home. She is saying that she is giving him a new home where she will be the ruler and Commander-in-Chief and where Harry will be a liberated, happy-go-lucky father-babysitter and occasionally a businessman. Luckily, the ‘Pushmi-Pullyi’ won’t let the Duke and Duchess dine with Duke Humphrey too often.

The striking oddity of this poem upsets and unsettles the reader’s humour (at least mine) because benches are usually given in memory of those who had already departed for the other side. And that subconscious association is so unwelcome and incongruous in this children’s book. However, the bench in the poem symbolises their departure from the Royal Household. In the heaviness of the word ‘kin,’ she inserts all her expectations and ideals, e.g., of their cloudless and dazzling future as a family that ought, in her view, to overshadow all other Royal family members and thus incite their jealousy, a sort of vengeful and spiteful move. And although this deeply personal matter becomes public good, thanks to their own relentless publicity efforts, the conspicuous impudence of this whole enterprise finds its roots in utter hypocrisy on so many levels.

How else to explain the contradicting behaviour of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex when they show their bitterness and utter displeasure about the Royal Family and the Firm, accusing them of many things that have never occurred, and yet, they aren’t shy to take advantage of their Royal affiliation and benefit handsomely from it? Frankly, how many writers who submit such a low-quality work would get published? The only answer is no one, I sincerely hope. Of course, now every other writer must think he is a genius, after having read this awkward piece. The fact that by publishing the work of such a substandard quality the publisher automatically lowers literary standards and devalues the work by other writers, and that is quite disturbing. Many aspiring children’s writers would probably find such practice appalling and very exclusive. So much for the inclusivity the Duchess of Sussex is trying to preach. But most importantly, why shall we let our children read books written by the people who, instead of introducing literary work of outstanding merits to us, bring double standards and exhibit unscrupulous behaviour? The people who let their phantasy go wild in their interviews and have no single ounce of phantasy in their work of fiction. Yes, most certainly, we are blessed with the freedom of speech here, and anyone can utter whatever s/he pleases, but it doesn’t mean that it gives them the (moral) right to make us witness how they follow their gold-digging instincts so blatantly, at the expense of others, in front of our children, in such an aggressive way. The hypocritical neutrality of some of the media and even support (e.g., I was appalled by the NPR piece on “The Bench”) for her project is disheartening, as if the whole thing weren’t about children, culture, and our society in general. Are you telling me, Ms Markle, that the snow is black, the grass is blue, and that this is all true? It reminds me of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” by Hans Christian Andersen where the little child perplexedly gasps right in the midst of the bogus praises from the crowd: “But he hasn’t got anything on.”

(Written on 25th June 2021 in the Sky Control Room on Cape Cod.)

“The Bee” by Fiona Trumbull was cited here with her permission.

Copyright © 2021 by Elena Vassilieva. All rights reserved.

The Cultural Dissonance between the Duke and Duchess of Sussex and the House of Windsor

Notes on the Oprah Winfrey’s Interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle

By Elena Vassilieva

Image: Lion: “Que dites-vous là ?” Licorne: “À qui a jouer ?” Lion: “À moi !” Licorne: “Memento: clavum clavo pellere.” © Elena Vassilieva

Last night something utterly unusual and peculiar happened. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex walked into my dream. Prince Harry, while taking care of chickens at their new beautiful house in California, rather concernedly and earnestly said to his wife that they ought to apologise to his grandmother, the Queen, and the Firm as well. To which his beloved wife replied, appearing also concerned and moved almost to tears, “Oh, honey, you are so sweet, so caring and selfless, you really are. And I’m so proud of you and I appreciate it, you know I do. It’s so cute you would have such thoughts, hon, but don’t you think they ought to apologise to me, to us after what we’ve been through?” “You know, Meg, I sort of regret we had that interview with Oprah. Now we are berühmt-berüchtigt more than ever, and how I wish we never went there. I said too much. And you said even more, often pointing at me as your source of information. What’s gonna happen now? How shall I look them in the eye?” Harry was putting his hands on his head and seemed to be genuinely embarrassed and distressed, Meghan rolled her eyes, then said firmly, “Don’t you remember, honey, how much I suffered there? We suffered? Don’t you remember how trapped we were there? And they didn’t care! We are so happy now. We have everything one could wish for. Didn’t you say it yourself that the main thing we have each other?” Harry seemed to agree, yet, looked frustrated and stricken with sadness. At that point the dream was interrupted by a rooster.

Thank God, the rooster was that loud that he woke me up in the middle of the night and took these heroes away from my dream where they didn’t belong at all. Mea culpa. The evening before, I watched their infamous interview with Oprah Winfrey. My friend, a human geography professor, agreed to keep me company, although, after seeing only a quarter of the interview, he excused himself and left. He thought it was boring and, frankly, he couldn’t understand what Meghan Markle was talking about. A university professor and a native English speaker, whose ancestors sat at the same table with Abraham Lincoln, asked me several times what Meghan meant. Then, giving up completely, he just said how oblique her speech was and how hard it was not to notice her sense of entitlement. “If she was like that inside the royal circles, she must have made a very unfavourable impression. She seems to lack humility, too. And who has time to read and listen to the tabloids, anyway?” was his verdict. Oprah herself at times looked as if she struggled to follow Meghan’s string of words. Although I thought she had, indeed, a very empathetic way of interviewing. Clearly, she was very smart and careful not to upset the pregnant woman she’s befriended over the years. When the Duchess of Sussex said that some members of the Firm were curious about the skin colour of their then unborn baby, taken aback by it so much, Oprah didn’t insist Meghan disclose the names of those who said it. Right now, it seems, anyone at the House of Windsor, except for the Queen and Prince Philip, could be a suspect, and it’s rather unfair. Had she revealed their names, at least, they would have had a chance to defend themselves or felt pressured to make a public statement.

Another thing that makes one’s eyebrows raise was her complaint that she wasn’t assisted in preparations for the royal role at all. What was Samantha Cohen doing there then? Catching butterflies with her perhaps? According to the article in the Harper’s Bazaar, she had invested many hours (for 6 months!) into couching the then future Duchess of Sussex for her royal duties. Did Meghan Markle expect to have a souffleur for every single occasion and in every corner of the Commonwealth? She didn’t arrive at the House of Windsor as a helpless ingénue. She entered the Firm as a woman who had a previous marriage and a career in show business. So how could she have possibly underestimated both the seriousness of her personal responsibility and the load of her royal duties while inside the Royal Family? Didn’t Prince Harry warn her and others publicly, saying that not every woman will be willing to be his wife, given the circumstances (a complex book of the Royal dos and don’ts, let alone the annoying and ever present tabloids)? Why did she take this fact so lightheartedly?

Another comment she made regarding the ones who are not the immediate Family goes back to that same compartment of the ethical codes and norms established at the Royal House. Even if one lacks experience and knowledge as to how to behave in this or that situation, doesn’t one rely then on common sense and intuition guided by kindness, intellect, and basic civility of hers/his? Conforming to the traditional social norms isn’t something as difficult as building a starship, or is it? Also, one certainly shouldn’t have such expectations that, once married into the Royal Family, everyone there from now on would be at his/her disposal night and day. Even if one had in mind the Hans Christian Andersen’s “Princess and the Pea,” it still would work the way it did in the fairytale only if the attitudes and interests of both parties/sides coincided. The puzzle-trap (i.e., the pea) the Prince’s parents prepared for the rain-soaked Princess was effortlessly solved by her, and hence her ‘princessness’ was proved and approved. In other words, her capriciousness was anticipated and even encouraged. Was the same thing expected of Meghan when she appeared on the scene? I doubt it.

Most likely, the elementary ethic (discreetness, loyalty, and diligence, this holy trinity, foremost) was hoped for and required by the Firm. It’s always quid pro quo, of course, as everywhere else: if you follow our rules and traditions, we’ll respect and support you. But if someone believes that as a new member of the Royal Family one is automatically entitled to command at his or her discretion, regardless of the traditional behavioural standards of this house, one will always risk to be perceived as transgressive and untrustworthy, no matter how good-hearted his/her intentions are. And if, for instance, something like this occurred: “Hi, guys! I’m Meghan. I left my country and my career for my prince and for my royal title, so make sure you are my obedient servants. And don’t forget that I’m from a free country: I do what I please, and I’m pleased what I do.” Would it be acceptable? No, very unlikely that this sort of attitude of une femme aux manières hardies would be tolerated. Not in the House of Windsor, in any event, and even in America, it would be rejected in many places. To many it would appear as poor taste and rudeness of a vulgar commoner. My professor friend didn’t approve of such manners, in fact, he found it rather disconcerting and embarrassing that an American woman is a cause of so many scandalous moments and so much stress in the British Royal Household. Obviously, at the institution as old as this one, everyone, including every single butler and cook, has a very strict book of rules, which a newcomer simply must study diligently if s/he would like to be accepted and well-regarded there. Besides, is it permissible to enter someone else’s house as a new relation and then try to transform it right away, turning it upside down, simply because one grew up in a different social setting? That goes back to Meghan’s comment regarding losing her voice there. How naïve it is indeed to expect one’s voice to be heard right away at such a conservative institution as the British Royal House. Shouldn’t one first prove oneself and excel? It’s already a great deal of recognition that the Queen has been so welcoming and kind to her. What an honour to receive an invitation to share a blanket to keep one warm while on duty! What an honour to receive a set of pearls from the Queen.

How come one wouldn’t try his/her best to appreciate it instead of crossing the line? How come one wouldn’t think that the Queen is also a human being who has heart and soul, who has served Great Britain and the entire space of the Commonwealth for 69 years, rain or shine, never making a wrong move and never uttering a single complaint? How come one would forget that Her Majesty is also a mother and a wife, whose husband is at this very moment in hospital? Why wouldn’t Her Majesty need moral support at such a sad moment? The more I think about it, the more bewildered I am how one can be such a devoted husband and father as Prince Harry is, but would be so oblivious to how hurtful his actions may be to someone who is related to him by blood and who is his Commander-in-Chief. Wouldn’t it have been possible to resolve all the issues privately first, without going global and public, without creating that awful Billingsgate effect in the mass and social media in particular? True, it’s the time when people get fancied, loved, praised, crushed, judged, and even “cancelled” in the vast space of social media, but there are also those who were reared having a different system of values. Why would one want to subject Her Majesty to this repugnant ordeal? And if Harry and Meghan found themselves ‘trapped’ inside the Firm, Prince Harry shouldn’t have felt ashamed and should have asked for help for his wife when she needed it so urgently. Why and who would have refused to give them a hand? It would have been utterly inhuman if that were the case. Still, it gives the Duke and Duchess of Sussex no right to show this callous disregard for the Queen who has always respected their wishes and values. Clearly, it’s not a game, but, nonetheless, the Queen is a winner, in my view, for Her Majesty didn’t hesitate to apologise for the things she didn’t do, and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex haven’t.

As Prince Harry in my dream said he wished he didn’t do that interview, I wish I didn’t watch it. It is heartbreaking and dispiriting to see how awkward and bizarre the world is becoming, from the ethical point of view. How egotistical, narcissistic, and insensitive people can be even towards those who love them. Of course, there is nothing new in it, but each time I observe it I would like to fly to another planet. Mr Musk, please hurry up with your starship. And, yes, it certainly sounds as if I were desperate to harangue on the subject of the contemporary moral codes, and I must say I am, indeed.

(Written on March 8, 2021 in the Sky Control room on Cape Cod.)

Copyright © 2021 by Elena Vassilieva. All rights reserved.