A complicated woman who deserved better

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I was quite excited to stumble across this thick historical novel about Mary Todd Lincoln. I’ve been deeply interested in the Lincolns since age eight, with the interest waxing and waning over time. So many books focus on Pres. Lincoln and his youngest sons Willie and Tad, but not too much attention has been paid to the long-suffering Mary.

Overall, I think I’d give this a 3 out of 5. I read every word, and overall was held by the story and Ms. Newman’s writing, but there were a number of things which disappointed me.

1. While the wraparound segments in the mental hospital were an interesting idea, I don’t think they fit so well with the main text. I personally don’t like being jerked back and forth between past and present. There needs to be more balance with such a structure. I’ve also found out there were no bars on the windows, and no records of patients being killed by overdoses of medication like laudanum.

2. It was jarring to see the R-word used several times, even as a medical term! That word wasn’t even used in that way in the 19th century. Did Ms. Newman not think we’d understand a bygone classification like feebleminded, moron, or imbecile?

3. Robert Lincoln is portrayed as the antagonist, a complete villain, with no human emotions or sympathy. From birth, he’s depicted as cold, unfeeling, distant, antagonistic towards his mother and later wife, cruel, etc. In real life, two recesses had to be called at Mary’s insanity hearing because Robert was crying too much to testify. He also stayed by his baby brother Tad on his deathbed, and was very grieved to lose his final surviving sibling.

4. Speaking of, the wrong age is given for Tad at one point.

5. I obviously know the focus isn’t supposed to be on Pres. Lincoln, but some rather important events of his life are left out. Why wouldn’t his wife mention he started growing a beard, for example? Or how about him sneaking into Washington in disguise, on another train, for fear of assassination during the final leg of his journey to the White House?

6. Based on what came before, I honestly didn’t realise at first Ms. Newman was actually describing the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. I thought Mary was having another drug-induced hallucination or dream!

7. I was quite disappointed such short schrift was given to the Lincolns’ White House life. How about some descriptions of dinners and teas with important dignitaries and generals? Mary’s young friend Julia Taft, the older sister of Tad and Willie’s friends Bud and Holly, all of whom were regular visitors?

8. This is one of those books where so many pages are devoted to the subject’s early life, not much room is left to properly delve into the middle and later years.

9. I don’t want to read sex scenes with real-life people! I’ve zero problem reading or writing sex scenes in general, but I don’t want to picture Pres. Lincoln of all people getting it on! Forget the famous or heroic aspect; what person wants complete strangers, 100+ years later, writing about her or his most private, intimate moments for the whole world?

For that matter, I don’t want to read about anyone (real people or fictional characters) relieving themselves either! Both of these things are trends that need to go away!

10. Is there any evidence Mary seduced her husband before marriage to force him into marrying her, and her family into accepting the relationship? I’m well-aware premarital sex has always existed, but the way this storyline was handled seemed so unrealistic and bizarre!

11. Ms. Newman depicts Mary as sex-obsessed and Pres. Lincoln as frigid and undersexed, with this imbalance of passion deeply affecting their relationship. She even has Mary thinking about sex when her husband’s on his deathbed! In an earlier chapter, she depicts Mary having an affair when she’s shopping in New York.

Overall, I did enjoy a good portion of the book. I truly felt for this woman who suffered so much, and lived in a time when there wasn’t much recourse but a mental hospital and “medicine” that made her condition worse. It’s just that the execution was lacking, and I felt like a voyeur reading the sex scenes.

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A novel of tedium and infodump in Medieval France

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I was excited to find this among the $3 books at a used bookstore. My parents bought me the second book years ago, for my birthday or Chanukah, but I’d never read it. Sadly, I yet again had the exact opposite reaction from the crowd re: a very popular recent hist-fic.

Why might that be this time?

1. Ms. Anton gets an A+ for research, a D for storytelling. It’s a bunch of ideas and historical facts patched together. The narrative plods along tediously, with no compelling, well-developed characters or strong prose to compensate.

2. Showing off her research. Ms. Anton dumps in detailed information that has nothing to do with the purported main story, like Medieval French politics, parchment-making, wine-making, and Rashi’s mother’s diary.

3. Stilted, infodumpy dialogue conveying said details. Enough said.

4. Head-hopping deluxe! When we’re in too many heads, too close together, for not enough time each, we’re ultimately in no one’s head, and can’t care about the characters. The trick to handling an ensemble cast is to weave the POVs, just as a great figure skating program weaves the elements in and out instead of clustering them.

5. By the time an actual plot finally emerged (over 200 pages in), I was long past caring about anyone. At least in A Farewell to Arms, I felt bad for the baby for about two seconds!

6. The sex scenes are like Medieval Jewish porn fantasies! I also call BS on Rashi giving fairly graphic sex advice to his own daughters and son-in-law and giving the latter intimate details about his sex life! And enough already with the unrealistic trope of virgins having a mind-blowingly awesome first time!

7. I call BS on men waiting outside the mikvah for their wives and gossiping about who went there! Taharat hamishpacha, family purity, is an extremely private mitzvah, which even many women didn’t discuss with other women till a few decades ago. You’re not supposed to know who went there, esp. if she’s your sister, mother, or rabbi’s daughter! A brother also wouldn’t oversee his own sister’s immersions!

8. Was it really common for women to regularly come to synagogue, not just for holidays and the Sabbath, in the 11th century?

9. The word “gender” is anachronistically used in place of “sex” six times, including twice in dialogue. People in the 11th century DID NOT use that word in that way, EVER! It only became a euphemism for “sex” in the late 20th century, thanks in large part to the vile Dr. John Money and his grotesque experiment with poor David Reimer. The freaking Victorians weren’t afraid to say “sex” when referring to being male or female!

10. Either someone confused the dating, or Ms. Anton SORASed her characters. The timeline says Joheved was born in 1059, yet she’s twelve when the story opens in 1069. Miriam’s birth year is given as 1062, yet she’s nine when the story opens. Joheved’s husband Meir is depicted as four years older, yet he was born circa 1060.

11. Speaking of, I had no sense of these girls growing up. I know there was no concept of adolescence in the Middle Ages, but I never had a feeling for how old they were at any given time, or of going on a coming-of-age journey with them. It felt more like SORASing.

12. Zero character development. Enough said.

13. I call BS on the premarital kissing and making out! Traditional Orthodox couples aren’t even allowed to be alone without a chaperone or hold hands before marriage.

14. Every time a conflict appears, it’s quickly resolved, like when Rashi catches Joheved and Meir making out before they’re married.

15. The blurb makes it sound like the story is about Meir’s disapproval of Joheved’s Talmud study, but he’s totally cool with it after his initial shock. It was extremely unusual for Jewish women (and even most men) to be so educated in this era, yet we never gauge any long-lasting reactions to this from anyone!

16. The depictions of births and midwifery aren’t accurate, as a reviewer on Amazon and Goodreads explained in detail.

17. Constantly interrupting the narrative to define or explain things!

Rashi and his daughters (who really did study Talmud and pray with tefillin) deserved so much better. I’m told the second book depicts Miriam’s husband Benjamin as openly gay, and the community anachronistically accepts this.

One Imperial pretender, two very different books, Part VI (Final thoughts)

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Rereading Kurth’s book, over 22 years later, in tandem with rereading King and Wilson’s book, was such a study in contrasts. I wanted to see if I’d interpret all these things much differently, now knowing the truth. So many things uncritically presented as factual by Kurth are reported far differently, and more damningly, by King and Wilson.

King and Wilson make it clear, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the claimant was one and the same as Franziska Schanzkowska. Not only that, they show how she seemingly pulled off this charade for so many decades and fooled so many people who supposedly knew the real Anastasiya very well.

She relied on her incredible memory (which was never as shattered as she pretended it was), taking advantage of all the books, magazine articles, captioned photos, and personal stories that were offered up to her in good faith. To avoid blowing her cover, she carefully controlled whom she interacted with and what she said.

After such a dark, bleak life, Franziska saw in the Romanovs the kind of ideal, loving family she’d been denied. She wanted, needed to identify so strongly with their happiness, privilege, close-knit bonds. Taking on this pretended identity, even with the dark cloud of Yekaterinburg, was preferable to her own real life.

People who quickly, unthinkingly dismiss her, without knowing much else about her, fail to understand how complex her story really was. Franziska was more than just another pretender. Once she realised the enormity of what she’d set in motion, she knew she could never back out of it and return to being Franziska.

Not only was she guilty of fraud, but so many good people had become personally involved. They’d opened their homes, paid for her medical care and legal bills, given her priceless mementos, publicly and prominently defended her. She wasn’t like any of the other countless Romanov pretenders, whose claims quickly fizzled out and who never became international celebrities.

Countless DNA tests, from multiple labs, genetic samples, and countries, have proven over and over again she wasn’t a Romanova, nor a maternal descendent of Queen Victoria. Instead, her mtDNA has always matched Franziska’s sister’s grandson.

Though U.S. and Russian forensic scientists disagree on which daughter was missing from the mass grave and finally found in 2007, DNA tests have proved all seven members of the Imperial Family are now accounted for.

Taken together with all the unarchived documents disproving so much of what the world was led to believe for decades, the truth is obvious. However, there remains a small, committed band of Anastasians, still clinging to wild conspiracy theories and refusing to accept new evidence.

The most bizarre conspiracy I’ve heard is that she was a chimera. A. Freaking. Chimera.

People in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution wanted, needed to believe someone survived. Even today, people without any monarchist leanings or Russian blood are struck by the heartbreaking tragedy. This gave them hope to cling to, however delusional.

Thus, they were able to overlook troubling things like her refusal to speak Russian, blatantly false memories, obvious mistakes, strikingly different physical appearance, lack of response to things the real Anastasiya would’ve been deeply affected by or at least recognised, all the holes in her rescue story.

Of course it’s wrong to steal the identity of a girl who was murdered when she was barely seventeen, and to take advantage of so many good people for decades. But given the harsh life Franziska came from, this role of a lifetime was a golden ticket to go from a nobody to a somebody.

She probably didn’t think it would ever go so far, but once she was so firmly ensconced in it, with so many other people involved, it was impossible to end things. Admitting her fraud would’ve made her life even worse.

At the time of the Revolution, Tatyana (left) was the most famous and popular of the Tsar’s daughters, because of her prominent nursing work and exotic, regal beauty. Thanks to Franziska’s decades-long pretending act, Anastasiya is now the most famous by far.

If Franziska hadn’t claimed her identity, it’s very likely Anastasiya would’ve remained a footnote in history. Had she lived, she would’ve married a foreign prince and led an ordinary royal life, even if she’d married a prince from a country that fell under Nazi occupation or fascist rule.

Franziska had a much more interesting life than Anastasiya seemed destined for, precisely because of her pretending act.

There’s a Jewish teaching that parents have a moment of prophecy when they name a baby. It’s indeed eerily prophetic how Anastasiya means “resurrection.”

One Imperial pretender, two very different books, Part V (Who really was she?)

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Peter Kurth made such a strong case for establishing this most famous of all pretenders as Grand Duchess Anastasiya, denied by her family and rejected by the courts, I couldn’t believe she was anyone else. I dismissed her real identity as ardently as he did. It was a ridiculous conspiracy or bizarre case of mistaken identity.

Many years later, I very reluctantly began to concede perhaps she really wasn’t Anastasiya after all. But surely she couldn’t have been a supposed Polish peasant, since she knew too much about the Imperial Family.

And then I discovered the mountains of newly-unarchived evidence dashing any lingering false beliefs. This new evidence goes far beyond DNA in proving, without a shadow of a doubt, this person was one and the same as Franziska Schanzkowska.

FS was the only other identity ever ascribed to her, besides the one she lay claim to for almost 64 years. Her positive identification as FS was first reported in 1927, yet her supporters have always framed it as a cruel conspiracy by Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig of Hesse and by Rhine to rob her of her inheritance.

Many people considered the matter settled, despite the fact that Franziska’s brother Felix quickly reneged on his positive identification of her. But thanks to the powerful, carefully-presented voices of her supporters, and the public’s preference for a fairytale story about a lost princess rejected by her family and fighting to reclaim her identity, falsehoods carried the day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Her supporters are loath to compare the only known pre-1920 photo of FS with any of her later photos, because the similarities are so obvious. Comparing any of her photos with those of her birth family reveals great similarities too, whereas she doesn’t have much of any family resemblance with the Romanovs.

I won’t spoil all the stunning new revelations reported by King and Wilson, but suffice it to say, FS was no Polish peasant. She was Kashubian (a West Slavic group in Poland), and descended from minor nobility. Franziska got a rather good education, and was very intelligent.

Franziska had a rather bleak, dark childhood, and didn’t fit in with most of the people in her hometown. They resented how she wanted to “get above her raising” instead of matter-of-factly accepting her station in life.

Franziska’s life in Germany wasn’t any better. After she went missing in 1920, her hosts, the Wingenders, didn’t immediately alert the police. She came back to them in 1922, when she ran away from the von Kleists, but the Wingenders never attempted to look for her in all that time.

When she was pulled out of the canal, she had nothing to live for. In a way, FS really did die, since she never lived as Franziska again, apart from those four days in 1922. Once the idea of impersonating Anastasiya was planted in her head, and heavily encouraged by the émigrés she met, she ran with it.

Pretending to be Anastasiya meant she never had to work again, and was able to live rather comfortably, even after her height of popularity. She always had a place to live, friends in high places, money, her needs taken care of.

Her brother Felix recognised as much, and thus reneged on his earlier identification. He wanted to leave her to her new friends and “career.” When a meeting with all four of her siblings was arranged in 1937 (demanded by Hitler), they ultimately had to deny her to protect both her and Felix from serious legal consequences. Franziska was guilty of fraud, while Felix had lied on a legal document.

Doris Wingender, middle daughter of Franziska’s former hostess, was virulently attacked just as much as Pierre Gilliard, for daring to accept money and an exclusive newspaper contract for this story.

Kurth describes Dr. Wilhelm Völler, the attorney of major supporter Harriet von Rathlef-Keilmann, taking Doris to dinner by a hotel and stealing her newspaper contract from her purse while she was in the powder room.

Kurth doesn’t mention how Franziska very much recognised Felix when he came to see her by Castle Seeon, nor does he give any credence to the Wingenders’ account of Franziska coming to visit them, wearing clothes the von Kleists themselves recognised.

Decades later, during the trials, Doris submitted a photo of herself in those very clothes. It was discovered she’d drawn in buttons and a belt, and erased a figure. Kurth is horrorstruck the court ruled she didn’t do that maliciously or knowingly submit falsified evidence.

By summer 1927, eleven people had identified her as Franziska, yet her supporters continued to dismiss the evidence. Some spun conspiracy theories about what had happened to the “real” Franziska.

But no matter how much people wanted to believe this romantic fairytale and riveting conspiracy theories, DNA had the final say.

To be continued.

One Imperial pretender, two very different books, Part IV (How did she pull it off?)

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Going only by Peter Kurth’s biography, one can be led to believe this most famous of all pretenders never slipped out of her role, always behaved, spoke, reacted like the woman she claimed to be. Every good, decent person accepted her claim and had sympathy for less than Imperial behaviour, understanding it was due to trauma, a strong personality, amnesia, etc.

Except that’s not how it happened at all.

While Franziska may have grown to believe she indeed was Anastasiya by the end of her life, after almost 64 years of playing the part, there were so many clues lying out in the open for decades. They either weren’t widely reported (due to not wanting to spoil the fairytale story the public preferred), or were brushed aside as unfounded accusations from people with agendas.

The claimant was famous for frequently covering her face or mouth, hiding under bedcovers, turning her back to her guests, running away, refusing to meet people she suspected wouldn’t believe her claim, and holing herself up in her room instead of interacting even with sympathetic hosts.

She told the von Kleists not to observe the etiquette normally demanded of her supposed position. Other times, she just refused to speak.

In the first photo, one can clearly see Franziska copying the angle and pose of a photograph of Anastasiya. In the second, the blurriness works to her advantage. The third is a photo of a drawing, printed in international newspapers in 1935 when she began her decades-long German legal battle. They all deliberately obfuscate glaring differences between the two women’s facial features, and don’t give many details for comparison.

If one carefully examines a lot of Franziska’s photos, it also quickly becomes obvious she’s sucking in or biting her lips to hide her large mouth. Anastasiya had a small, thin mouth, and Franziska knew it. In some photos, like the middle one, her bottom teeth can clearly be seen bulging through the skin!

As mentioned in previous posts, none of the people who accepted her claim knew the real Anastasiya very well, a fact they all admitted. While some of the people who rejected her likewise hadn’t known her very well either, more weight should be given to the fifteen people who knew her very well and rejected her.

Yes, most of the surviving Romanovs and other people from their extended family never met her, but that’s hardly a horrible slight. Some, like the Dowager Empress, refused to believe the Imperial Family had been murdered, while most of the rest were emotionally and mentally scarred, and wanted to get on with their lives as best they could.

There were also many Romanov pretenders who sprung up in the wake of the murder. Why should anyone be bothered to entertain all these people’s delusions, and constantly revisit that anguish?

Much blame goes to the Soviet government for not ending this charade when it started. They could’ve nipped it in the bud at any time by announcing, “We murdered the entire Imperial Family, and here are their bodies to prove it!” They kept a tight veil of secrecy for decades, creating fertile breeding-ground for conspiracy theories and vain hopes.

It also wouldn’t have mattered which of the five Imperial children anyone impersonated. Because their mother kept them in a gilded cage, they had no real friends outside of one another and some very trusted courtiers and servants. They didn’t even know many people in their extended family very well. Thus, it was harder to find people who knew the real Anastasiya very well, and could authoritatively state that wasn’t their friend, classmate, pupil, regular customer, etc.

Some supporters, like Gleb Botkin and his sister Tatyana, admitted they were forced to search for physical similarities, since the claimant didn’t resemble the person they remembered (and admitted they hadn’t known very well). Others, like Lili Dehn, Xenia Leeds, and Prince Sigismund of Prussia, only met her after years of studying and practicing.

Had everyone who knew the real Anastasiya well met the claimant, they would’ve rejected her just as the other fifteen close relatives and courtiers did. Also, neither side wanted to call in Anna Vyrubova, Empress Aleksandra’s best friend, who saw Anastasiya almost every day, because she was a fervent disciple of the late Rasputin. No one wanted to introduce that spectre into the case!

To be continued.