In the last two or three weeks I have been mightily impressed by the work of two artists, the one a novelist, the other an historian, who could reasonably be called mid-Atlantic intellectuals. Both Alan Furst, the novelist, and Amanda Foreman, the historian, have solid links through either birth, education or residence with Europe and the United States and both seem to have benefitted personally and professionally from these links.
I have recently read two of Furst’s 14 novels about what he calls “near history”, the period from the access to power of Hitler in 1933, to the end of the Second World War in 1945. In both of them, his main character was a journalist, who became a spy, and the setting in both was the slightly murky world in which, in those days, political activists who opposed the powers animating the onrush of war were forced to live. Furst calls himself an “historical spy novelist”, but many reviewers, amazed by the seeming fidelity of his descriptions of the atmosphere of the time, have rather considered he should be listed as a pure novelist. In each of the books I read, Paris, a city Furst has described as “the heart of civilization,” plays a prominent role as the place to escape to from the oncoming terrors of Fascism and Communism. Before he began to write novels, Furst moved to France, where he taught for some time at the University of Montpellier, and he later lived in Paris for many years, an experience that has clearly marked him and that has probably given rise to the engaging and sometimes terrifying way he has portrayed the world that was overcome by Nazism.
Dr. Amanda Foremen, who is the animator and author of a BBC series called The Ascent of Woman has an even more markedly mid-Atlantic background than Furst. She is the daughter of the famous Hollywood screenwriter Carl Foreman, who was halfway through working on the movie he wrote, High Noon, when he was called before the Un-American Activities Committee of the US Congress where he admitted to having been, in his youth a member of the Communist Party but to whom he refused to name any members of the party. Thus he was declared an uncooperative witness, subject to a boycott by the major studios, and he took off for England, where, eventually Amanda was born in 1968. She was educated in England, then at University in the United States, and finally at Oxford University. When she was 30 she turned her doctoral thesis on Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire into a book which became an international bestseller in hardback, paperback and on re-issue nine years later. Her next book was A World On Fire, a history of the American civil war from the British point of view, of which one reviewer said “it resembles nothing so much as War and Peace”; and the Wall Street Journal reviewer offered the opinion that she was such an engaging writer that readers might find even her 958 page volume too short.
Just as Alan Furst’s experiences in Europe must have added to his sure touch in his drawing up the political and social atmosphere in his novel The Foreign Correspondent (2006) about an anti-Fascist who got a job in Paris with Reuters and was simultaneously editing a dissident journal distributed inside Italy, and in Dark Star (1991) whose hero is a Pravda correspondent stationed in Paris who gets mixed up in the baleful atmosphere of Nazi-run Berlin, and is trapped by the German invasion of Poland, so too Dr. Foreman’s extensive experience in Britain must be attributed to her sure touch, as exhibited in her series on the BBC. I confess I have seen only one of the four programmes, but it was done with such authority, with such a sense of commitment to the cause of women, and revealed such fascinating information about early women writers and historical figures who would be called feminists in today’s world, as to be completely captivating. Indeed, it was exciting o watch a programme carried off with such aplomb and surety. She did not bother us with any of the standard feminist arguments that might put off some members of her audience: she simply went straight to describing what her subjects had done, against what terrific odds they had succeeded, and to what extend even women today should honour them for having played their significant role in the liberation of women from the severe strictures they were under before, during and after the Renaissance (and as she made clear by including a devastating brief argument by a striking Turkish woman writer) they still are.
This was what I call ideal TV in that it was educational, compelling and left one reeling with a sense of all the things one should have known, but never had. Who, for instance, had ever heard of the Empress Theodora, who began life as a prostitute and street performer, gained the acquaintance of the heir to the throne, and when he succeeded to his title, married him, and succeeded in having legislation adopted gaining protections for women. This in the sixth century!
I had never heard of Hildegaard, a nun, an advocate so powerful that the Pope was forced to allow her to form her own monastery, from which, in her writings, she went so far as to describe the female orgasm. Dr. Foreman, with an engaging smile, put this freedom about sexuality to a present-day nun, a very comfortable-looking middle-aged woman, who said that sexuality was part of human life, and therefore had to be taken into Benedictine life, and “has to be dealt with by natural means.” (I took this to be the closest we are ever likely to come to hearing a nun confess to masturbating.) All this in the twelfth century!
Similarly a woman called Roxelan, who began as a sexual slave kidnapped from the Ukraine, and became a member of the Sultan’s harem. In those days the Sultan was not permitted to marry: the practice was that each of his favourite women could give birth to one child, and then fade into the background, creating a sort of competition among them to produce the heir to the throne. Roxalan fell for Sulieman the Magnificent, and he for her, and she so shattered the prevailing rules that she married him, and bore him five sons and a daughter. Thereafter she ensured that one of her sons succeeded to the throne by killing one of his half-brothers, also the Sultan’s vizier, and a couple of others. On her death in 1558, the succeeding years have become known as the Sultanate of Women.
Carl Foreman did write some fine films (Guns of Navarone, Home of the Brave, Champion, Cyrano de Bergerac, Bridge on the River Kwai), but I would venture to say that his finest production of all was this superb historian, writer, communicator and artist, his daughter Amanda.
Readers should look out for her next book, to be published next year, The World Made by Women: A History of Women from the Dawn of Civilization. And Alan Furst’s new book is to be called A Hero In France, also to be published next year. I would say both would reward readers.