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Hello again!

Goodness, this little corner of the internet has been a bit quiet hasn’t it??

I thought a round-up of the things I’ve been getting up to over the last few months in the real world, to help explain my absence here, was in order before diving into some of the wonderful books I’ve escaped into this winter!

I am very lucky and travel relatively frequently for work. A lot of the time, it is less glamorous than it sounds – a litany of bland airports, hotel rooms and offices, with twinges of homesickness adding an extra little kick. However this Autumn, trips to Athens, Madrid and Paris were all magical in different ways.

Acropolis, Athens, Nov 14

Acropolis, Athens, Nov 14

I spent a week in Athens in November, escaping a grey and wet London for blue skies, lemon trees and balmy heat. In my time there, I managed to walk up to the Acropolis, explore the small streets with ruins around every corner and eat my body weight in succulent Greek salads (as well as doing some of my day job!). I hadn’t expected a lot of Athens, having heard stories of smog and political chaos. I arrived on November 17th, the date of a notorious yearly protest in Greece, and as my taxi fought through crowds and riot police, I was even more apprehensive and unsure. However, after that the culture, the people and the general friendly and calm atmosphere utterly charmed me. Not only will I be going back to Greece under my own steam again soon, but I will be building in an escape from November in the UK into my routine if I can.

In early December, I made a flying visit to Madrid which was again a lovely opportunity to soak up some sunshine, although the temperatures were just as cold as the UK. I have been to Madrid quite a few times now on business, and will continue to visit. I have yet to get under the skin of this city – my lack of Spanish not helping I am sure (why did I decide Latin was a better idea than Spanish or German at school???). I will keep trying though! This trip was the culmination of a large project at work, which had been taking a lot of my energy, leaving little left over for this blog – hence the neglect!

Finally, just before Christmas, I visited the City of Lights, Paris. At that time, still blissfully unaware of the tragic events that were due to unfold this January. The city more than lived up to its reputation for light! The Grand Palais and the Christmas markets on the Champs Elysees were stunningly illuminated and I spent a lovely evening wandering around. I also lost myself for some time in the lovely Parisian pharmacies, exploiting the lack of liquid restrictions on Eurostar to bring back lots of skin care goodies! This may be slightly heretical, but I do find it is a little tricky to find good food at restaurants in Paris when I go and again experienced very average meals whilst I was there. Any recommendations for good, central, inexpensive Parisian restaurants are welcomed!

Paris, Dec 14

Paris, Dec 14

If you are interested in my travels, I do tend to post pictures on Instagram so do follow me over there: @caro1ine_p

I then spent a quiet, family Christmas in Yorkshire. Chestnut the guinea pig came up with us and enjoyed lots of cuddles. She also got along quite well with Henry the Labrador, shown here below on his Boxing Day walk in Wass Woods!

Henry the Labrador, Wass Woods, North Yorkshire, 26th Dec 2014

Henry the Labrador, Wass Woods, North Yorkshire, 26th Dec 2014

In all of that time, I was kept company by a series of wonderful books. I loved Shogun by James Clavell. It was a favourite of my Grandad, who passed away last year, so he was very much in my mind as I read it. It was a pacey, swashbuckling adventure story with fascinating insights into Japanese culture and history. I was left longing to visit Japan and read more about its history. For Christmas, I received a book to accompany an interior decorating programme that I was addicted to in the autumn, the Great Interior Design Challenge. I enjoyed learning about design principles and techniques in a little more detail than I ever have before and there were lots of inspiring ideas that I’ll be using in future decorating projects. At the same time, I also read Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Regular readers of this blog will know that I am very partial to a dystopia and this future world has a heavy dose of Shakespeare as well so I was in heaven! Whilst this is not on par with great dystiopian novels like those by Orwell and Atwood, it was enjoyable and though-provoking, on the nature of fame in particular. I started The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton after Station Eleven. I didn’t finish it. It is quite rare for me to give up on a book and perhaps I just wasn’t in the right mood…I enjoyed some of the prose but found the first quarter confusing, dull and lacking in good female characters (not to say that is a requisite for me, but it helps me to stick with books even if the subject matter doesn’t grab me!). I might go back to it one day, but based on the very mixed online reviews, I don’t think I am the only one that has given up! Have you read it? What did you think? Is it worth giving another go? Finally, I am no over half way through The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. I am absolutely gripped at the moment and hope to finish it this weekend, so a more in-depth review will follow.

It is nice to be back! I won’t leave it so long next time…


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Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution

Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution by Caroline Weber found its way into my reading list because of the controversial Hilary Mantel lecture I attended a few months ago. When musing on which book she would recommend to the Duchess of Cambridge, Mantel chose Weber’s biography. ‘Marie Antoinette was a woman eaten alive by her frocks’ Mantel said and I knew I just had to read it.

Marie Antoinette, Queen of France

Marie Antoinette, Queen of France by Jean-Baptiste Gautier Dagoty 1775

It was published sometime ago in 2007 and yet is one of those books that will endure I think as it’s lessons are timeless. It is a hugely original biography and an outstanding piece of work. It tells the story of Marie Antoinette, the hated Austrian Queen of France from her childhood in Vienna to her execution in Paris, through the lens of her dresses. What she wore was one of the few things in her life that Marie Antoinette could control. She was completely constrained by her circumstances in the highly formal court of Versailles and Weber charts her rebellions; such as a refusal to wear a corset, her use of male riding clothes, her enormous hairstyle, the pouf, and her adoption of the unstructured dress, the gaulle. What she wore was also one of the few ways Marie Antoinette could be political in a patriarchal regime. However, it was this politicisation of her dress that Marie Antoinette got so wrong. The luxury and ostentation of her court dresses and hairstyles as befitting her royal status were resented by a starving public for the waste of money and even flour (used to powder her hair). Yet, when she turned to less formal styles like the gaulle, she was attacked for ruining the French silk industry. She could not win and at times, I felt huge sympathy for this tragic woman as I read the biography.

Marie Antoinette in a simple dress

Marie Antoinette en chemise (in her simple Gaulle) by Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun 1783

However, at other times I also felt extreme frustration. The particular episode that completely eroded my sympathy for her was, in planning to escape from Paris at the beginning of the revolution, Marie Antoinette foiled her own escape in many ways. At that time, she was wearing the colours of the revolution, blue, white and red to try to show her sympathy for the cause. It was, of course, an expediency and as they planned to escape, the Queen ordered new dresses in the royal white, blacks, purples and yellows, anticipating wearing them abroad after an escape. This raises suspicions in a minor seamstress and her tip-off  was one of the factors in the failure of their escape. This speaks to me of extreme blindness and stupidity and putting narcissism and vanity above your and your family’s personal safety.

This biography shows both a vain and silly Queen, but also a doomed, sad woman, trapped in circumstances beyond her control and  struggling for freedom in the only way she knew how. It allows the reader to make up their own mind. It also shows the power and the danger of being a fashion-plate in the public eye. A warning that is very pertinent to the Duchess of Cambridge as Mantel suggested. My one tip with this biography is that I might have found it a little hard to follow if I didn’t know the basics of the history of the French Revolution. It concentrates on Marie Antoinette obviously and does not linger on explaining some of the important events and personalities like the Flour Wars and Robespierre which are crucial references. This means that, if you have not already, I would recommend reading a general history of the French Revolution first before reading this book so you have a more rounded background overview of the period.

Reading this book has meant I think a little more carefully about what my clothes choices say about me, even though I am far from the public eye!

p.s this video of Caroline Weber explaining some of the ideas behind this book is really interesting.