For A Woman Knows


“A letter is a soul, so faithful an echo of the speaking voice that to the sensitive it is among the richest treasures of love.” 
Honoré de Balzac, Père Goriot


Honoré de Balzac was born May 20, 1799, just six years after the deaths of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.  He was only in his 16th year when Napoléon Bonaparte fell from power.   He is known for his magnum opus La Comédie humaine, which was a sequence of nearly 100 novels and plays that reflected life in France after 1815, sans Napoléon.

Honoré de Balzac was a headstrong child, who rejected the stringent teaching methodology of his grammar school.  Even as an adult, his intractable temperament was incompatible with his aspiration to succeed in business.  He studied, but disliked law.  He tried a variety of careers including politics, printing, and publishing, all of which, fortunately, ended in abject failure.  Instead, he became a novelist and playwright, who would inspire other writers, the likes of Marcel Proust, Émile Zola, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Gustave Flaubert, Henry James, William Faulkner, Jack Kerouac, and many others. Even philosophers Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx felt his influence.

Honoré de Balzac once wrote, “for a woman knows the face of the man she loves like a sailor knows the open sea.”   Who loved him with such depth? Eveline Hańska, a Polish noblewoman, began reading his novels in the late 1820’s.   One day in 1832, she sent him a letter anonymously, which was the genesis of a correspondence that spanned decades. Their mutual admiration led to their eventual marriage, six months before he passed away on August 18, 1850.  This is an excerpt from Honoré de Balzac’s love letter to Eveline Hańska dated October 6, 1833.

“Our love will bloom always fairer, fresher, more gracious, because it is a true love, and because genuine love is ever increasing.  It is a beautiful plant growing from year to year in the heart, ever extending its palms and branches, doubling every season its glorious cluster and perfumes; and my dear life, tell me, repeat to me always, that nothing will bruise its bark or its delicate leaves, that it will grow larger in both our hearts, loved free, watched over, like a life within our life…”


A Woman’s Voice


Make women rational creatures, and free citizens, and they will quickly become good wives; – that is, if men do not neglect the duties of husbands and fathers.”

Mary Wollstonecraft

 Pink July 2013

Today, I ordered Mary Wollstonecraft’s most famous work, A Vindication of the Rights of Women via Amazon at no cost.  Published over 200 years ago in 1792, her ideas were radical and controversial; today, the discussions over gender equality continue unabated.   In her opening pages, she clearly defines her position, without fear or regret, attributing much of women’s angst to “a false system of education, gathered from books written on this subject by men, who, considering females rather as women than human creatures, have been more anxious to make them alluring mistresses than rational wives.”

What is less known is Mary Wollstonecraft’s treatise on republicanism, individual merit, and the inherent human worth entitled, “A Vindication of the Rights of Men,” which was in response to Edmund Burke’s “Reflection on the Revolution in France.”  It was published in 1790 in pamphlet form, anonymously.  Highly entertaining, it was a sought-after best seller, until it was revealed it was written by a woman.   It was then dismissed as irrational and emotional.

Mary Wollstonecraft, born in London, England on April 27, 1759, was raised in a household headed by an abusive husband/father.    An inept business manager, her father depleted his sizable fortune on a number of disastrous ventures in farming.   Mary’s strong sense of worth sustained her through those dark days.   When her mother died in 1780, Mary set out on her own determined to make her own way.  She lived life in accordance with her values and forged her mark using the written word.  Unconventional, brilliant, and resourceful, Mary overcame the loss of her best friend, and the infidelity of a common-law partner, Gilbert Imlay, to find true love with the philosopher William Godwin.   Even though both believed that marriage was unnecessary, William and Mary were married in March 1797 when Mary became pregnant.   She gave birth to Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who would become known as the creator of Frankenstein.  Alas, just 11 days after the birth, Mary died of “childbed fever”, at the age of thirty-eight.

Mary set the standard. Her writings are now considered the foundational work of feminist theory.

“I do not wish them [women] to have power over men; but over themselves.” 
Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

To Write as a Poet


“It is one thing to write as poet and another to write as a historian: the poet can recount or sing about things not as they were, but as they should have been, and the historian must write about them not as they should have been, but as they were, without adding or subtracting anything from the truth.” 
 Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote

 Don Quixote

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra wrote, “There are only two families in the world, my old grandmother used to say, The Haves and Have-Nots.”  Cervantes was in an in-between category, having been born into a noble family with limited resources, a euphemism for poverty. The probable date of his birth was September 29, 1547, on the feast day of Saint Michael the Archangel in Alcalá de Henares, a Castilian city about 15 miles from Madrid

Cervantes sustained injuries in the Battle of Lepanto which took place October 7, 1571 on the northern edge of the Gulf of Corinth, Greece.  A fleet of the Holy League decisively defeated the main fleet of the Ottoman Empire. Four years later, he was captured by the Algerian corsairs and ended up as a slave in Algiers.  Five long years passed before his family could raise enough money to pay his ransom. He spent the following two decades leading a nomadic existence.  He suffered bankruptcy and from all accounts, was imprisoned at least twice.

Cervantes was a novelist, poet and writer.   Tradition claims that he wrote his magnum opus, Don Quixote in prison in La Mancha. His writing was in everyday speech, which resonated with a welcoming public.  Published when Cervantes was fifty-eight years old, Don Quixote takes a prominent place amongst the best works of fiction ever written.  Even today, we draw from his words unconsciously for he has given us many sayings that have universal appeal.

“I shall be as secret as the grave.”

“Many count their chickens before they are hatched.”

“The pot calls the kettle black.”

“When thou are in Rome, do as they do in Rome.”

“Too much of a good thing”

“Tell me the company thou keepest, and I’ll tell thee what thou art”

“He has an oar in every man’s boat, and a finger in every pie.”

The Legend of a Lady


“She knew that this was happiness, this was living as she had always wished to live.”
 Daphne du Maurier, Frenchman’s Creek

 Safe Harbour

The setting: Cornwall, England in the 16th century.

The players: Sir John and Lady Elizabeth Killigrew

The plot:  Lady Elizabeth vs. Queen Elizabeth I

The Killigrews were rich members of the English aristocracy.  In their spare time, they were pirates who used their distinctive coastal location to operate as outlaws.  From their prestigious home, Arwenack House, which overlooked Falmouth Harbour, Sir John directed fleets of pirates. Even Queen Elizabeth I kept her distance, turning a blind eye to their family business on the condition that they never bothered anyone who had her ear.

The Spanish ship, Marie of San Sebastian, was caught in a tempestuous gale one fateful day in 1581.  The crew barely managed to navigate the ship to safety in Falmouth harbour.  The Killigrews, observing the storm battered ship, rushed to their assistance.  They magnanimously offered the captain and his first mate all the comforts of their home.  Indulged by Lady Elizabeth’s hospitality, the captain decided to prolong their stay for a few days.

Meanwhile, Lady Elizabeth was assessing the ship and its contents to determine whether it was worth looting. Yes indeed, it was!  She set her plan into action.  One evening, while Sir John entertained their guests, Lady Elizabeth rounded up her staff, which doubled as her pirate crew, and led them down a secret tunnel that connected the house to the shore.  The noise of the gale force winds allowed them to take the ship and unload the cargo.  Lady Elizabeth returned home while her pirates sailed the ship out of sight.   The operation took less than two hours. The Spaniards suspected the Killigrews, but no one could prove anything.  The Queen overlooked this episode.

The Queen did not overlook the 1582 incident, however, involving the German merchant ship loaded with gold, silver, and jewels.  Lady Elizabeth could not resist the temptation.  How was she to know that the Germans had close ties to Queen Elizabeth I?  The fury of a Queen came down on Lady Elizabeth.  Alas, she was to be hanged.

There is a happy ending.  The Queen changed her mind.  The sentence was changed to imprisonment.  And before long, Lady Elizabeth was set free.  She rejoined her husband at Arwenack House. Whether they continued their pirate ways, is unknown.  One thing is certain; her legend still lives on… 

“This is our day, our moment, the sun belongs to us, and the wind, and the sea, and the men for’ard there singing on the deck. This day is forever a day to be held and cherished, because in it we shall have lived, and loved, and nothing else matters but that in this world of our own making to which we have escaped.”
Daphne du Maurier, Frenchman’s Creek

All The Queen’s Men


“If England had not used the services of privateers and pirates during its long struggle with Spain, there is some likelihood that people today in North America would be speaking Spanish rather than English.” 
Robert Earl Lee, Blackbeard the Pirate

A Ship

They were called the “Sea Dogs.”

Queen Elizabeth I was surrounded by dynamic, brilliant, intrepid and creative men.  They were her privateers, independent, but used as an auxiliary navy to plunder Spanish ships. If the Spanish took exception, the Queen could deny that she had any hand in the mischief.

Sir John Hawkins, the leader of the Sea Dogs, engaged with the Spanish ships in the Caribbean. His résumé included slave-trading pioneer, treasure-hunting pirate, high-ranking naval commander, spy and war hero.  He reformed the navy and improved the pay and conditions for sailors.

Sir Francis Drake, sea captain, slaver, and politician, is usually remembered as a hero, the favourite of Queen Elizabeth, who awarded him with a knighthood.  He was second-in-command of the English fleet against the Spanish Armada in 1588.  On the other side of the channel, the Spanish knew him as the ferocious pirate, El Draque – the Dragon.  Perhaps his greatest feat was to be the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe.

Sir Walter Raleigh was destined to be one of the most celebrated figures in British history. A privateer, explorer, poet and favourite of the Queen, he was the first to attempt colonization in  North America.  He was unsuccessful, but his efforts opened the way for others to follow.

With the passing of Queen Elizabeth I, peace was made with Spain.  The Sea Dogs continued their piratical activities on the Barbary Coast, to the embarrassment of the English Crown.  The time of the Privateers was coming to an end.  Once the force behind British imperialism and expansion, they became, in the end, a threat to national security.  As Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote, “All human beings, as we meet them, are commingled out of good and evil.”

“And what is the sea?” asked Will. 
“The sea!” cried the miller. “Lord help us all, it is the greatest thing God made!”
Robert Louis Stevenson


The Pirates Are Coming


“The HISPANIOLA still lay where she had anchored; but, sure enough, there was the Jolly Roger–the black flag of piracy–flying from her peak.” 
 Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island


Pirates, the very name strikes both dread and fascination deep within our hearts.  We fear them, because of their ruthless disregard for those who stood in their way of fortune and fame.  Good folk trembled when they heard their bloodcurdling shouts or saw the Jolly Roger flapping in the brisk sea wind.  And yet, we continue to view those who wore the jaunty tricorne hat, the black eye-patch and the flamboyant, tattered clothes, as a symbol of freedom.   For those of us who have not experienced the terrifying visage of a “real” pirate, we enjoy the adventures of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and the more recent movies like Errol Flynn’s, “Captain Blood” or Johnny Depp’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” series.

Pirates have been with us since ancient times.  During the Greek and Roman civilizations, the Thracians, Tyrsenians, Illyrians and Phoenicians were the known source of the dreaded pirates.  In fact, the “pirate” term comes from the Latin pirata and from the Greek piera meaning “to attempt.”  Even Julius Caesar was captured by notorious pirates who demanded a ransom of 25 gold talents.  Affronted by the low value placed on his life, Caesar insisted that the ransom should be 50 gold talents.  The pirates received the higher amount, but in the end they realized their mistake when Caesar hunted them down.

This week, I want to explore the ‘golden age’ of piracy within the comfort of a safe environment.  What are the myths and facts? Was there really buried treasure?  Why did men and, indeed, women, chose the pirate’s life?  We are on another sea adventure, so batten down the hatches!  We are heading to open waters.

“Life’s pretty good, and why wouldn’t it be?  I’m a pirate, after all.”

Johnny Depp