The BBC's Who Do You Think You Are?
initiated its current series with quite an upper crust slant. Not only did the comedian, Josh Widdicombe, trace his ancestry to Edward I of England, and beyond him to Philip III of France, but he was followed by Dame Judy Dench, acting royalty, of course, all on her own account.
Dame Judy's father, Reginald, a doctor of Irish extraction, distinguished himself heroically in WW1, earning an MC and Bar, but it was her mother's Irish background that led to some unexpected revelations through an intermarriage some generations back with a Danish woman with aristocratic antecedents. Dame Judy met a newly discovered cousin, Joen Bille, an actor with the Royal Theatre of Copenhagen, who encouraged her to investigate their common Danish forebears. This led her finally to the late 16th-century court of Frederik II and Queen Sophia, parents-in-law, incidentally, of James I and VI, at Kronborg Castle, Helsingor, better known to us as Elsinore.
The Bille family seemed to fall in and out of the nobility over time, starting with ennoblement by the self-declared absolute monarch, Frederik III, in 1699. A century prior to that, Dame Judy's nine times great-grandfather, Steen Bille, had a sister, Beate, who became Mistress of the Robes to Queen Sophia at Kronborg in 1584 and served for eight years. Through marriage she became the mother of Tycho Brahe, the noted Danish astronomer. An engraving of the latter, sporting a Tudor-style high hat with a feather and a prominent walrus moustache, is surrounded by the names of his aristocratic connections, including the Rosenkranz and Guldenstern families. Apparently, cousins of his from the two families visited London in 1592, possibly as ambassadors, and Shakespeare may have met them. Shakespeare's play of Hamlet
was written between 1599 and 1601.
Back in the summer of 2019, I wrote an article for Scottish Review
describing an encounter with a Scots actor, Ian Burns, playing Polonius for tourists at Kronborg. He told me what I took as a yarn about three English actors who went there on tour. Two of them got drunk on the town, got into a fight and were killed, he said, but the third returned home and told Shakespeare, who never visited, all about it. Well, it transpires there was some truth in the yarn after all. Not about the drunken fight and its tragic conclusion, but proof that at least one troupe of English actors had visited Kronborg, and prominent among them was Will Kempe, for whom Shakespeare wrote several significant comedy roles.
Dame Judy was in seventh heaven. Her major debut role was as Ophelia in Hamlet
at the Old Vic in 1957. The connection with Helsingor seemed to set a magic seal on her acting career. 'I'm a Dane!' she announced proudly at the end. 'Oh, Heaven!'
I've just finished reading The Inseparables
, a hitherto unpublished novel by Simone de Beauvoir. It's short, more of a novella really. It's alleged to have been considered 'too intimate' to be published in her lifetime, but has now been edited by her adopted daughter, Sylvie Le Bon-de Beauvoir, Beauvoir's heir and literary executor, and herself a professor of philosophy. The story is based on Beauvoir's real life friendship with Elizabeth Lacoin, known as Zaza, whom she first met in 1917, aged nine, at the private Catholic girls' school they both attended, the Cours Adeline Désir in Paris.
Reading it took me back over 50 years to when I read the first volume of her autobiography, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter
, originally published in French in 1958, translated into English by James Kirkup in 1964. My old Penguin edition was reprinted in 1965, when I would have been 18 or 19, possibly during the summer between my first and second years at Edinburgh University.
I was instantly fascinated by this detailed and intensely reflective account of Beauvoir's childhood and education, which kick-started my interest in the prominent feminist writers who followed. Her experience was a world away from mine, but so many elements resonated around intellectual aspiration, social expectations and a sense of powerlessness in an overwhelmingly male-dominated academic environment, in which, unlike her, I did not flourish.
What I didn't relate to was the profound religiosity of those impressionable French bourgeois girls of 100 years ago, and how religious belief and observance was instilled in them in life-defining, self-limiting ways. Also the enclosed nature of Parisian social classes. Neither Beauvoir nor her sister would have dowries, thus limiting their marriage chances in this social setting. That by itself didn't bother Simone much. She wanted a career and was more interested in intellectual than wealthy, well-connected men. She lost her faith in early adolescence and gradually weaned herself away from her parents', and especially her mother's, constant surveillance of where she was going and whom she was meeting. They both disapproved of her decision to study philosophy, and she and her sister had to fight to stop their mother reading any letters sent to them by friends.
However, it impacted closely on the life of her friend, Zaza. One of nine siblings, Zaza did not lose her faith, but nor did she lose her devotion to her extremely religious mother, who was determined that she had two choices in life: to marry someone of whom she approved or to become a nun. There was no third way. Studying was merely a pastime. When Zaza fell for one of Beauvoir's student acquaintances, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, later a philosophy teacher, exponent of phenomenology and co-founder with Sartre and Beauvoir of Les Temps Modernes
, who would not commit to marrying her immediately to appease her mother, things did not go well.
The novel follows closely the events detailed in Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter
, with different pseudonyms. Beauvoir was haunted all her life by Zaza's tragic story, stating that 'for a long time I believed that I had paid for my freedom with her death'.
Simone de Beauvoir was immensely influential in the second wave of feminism of the 1960s and 70s, especially with her two-volume study, The Second Sex
, first published in 1949, with its challenging assertion: 'One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman'. However, her reputation took a bit of a hammering with Deirdre Bair's biography published in 1991, in which allegations, while she worked as a schoolteacher in various lycées, of seduction of school pupils whom she then passed on to her life partner, Jean-Paul Sartre, emerged. She even at one stage lost her licence to teach, although this was later reinstated. One of those pupils refused Sartre's advances, but another, shocked by revelations of how the high-powered pair had discussed her in their letters when these were posthumously published, wrote her own account of her experience.
Beauvoir led an extraordinary life and was undoubtedly extremely able, but her complex nature and human flaws leave a deeply ambivalent legacy.
Gillean Somerville-Arjat is a writer and critic based in Edinburgh