Monday, July 28, 2014

How to Survive a Labyrinth

Ariadne Josef 1946

The Labyrinth: A Novel Based on a True Story

by Bertina De Sisto, published by Morris Publishing, November 1995

From where does bravery come? Is it inbred or is it taught to us when we find ourselves terrified? In The Labyrinth Ariadne Josef finds it in the least expected and the worst God forbidden places.

Ariadne is born in 1924 in Barcelona into a wealthy family with three older, doting brothers, servants, cooks, gardeners, a housemaid, a governess, and a chauffeur. Her life lacks for nothing until she turns three and her mother dies of typhoid fever. Her father, Alphonse Josef, who was born in Holland of Belgian-German parents, and whose proficiency in ten languages takes him to far away countries for mysterious employment, becomes her absentee father. Two years later the grand life she once enjoyed turns to ashes. Her brothers are sent to an orphanage and she would not see them again until she is 17. Ariadne is left with her frail, almost blind grandmother who takes her from Barcelona to Malta and soon teaches her to beg door-to-door. At seven Ariadne is sent to a convent/orphanage for girls.

Thus begins the story of the deprivation, sorrow, and loneliness of one little girl brilliantly reconstructed from Ariadne’s journals.

From page 12: “It is most significant to me that the very first word I heard and learned in Maltese was Ja-hassra (a connotation of compassion, sympathy, and pity) as I was welcomed to the island at age five by kind people who empathized with my orphaned condition. They would continue to be sensitive to it even seven years later. When as a lonesome, defenseless 12-year-old I stood nervously on the ship’s deck, facing a big, scary world on my own, their concern and doubts about what the future might hold for me were still visible in their sympathetic farewell expressions of ‘Ja-hassra’.”

After five years in the orphanage Ariadne’s father sends for her and she boards a ship to Marseille, France. Alone on the ten day journey, Ariadne is too timid and frightened to leave her cabin so the steward brings meals to her along with writing paper and coloring books. As she disembarks she frantically looks for her father but is met by the Dutch Consul instead who takes her to a hotel for a “brief stay”. After 55 days she receives word that she will join her father in Lisbon. But there she is met again by the Dutch Consul who takes her to a boardinghouse in Porto where her father is waiting. But he doesn’t meet her at the door or, after the eight year separation, ‘roll out the red carpet’ as she expects. Instead she climbs the two flights to his room where he greets her in a pair of silk pajamas and mohair slippers. The reunion lasts two months before Alphonse Josef leaves her alone in the boardinghouse. He says he can’t afford to send her to school and she should go to the library every day and study geography and history, as well as French, Portuguese, and Spanish. After no payment arrives for board the housekeeper orders Ariadne to a small room off the kitchen which she shares with roaches, fleas, bedbugs, and mice.

When Alphonse returns four months later he takes Ariadne to Covilha then resumes his journeys. As it happened in Porto it happens again in Covilha, her room can’t be occupied by a non-paying guest so she is banished to an eight by nine foot basement dwelling with a dirt floor, eternally dripping ceiling, a damp mattress, and a blanket put together out of flour sacks. Here she spends the next eleven months.  

In the midst of Ariadne’s suffering her father continually sends gifts which she shares with the boardinghouse owners: cases of port, cases of eggs, even a whole ham. Once he sends her a coveted wristwatch watch which she pawns to help pay her room and board. Alphonse misses Ariadne’s 13th birthday—the day he promised to shower her with gifts. Instead he sends a box of chocolates and a letter. This is truly Ariadne’s saddest childhood memory. And this, by far, is not the end of Ariadne’s horrendous journey.

How did Ariadne survive, most of the time alone in countries where she didn’t speak the language? How did she manage to school herself and teach herself so many languages? Along the way Ariadne meets good people who befriend her when she thinks things can’t get any worse. She calls it God’s grace. Perhaps her personality attracted kind-hearted souls because in every situation she eventually finds someone to befriend her and take her to their hearts. Ariadne had one horrific childhood. But little “Ja-hassra”, survived to emerge triumphant out of an enigmatic labyrinth.

 This is a marvelous book—the best one I’ve read all year. Unfortunately it’s out of print but can be found occasionally on Amazon. I hope you get the chance to read it someday.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

American Heiresses

Two fictitious women named Cora end up in similar circumstances as American heiresses to European aristocrats in the 1890s. In Julian Fellowes’ Downton Abbey, the popular PBS series, and in the acclaimed novel, The American Heiress, written so beautifully by Daisy Goodwin both Coras are based on many real-life wealthy American women. 

At the end if the nineteenth century it has been estimated that 450 American heiresses married European aristocrats: earls, counts, princes, dukes, viscounts, marquises, barons, and knights. The wealthy in general and the heiresses in particular became the first true celebrities in American life as Ms. Goodwin precisely points out.

“The New York Times suggested in 1893 that as much as fifty million dollars might have accompanied the American brides as they sailed across the Atlantic for their new lives in the decayed and impoverished estates of the great aristocratic families.” From Titled Americans, 1890: The Real Heiresses’ Guide to Marrying an Aristocrat.

We can only imagine the relationships of these heiresses with their noblemen. Most of the marriages appear to be loveless and arranged: the heiresses gained titles and the crumbling estates rose up like the phoenix. But what about love and marriage? In Downton Abbey, the love between Countess Cora and Lord Grantham took a few years to cultivate. On the other hand, Cora Cash and the destitute Ninth Duke of Wareham, meet accidentally and fall in love before either realize the other’s circumstance.

If you’re a Downton Abbey fan I say there’s a fair-to-middling chance you’ll enjoy The American Heiress. And in my humble opinion don’t believe the reviews that state Daisy Goodwin’s ending is predictable.