Wednesday, 20 April 2016

The Life and times of Aphra Lügenmärchen, Part One

So, we now know something of the hitherto-unknown nations of Syldavia and Borduria as they existed in the 18th century. I shall return to their histories and cultures again, but I really need to start populating them with a cast of colourful characters. I have already mentioned the celebrated Wilhelm Tischdecke, Ercole di Grissini, Frans Schtroumpf and others, so here is a deeper look at a character who will go on to play a role in the destinies of the two nations.

What follows is the introduction to the extremely rare early 20th century work The Life and times of Aphra Lügenmärchen from the pen of a certain Constanza, Herzogin von Obernthal und Drötten, apparently a member of the Imperial Austrian aristocracy. 

The book is subtitled " Being a true account of the life, exploits and adventures of Aphra Lügenmärchen, sometime lady's maid, companion, traveller, soldier, highwaywoman, author and woman of ingenuity and resourcefulness."


When I first began reading these journals, I had no knowledge of the existence of the authoress nor of the small country in which she made her home. I found her papers in a chest in my grandfather's house near Klagenfurt some 10 or 11 years ago. It was not until two years later that I was able to begin reading them and putting the various manuscripts together into a coherent narrative. Unfortunately, the archive is not complete and there are several gaps in the story. Researches that I have undertaken in numerous public and private libraries have allowed me to fill in some of the gaps and I am indebted to the assistance of M. Henri Bouillion-Juste of Lyons who allowed me to read some of his private family papers that refer to events in 18th century Syldavia.

Aphra Lügenmärchen opens her journal by stating that she was born in in 1729 in the unremarkable market town of Sankt Nikolai bei Nirgends in Thuringia, the illegitimate daughter of the late Erbherr von Reneklode, a penniless and dissolute minor Thuringian nobleman and sometime soldier, who she claims taught her how to “read at an early age, ride a horse by the age of eight, shoot a pistol and handle a sabre before my 11th birthday", that "knowledge is more valuable than money" and that "honour and prestige won't fill an empty stomach or keep the bailiffs from your door, before he expired from a combination of strong drink and a fever caught in a Leipzig debtors' prison when she was 14. From her mother, Amelie Trumbauer, a seamstress, she says that she was taught “how to cook, sew, present myself in a winsome but modest manner, beguile a man, steal his purse and leave him penniless before he wakes. Almost everything else she claims to know, she says she learnt from her experiences as a single woman living by her wits in a world of dissemblers, liars, poltroons, blusterers, fools, libertines and all manner of ne'er-do-wells, rake-hells and opportunists of every imaginable kind”.

Leaving her mother's home when she is 15, Aphra starts out in life as kitchen maid in the home of the elderly Freiherr Albrecht von Brühwurst and his young and beautiful, but libidinous wife Anne-Sophie von Reichlich, who soon plucks the young Aphra from the kitchens to be her personal maid and companion. When the venerable von Brühwurst passes away, allegedly from a surfeit of effort in his wife's bedchamber, Aphra and her mistress, together with a fine wardrobe of clothes, the Freiherr's bank balance and a number of small but valuable items, soon find themselves living in Erfurt, the capital of the region. Within the year, Anne-Sophie manages to gain the attentions of a number of suitors and, at Christmas 1747 marries the rich, bookish and elderly Markgraf von Reißverschluss, a nobleman from the Syldavian province of Zympathia. Aphra writes in her journal that “Milady has captured herself a husband of considerable wealth and influence but of an elderly and quite unworldly mien. She informs me, in her teasing and humorous manner that our new master is of an intellectual and spiritual bent. I infer from her meaning in this matter that the Markgraf is unlikely to make the same recourse to milady's chamber as caused the demise of her previous husband. So geht es, I think. Milady and I managed to organise our affairs together quite happily in Erfurt before her marriage and I see no reason why matters should change in the future. Let the noble lord tend to his books and I shall tend to Milady, as befits her status and happiness.

Thus, at the age of 19, Aphra finds herself living in the palatial surroundings of the Schloss Reißverschluss, situated in the vineyards that sustain the economy of the nearby town of Shmok, famous for a red wine called szprädj.

Writing many years later, Aphra looks back, recording that;

In the Spring of 1748, Milady, her new husband and I arrive at the Castle of Reissverschluss in the county of Zympathia. The lands around about are hilly and of a productive nature, being largely given over to the production of grapes, dairy farms and smallholdings. The Castle is a former fortress, now made over to a more peaceful existence but retaining its attractive pepperpot towers and tall, well-built walls. Inside, replacing the donjon of more warlike times there is a pleasant great house in the ornamented Austrian style, popularly called Rococo. Inside the house are many fine rooms, each well-appointed and replete with all manner of paintings, books and diverse statuary. My own room, adjacent to that of Milady the Markgräfin, has silk-lined walls adorned with painted birds and pagodas in the Chinese fashion. There is a connecting door between rooms, so that I may visit my mistress at any time of the day or night to minister to her needs, pleasures and whims, which are diverse and frequently demanding. Milady's chamber is, in truth, a full suite of rooms, all magnificently decorated with many gilded putti, paintings of classical subjects in the Italianate style and fine Murano glass mirrors. Milord the Markgraf has a separate suite in the other wing of the castle, where he is attended by his gentleman, Herr Dreyer.

My duties provide me with a modicum of free time and, when I am not otherwise engaged, I spend my time becoming acquainted with the numerous staff of the castle. The House is ordered by Herr Frotz, the Majordomo or Chamberlain, and under him are Frau Ning, the cook, Frau Pliss, the housekeeper and Iskander Effendi, the Markgraf's dragoman and library keeper. I cultivate this latter gentleman, who despite being a Turk is a honourable and kindly soul who allows me access to our master's books. There are also numerous kitchen and chambermaids, porters and footmen. The Castle servants all wear uniforms in the traditional Syldavian style, but, as milady's companion I am allowed to costume myself in the German style, which she finds more pleasing. My eyes are drawn to several of the footmen, who are all strapping young men of a martial appearance in their tight green hussar breeches and frogged dolman tunics. I discover that it is one of Milord's fancies to have his male servants trained to drill and march in the military manner of the armies of the Austrian Kaiser, in whose armies the Markgraf served as a young man, distinguishing himself, it is said, under the command of the great Prinz Eugen himself in the wars against the barbaric Turks and the perfidious and rapacious Frenchmen. I soon decide that milady's convenient marriage has brought me to a place where I might profit greatly. I set out to learn as much as possible about the customs, language and traditions of this land of Syldavia, and the ways of its diverse peoples.

This entry is is followed by several long and rather dull passages of Aphra's recollections of life in the Schloss Reißverschluss, before she recounts that she has formed a friendly attachment with a certain Willi Langengriff, the Markgraf's dashing Carinthian riding master. She draws a veil over the details of this affaire, but does hint that her interests were other than simply those of the stable and paddock, although she does record that she had always enjoyed horse-riding. She writes thatat the Markgräfin's pleasure, I am issued with a finely-tailored dove grey riding costume in the hussar style, complete with fur-trimmed pelisse and tight breeches”. She continues that “From time to time, it pleases Milady greatly to see me dress in my hussar costume and put my fine Lipizzaner mare through her paces. She will watch me ride for at least an hour and insists that I visit her in my riding habit once my horse is exercised and stabled again.” One can draw one's own conclusions regarding this passage. Aphra closes the passage with the sentence, “What with the one thing and the other, my equestrian exercises always leave me with a feeling of langour and contentment.

However, this bucolic life of contentment and pleasure ends in 1752 while Aphra and her mistress are residing in Venice with the Markgraf. While sailing on the Lagoon, the Markgraf suffers a heart attack and plunges over the side of the boat. His body is swiftly recovered but it is too late for the elderly nobleman. On their return to Syldavia, Aphra and her mistress discover that the Markgraf had, surprisingly perhaps, produced an heir who swiftly takes possession of the estates and installs his wife and brood of several children in the castle. Regretfully, Aphra and her mistress are forced to part company, with the dowager Markgräfin setting out for Vienna and Aphra, complete with hussar uniform, choosing to seek her fortunes in Klow, the capital of Syldavia. She writes that “While it was with a pang of regret and a heaviness in my heart that milady and I parted, we did so on felicitous terms. My mistress and dear friend Anne-Sophie had provided me with a charming and liberal education in the ways of the aristocracy and a number of years of unburdensome service and much happiness, not to mention a comfortable sum of gold and jewels deposited in the Royal Bank of Klow. We embraced warmly and took to our separate paths. I knew not whether we should ever join those paths together again in the future.

So these, dear reader, were the humble beginnings of the life and exploits of an interesting, if unfairly neglected, adventuress, occasional soldier, spy, courtesan (of polyamorous and heterodox tastes), occasional courtier and authoress of the 18th century.

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