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the widow clicquot, tilar j. mazzeo (2008)

The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It.

the widow clicquot tyler j mazzeoThe story of the redoutable ‘Widow’ who, despite the misfortunes of war and family loss, became the equivalent of a billionaire in her epoch. It’s another Harper-Collins’ title – following on from their very readable ‘Billionaire’s Vinegar’.

I read ‘The Widow Clicquot’ written by Tilar Mazzeo over the Christmas break. The style of the book left me cringing quite a few times, but, overall, it is clearly very well researched and provides quite some insight into the life and times of wine-makers (not only from Champagne) during the almost constant backdrop of war and upheaval in the late 1700’s and into the 1800’s.

The first thing to bug me was the language style – I found it so typical of US-sourced academic writing – as I persevered it jarred less and less, and indeed on re-reading the opening pages I didn’t get the same feel – perhaps I had immunised myself! The second thing that bugged me was the constant reference to Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin (The Widow!) as a woman in a man’s world, unique in a man’s world etc., etc. – even just once per chapter might have been sufficient! The third thing that bugged me was the peppering of the text with technical references to (for instance) TCA with some background or racking with no further info etc.; it was almost as if there was a list of things that would have to be in the book (because it was aimed at a wino audience?) regardless of whether it was part of the unfolding story or not. In my opinion the last, and worst, transgression is that despite us being constantly told by the author that little information personal to ‘the widow’ had survived, the author constructs a web of ‘make-believe’ and speculation for her storytelling, e.g.

Staring at the ceiling of her bedroom in the early morning hours of February 10th, 1806, Barbe-Nicole was perhaps already feeling queasy. The church bells tolled six o’clock, and without turning to look, she knew the horizon was still only a dim wash of early gray.

etc., etc.. I’m sorry but for such an evidently well researched book, I’m not looking for make-believe! Late in the book, there is some justification of the approach in the ‘Afterword’ where she points to the lack of surving personal information and describes writing the book as:

…an exercise in the oblique…

…The dilemma for any curious historian is a simple one: Without this sympathy there is silence.

If the larger explanation had been in the foreword, rather than the afterword, I’m sure I would have been less constantly annoyed whilst reading.

That was all the bad stuff I can think of, on the other hand you only need look through the notes section to get a feel for how extensive the research was and the historical backdrop to the narrative is fascinating. I have already taken up a number of references. Overall this is a book chock full of fact, many new to me, so despite having to weave your way through some fiction too, for the historical perspective alone of a wine-trade in such tumultuous, waring years, I’d rate this book as ‘close to’ indispensable.

There is also a ‘book review’ in the NYTimes; rather I would say it simply outlines the story of this remarkable lady as ‘pieced’ together by the author. As ‘reviews’ go, this is a better one.

One response to “the widow clicquot, tilar j. mazzeo (2008)”

  1. The Wild Vine – Todd Kliman (2010) « Burgundy-Report

    […] historical and modern – and fortunately largely avoids the make-believe embellishments of Tilar Mazzeo’s book. There are quite some twists […]

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