The Levee of the Great High King

The Universe, O my brothers, is flinging wide its portals for the Levee of the GREAT HIGH KING.
Thomas Carlyle, THE FRENCH REVOLUTION

After the attrition of thirty humdrum years, he no longer loved her for her human qualities. He still found her attractive because she was as self-possessed as a cat. Observed or unobserved, wherever she was, she behaved the same, with the same rhythm and attention, a graceful kind of selfishness, true to herself, if not to him.

Watching her brushing her hair, applying ineffable creams to her face and body, swiping her tablet as if it were a mirror to her other, secret selves, or eating her small helpings of balanced meals at the same table as him without once looking at him, he felt he barely existed. He was not offended. He admired her independence and indifference to other people’s petty jealousies. When she came home in the small hours, without telling him where she had been, he knew better than to ask.
She was her own damned cat.

On balance, he suspected that she wasn’t having sex with anyone else. She felt entitled to go where she pleased and would despise him for thinking badly of her. Honi soit qui mal y pense. Showing his age, he preferred to think of the ancient chivalric motto in Sellar and Yeatman’s translation: “Honey, your silk stocking’s hanging down”. So that’s what he said to her, and she smiled.
Noëlle Mackay, HUMAN RITES

….anything self-conscious is lousy.
You can’t try to do things. You simply must do things.
Ray Bradbury

Well, it all comes to this, there’s no use trying to live in other people’s opinions. The only thing to do is to live in our own.
L.M. Montgomery, EMILY CLIMBS

THE PRIVATE LIFE OF KING CAT

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A woman defined by war

“This is the true story of a woman whose life was defined by war. Like many of her generation, the freedoms that we take for granted were forged fitfully and painfully by their lives.
There were no guidelines for them.
They were modern women in a not yet modern age.”

from War Changes Everything by Melanie Hughes


In her new novel, Melanie Hughes gently lifts the barriers to our understanding of other people in other times, places and cultures, reminding us that in moments of crisis, the personal and political are indivisible. We have to choose how to respond; we are all witnesses, however differently we perceive events, whether we run from them or confront them. Sometimes we have to play a part.

Melanie Hughes writes traditional novels with a faultless sense of period and a modern consciousness of the impact of violence and prejudice on private lives from childhood to maturity.

The story of Nita and the great loves of her life spans continents, from London during the Second World War to the climax of Indian Independence in the ambitious sequel, Midnight Legacy, is told with the author’s boldness of vision and lifelong belief in equality, liberty and diversity.

I’ve known Melanie since I was sixteen; I’ve known her integrity, intelligence and passionate attachment to the people and ideals she loves. Her latest novels, War Changes Everything and Midnight Legacy, published by Patrician Press, are available in print and digital editions, which can be bought from Waterstones or Amazon.

Melanie is very modest, so I hope she forgives me posting in praise of her….

Ambivalence

Artemisia Gentileschi Susanna and the Elders 1610 Oil on canvas Schloss Weissenstein, Pommersfelden.
Image: WGA
The first known work of Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 – c. 1653) is a classic study of sexual harassment. Other painters often portrayed Susanna looking coy, sometimes willing, a starlet enjoying the attention of producers at the pool.
This Susanna is unambivalently saying NO

Some male painters visualized Susanna leading her old, fat, powerful voyeurs on to commit a completely consensual act of physical contact.

  Alessandro Allori Susanna and The Elders 1561 Oil on canvas, Musée Magnin, Dijon. Image: WGA.
No ambiguity here, jusr a compliant girl and a cute dog in a male abuser’s fantasy.

“I have been bullied by men and women, but the first to bully me were women.” Noelle Mackay #NotMeToo

hecate or the three fates blakeHecate or the Three Fates by William Blake, c. 1795. Tate Gallery London.
Image source: WGA

Hecate, sometimes on her own, sometimes three-headed, a triple deity, incarnates the ambivalence of all female power, from witchcraft to motherhood.

Artemisia Gentileschi The Penitent Mary Magdalen 1620-25
Oil on canvas, Galleria Palatina (Palazzo Pitti), Florence. Image: WGA

Of all women, why should the Magdalen repent? As a composite of erotic and spiritual love, a victim of patriarchy who earned her own living and became a player in global religion, we should be honest enough to celebrate, not punish her.

Whatever the true source of her anguish, the distraught Magdalen is looking into the darkest shadows of her psyche. She is examining her own actions, thoughts and feelings, holding herself to account.

In 1611, when she was about 21, Artemisia Gentileschi was raped by her art teacher (Tassi). She and her father were not afraid of disclosure. During the trial, as part of checks on her virginity, Artemisia was tortured.

The abused women in her mature paintings are strong, introspective, assertive, independent.

Nothing frivolous intrudes on the monumental composition of her paintings, where a constant battle for light and dark is played out with unforgiving realism.

She painted women in moments of terrifying self-knowledge, finding reserves of violent, sometimes murderous, passion they had never guessed before. Her subjects are not victims or martyrs, projecting self-pity or self-promotion. They take responsibility for their actions and emotions. They are heroines, avengers and fighters for justice; they are autonomous women.

“We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.”
Jane Austen Mansfield Park 1814

 

 

The Cat’s Dream

Federico Fiori Barocci, Annunciation
1592-96 Oil on canvas, Santa Maria degli Angeli, Perugia. Image: WGA

A cat sleeps on a cushion in the corner of a room while a fourteen year-old virgin receives her pregnancy results from a beautiful, transgender visitor, who presents Madonna lilies as a baby shower gift. She smiles sweetly, and lowers her eyes modestly, grateful but not surprised. She accepts the news in the composed manner of a young prima donna receiving the bouquet that her talent deserves.

The visitor has only just arrived, interrupting the girl reading a small, pocket-sized book, which she lays aside instantly, without closing the pages or rising to her feet. The girl reads a lot. She has few possessions apart from her expensively bound books. She reveres their contents, kneeling while she reads. Her room is sparsely furnished, functional; only the voluptuous folds of the dark red drape loosely knotted over the window relieve the cell-like austerity. She cares about the cat’s comfort as much as her own. She has hung her hat and shawl neatly on a hook. The polished stone tiled floor is clean.

Nothing else is normal, and yet the scene is familiar. The visitor, who kneels before the girl as if she is a queen, has wings, and is accompanied by two over-excited flying babies, clapping their hands and gurgling with joy on either side of a hovering dove. The window drape looks like a stage curtain, framing a view of a white turreted castle on a hill, guarding a city beyond, a landscape in fairyland.

Strangest of all, the ceiling has been removed from the room. The billowing curtain blends into clouds that separate to allow a gigantic elderly man with a long beard to peer down out of a hole in the sky. Golden light radiates behind him, crowded with faces of more chubby babies, made of the Sun, all pressing closer and closer to the girl in the room. He holds his hands palms down over the girl like a puppeteer pulling invisible strings.

The cat sleeps.

A Regency Romance (3)

revolutionary baloonFashion, Transport, Political and Sexual Revolution in on one balloon: a gentleman and lady, waving the tricolore with a perfectly true to Regency Romance “arch” expression on her face, in a fashion plate from Journal des Dames et des Modes, 1797. Image: Dames a la Mode

The real Regency was the most elegant time in history to be alive – if you were rich and fashionable.

It was also a time of violent psychological and social upheaval during almost constant continental war, revolution and counter-revolution, of increased national danger and private suicides, of intellectual and emotional struggle, of technological innovation and female emancipation, of radical changes in fashion and education, of mass consumerism and society scandals, of experiments in free love and drug abuse, of famine and rural poverty, of volcanic eruptions and climate change.

The sense of anxiety reached into the heart of middle England where Jane Austen’s heroines  were embarking on perilous journeys of self-examination, and where Marianne Dashwood fell into the emotional abyss.

Women’s Rights beyond the domestic sphere had been declared, but for most of the female sex of the middling and upper classes, the competitive marriage market, for all its humiliations and disappointments, was the lesser of two evils, the other being poverty.

The working poor woman had no elegant choice to make: she worked, she mated, she mothered, she cooked, she cleaned, she worked in a cycle of drudgery. Her alternative was destitution.

The rituals of polite society masked the sordid reality that women were being sold into a luxurious form of slavery, without rights to keep their own property and money when they wed. Men’s financial interest even more than gender discrimination kept women subservient.

At its best, making a good marriage was similar to modern film and theatre casting, decided by who’s related to whom, who’s got money, connections or the most powerful matchmaker/agent behind them, who’s good at manipulating opportunity, who cares enough to run the gauntlet.

Yet women were allowed the power of influence, some of them were acknowledged (by a brave minority) to be the equals, even on rare occasions the superiors, to men in their wit and intelligence, their literary, acting and artistic talents, their philanthropic work and housekeeping acumen.

Like her ancestresses, Shakespeare’s Rosalind and Beatrice and Congreve’s Millamant, the Regency Romance heroine outdazzles her beau with her wit, she wears the trousers metaphorically at least, even while she likes leaning on a strong masculine arm. Theirs is an essentially camp relationship.

There was more hypocrisy, but less compartmentalization, about sexuality and gender. It was the age of the dandy, after all, and when an actress (Siddons) and a princess (Charlotte) were notable for showing more positive masculine attributes than most men.

In many ways, Jane Austen was at odds with the Regency period in which her novels were published. She was torn between the self-expressive freedom of Romanticism and the moral patterns of the earlier Enlightenment, where the landscaped gardens and elegant columns of Pemberley belong.

Charlotte Brontë was born the year before Austen died and grew up to hate her books and everything they represented about the repression of female sexuality.

That was understandable but unfair, because Austen’s couples enjoy, after a struggle, realistically happy unions, while the Brontës’ creations, for all the blazing emancipated passion and voices calling across the moor, do not. Austen wrote prose, prosaically. For her, getting your man didn’t mean having to maim, blind and nurse him. He was allowed a past you didn’t know about, a club you weren’t allowed to enter – not an ideal modern marriage, but with more space than most.

Independence was not yet attainable, but a truce, even a peace, was within the art of the possible..

Jane Austen used irony as a tool with which to open a window on human life, not as a shield to hide behind.  Romantic infatuation was a trap, not an escape. Continue reading

A Regency Romance (2)

At last, 11 days late, THE CAPTAIN’S WALLFLOWER has been released in the UK, but what do I care, I’m happy riding a hobbyhorse until I fall off….

journaldesmodesFrench fashion plate from Journal des Dames et des Modes, 1797, showing a lady riding sidesaddle, wearing a red and black “spencer” jacket with matching bonnet. Image from the irresistible Dames a la Mode

The Victorians and Edwardians revised Regency style for a contemporary audience, fed up with stuffy Victoriania, and in doing so drained the real Regency of its blood and guts, replacing Romanticism with romanticism, sense and sensibility with archness.

Maguerite,Countess_of_Blessington

 Supremely self-aware, the Countess of Blessington shares a candid moment with her portraitist Thomas Lawrence (Oil on canvas, 1814. Image: WGA) While enjoying her sexual charms, he notes her vitality and intelligence (she was a novelist, journalist and literary hostess). There’s nothing arch or simpering about the woman or the artist.
Lawrence was a celebrity flirt: every portrait session with him, whether you were a man or a woman, was a Regency Romance in itself.

Fictional Regency heroes, like their historical models, incarnate the classical ideal of a healthy mind in a healthy body. They are likely to have been trained on the playing fields of Eton, or Harrow, and fought at Trafalgar or Waterloo.

Snobbery is inherent to Regency Romance, but it is pervading film and theatre nowadays, too,  answering an atavistic patriarchal need whether we like it or not..

An actor of over 50 years’ experience remarked to me the other day, after we’d rolled our eyes at all those Old Etonians monopolizing the best acting parts: “They teach charm at Eton”.  It recalls the “Company of Youth”, the notorious Charm School of the Rank Organization in the 1940s and 50s. It is the equivalent of mass produced “antiqued” or “chateau” furniture.

Class-consciousness separated Keats from public school-boys Byron and Shelley, causing a gulf that only Shelley tried to bridge.

It’s reassuring to know that both the poetic rebel Shelley and the military hero/reactionary Conservative politician Wellington hated being at Eton.

The myth of the perfect English hero was consolidated in late Victorian fiction, partly by the Hungarian-born Baroness Orczy in The Scarlet Pimpernel, and explains the success of public school type actors today.

Sir Percy Blakeney is an invented 18th century, not Regency figure, but his characteristics are the same: masculine strength under a  metrosexual exterior.

Ambivalence is essential to the Regency hero’s sex appeal – and a sense of humour.

Sexual attraction combined with rom-com plot is essential to Regency Romance, but so is an arcane, or snobbish, element contained in the jargon, which you have to understand if you are to master the etiquette and be accepted into the ton along with the always charmingly unconventional heroine. Regency Romance palliates the reader’s own social anxieties. If you can succeed at that assembly room ball, you can succeed anywhere. Continue reading