Adornment and Concealment

How to Fashion a Neoclassical Queen

Luise1796JFATischbeinJPG
This heroine who inspired a nation’s resistance to Napoleonic globalization was pretty as a picture. She loved clothes for their own sake as much as for their symbolic value in propaganda. Like many a girly-girl, she had balls. After her death she was neutered. For over a hundred years, a series of mutations, adapted to reactionary politics and fascist myth, obscured the real woman and her self-made images almost entirely from view.

FULL TEXT reblogged from a contrablog, 2012

crownpriback

WHO IS LOUISE? WHAT IS SHE?

crownprinzessinnenfrontSchadow Prinzessinnengruppe (Crown Princess Louise and her younger sister Princess Frederica of Prussia) 1796 -7. Image: WGA

THE HUSBAND WHO LOVED UNIFORMS

BEING THE HEROINE’S SISTER

LOUISE OF PRUSSIA AND IMAGES OF FEMALE POWER

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Epistolary (Half) Eschewed

Portrait of a young woman gilbert stuart

Portrait of a Young Woman, writing a letter, by Gilbert Stuart, c. 1802 -1804. Image courtesy of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. I am sorry to have interrupted her; she is rather lovely, rather to be loved and written about than briefly employed as a cover girl.

All roads in this land lead to Pemberley. Jane Austen, the prosaic revolutionary, waits quietly, with gloves and bonnet on, at the crossroads of 18th century and modern novels. The bonnet conceals the expression in her eyes, which isn’t quiet at all.

Audio: Till this moment, I never knew myself

Pride and Prejudice, which seems so fresh and spontaneous on every reading, took eighteen years to evolve, from the first draft written in 1796-97 to publication in 1813. It had a gestation period almost as long as the heroine’s life at the stage when we first meet Elizabeth Bennet, aged 20. And which of us remembers anything before we are two, anyway?

Poor Clarissa Harlowe was only eighteen when her ordeals, recorded in epistolary form by Samuel Richardson, started.

Clarissa is an articulate, morally courageous young woman, not immature at all, whose fortitude and capacity to forgive her abuser overcomes adversity far more severe than any suffered by an Austen heroine – and yet she has martyr written all over her, which Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse and Elinor Dashwood, even Marianne Dashwood, Fanny Price and Anne Eliot, do not.

Their creator gave them autonomy. They step off the page. They walk into our minds, and they get transplanted into other times and places. They dress and speak differently in all these reincarnations, their education and professions and leisure pursuits vary, but they are still recognizable, except, perhaps, when attacked by zombies.

They are not social rebels; they don’t demand equal rights. They would have been deterred by the violent excesses of the French Revolution which had just rocked Europe. The only revolutionary changes that take place are in their own heads.

They are not submissive and they refuse to be victims. They are paragons of self-improvement, never blaming other people or fate for their shortcomings.

They are intelligent young women, articulating a life of the mind richer and more independent than offered by ribbons, posies and billets-doux.

fragonardletter

 The Love Letter by Fragonard, 1770s. Image: WGA.
Arch, erotic and epistolary – the Rococo melted away with the advance of more demanding, independent-minded literary heroines.

Jane Austen began writing novels on the conventional epistolary model, and quickly abandoned it after Lady Susan (c. 1794), and the first draft of Sense and Sensibility (c. 1795). Continue reading

Epistolary, Too

Fragonardbolt

Fragonard The Bolt c. 1777 Oil on canvas Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image: WGA

Clarissa’s tribulations – she is treated abominably by her lover and the author – were too much for the gravity of some of Richardson’s worldly-wise contemporaries. Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749) is unapologetic fun-loving, lusty fiction; Clarissa is a beguiling mix of comedy of manners, social criticism and erotic tragedy disguised as moral improvement.

Clarissa Harlowe in the Prison Room of the Sheriff's Office exhibited 1833 Charles Landseer 1799-1879 Presented by Robert Vernon 1847 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N00408Clarissa Harlowe in the Prison Room of the Sheriff’s Office by Landseer, exhibited 1833 © Tate Gallery London

The anti-hero, Robert Lovelace, is handsome, sardonic and self-loathing in the great libertine and vampire tradition. We know the type, the complete shit, wearing Whiff of Sulphur Aftershave, whom we secretly fancy more than the nice man next door. Lovelace belongs, or rather wants to belong, to Dark Erotica. “While I, a poor, single, harmless, prowler; at least comparatively harmless; in order to satisfy my hunger, steal but one poor lamb….” (Letter 515)

He is also a rapist who uses an 18th century variant of Rohypnol. Clarissa is as susceptible to his sex-appeal as the reader; she fights her desire with moral intelligence and instinct for self-preservation, but we know, reading between the lines of her letters, how much she is attracted to her abuser.

Our young female reader will need all the heroine’s strength of character to stop herself being seduced by Lovelace, particularly when he reveals, too late, that he really does love and esteem her. There’s no doubt he’s an epistolary bastard; having his cake, eating it, and throwing it up.

Listen to: extracts from Lovelace’s letter to his friend Belford, Letter 497, Clarissa

Continue reading

Epistolary

readingheloiseBernard d’Agesci Lady Reading the Letters of Heloise and Abélard c.1780 Oil on canvas, Art Institute, Chicago. Image source: WGA

Oh, no, it’s her again, our young 18th century friend falling out of her dress while being debauched by reading the love letters of two of the finest minds of the Middle Ages. What effect would the gratuitous sex and gore of Game of Thrones have on her?

What will she read next that will cause images to rise like heat in her mind and release forbidden chemicals in her blood? If we believe the picture, reading is a Dionysian ritual for this young woman, in which she abandons self through arousal of desires and emotions she had never guessed she had.

What isn’t shown is that when she reads, she identifies with all the characters; like Tiresias, the first recorded human transsexual, she now knows what it is like to love as a man and a woman. Through imagination, we become angels. A similar orgasmic expression was given by painters of religious subjects to saints in ecstasy, with the approval of the Church.

The next book she will pick up is one of the seven volumes of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, first published in 1748. It was Number Four in The Guardian’s 100 Best Novels list in 2013.

Before by Hogarth, 1730 -31 © Tate Gallery London

Clarissa is an enormous book of approximately 970,000 words – the author himself was worried about the length. The size and weight of the Penguin Classics edition is a deterrent to picking it up to throw, let alone read.

It is an epistolary novel – 537 letters followed by a postscript – and the word epistolary is itself a turn-off in this emailing, Tweeting world. It should be adopted as a swear word: I’m having an epistolary day today.

But our young lady doesn’t want to read Clarissa on Kindle, or in extracts of 140 characters on an impersonal screen; she likes the intimacy of a physical book, which belongs to her; she enjoys the mystery and suspense of opening each page as if she is unlocking a jewel chest.

LuiseUlrikevonPreußendiamonds

Antoine Pesne Luise Ulrike of Prussia, Queen of Sweden 1744. Image: Wikipedia. The sitter was a younger sister of Frederick the Great of Prussia. Her ensemble is studded with diamonds on her black cap and the bow on her choker, an ostentatious aristocratic style of fashion emulated by the impostors who arrive at Clarissa’s safe house “richly dressed and stuck out with jewels.” (Clarissa, Letter 312)

And the young woman likes jewels, and clothes, just like Clarissa does. Even when her virtue is being tested, even when her heart is broken, and she is overcome with shame and indignation at her treatment by her ruthless lover, Lovelace, Clarissa has time to note another woman’s fashionable dress, stuck out with jewels:

Listen to: Audio extract from Letter 312, in which fashion and class-conscious Clarissa is visited by Lovelace and two female accomplices, impersonating two of his rich, aristocratic relatives.

Clarissa is a middle-class girlie-girl, like Cher in Clueless (1995), who is momentarily distracted from her remorseful, Jane Austenesque epiphany by a shop window display: “Ooh, I wonder if they have that in my size.”

That’s the point, you see: multi-faceted, capable of thinking and feeling several different things at the same time – and knowing it; being female; being human. You can wear high heels, and be a feminist; you can be a lesbian and wear lipstick.

The obsessive materialism of the aspirational middle-classes, whose new wealth was often founded on sugar and slavery, is presented as the source of society’s moral corruption in Clarissa. We are so much closer to the 18th century than the gap of years, fashion choices and sanitary inventions suggests…..

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“Calm down, dear”

NPG D31911; Catharine Macaulay (nÈe Sawbridge) in the character of a Roman matron lamenting the lost liberties of Rome by Williams, after  Katharine Read

Catharine Macaulay (née Sawbridge) line engraving by Williams, 1770, after a painting by Katharine Read © National Portrait Gallery, London.
A passionate democrat is lamenting the lost liberties of the Republic of Rome.

She was respected and celebrated in Britain, France and America, by politicians as diverse as Pitt the Elder, Mirabeau, Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Adams and George Washington, who wanted her to write the history of the American Revolution. As an historian and political theorist she was regarded as the adversary and equal of her male contemporaries David Hume, Edward Gibbon and Edmund Burke, and was more progressive, more recognizably modern to us, than any of them.

Now, most of us have never heard of her. I bumped into her for the first time a month ago when I was looking for more 18th century women with “a taste for books”, as she put it.

The process of shunting her out of his-story, started in her lifetime. As she got older, her extreme radicalism, particularly her support of the French Revolution, and unconventional private life shocked a lot of people, who cast her out of their polite society. She didn’t seem to miss it. Middle-aged women who refuse to conform, who continue to innovate and prefer dancing on the precipice to knitting grandchildren’s socks are still not taken seriously today: audiences love to see them fall.

She had been born into recently landed gentry whose wealth had come from banking, typical of early 18th century social and economic mobility. Her political theories were rooted in the ‘Roundhead’ tradition of John Hampden, the true hero of parliamentarianism, not the tyrant Oliver Cromwell, who became crypto-king.

She ranged far left of the Whig ideology in which she had been raised, far outside the accepted lines of class, sex and age. Personal liberty and equality, and the courage of personal conviction, mattered more to her than social approval. When she was forty-seven, having been a widow for twelve years, she overturned every kind of received idea by marrying a twenty-one year old ‘surgeon’s mate’, the younger brother of a celebrity quack doctor.

She was still a star of liberty in the new American Republic, and was welcomed, accompanied by her husband, to George Washington’s house for a visit which lasted ten days. She was the President’s first choice to write the history of the Revolution; by then in her late fifties, she felt too physically frail for the task; only a terminal illness would have stopped her.

After her death, her husband, William Graham, erected a monument commemorating her wisdom in All Saints’ Church, Binfield, in Berkshire. Most other English people buried her intellectual achievements along with her body, and her radical contribution to political theory and history was forgotten in the next century.

This was partly because monarchical systems of government and opposition to universal suffrage triumphed in post-Napoleonic Europe, partly because she was a woman, a very inconvenient woman, whose intellectual challenge to a man’s world could be dismissed as menopausal hysteria, her rational voice shouted down in a chorus of “Calm down, dear” (remark made by UK Prime Minister David Cameron to fellow MP Angela Eagle during a parliamentary debate in 2011, in a badly-judged parody of a popular TV advert featuring Michael Winner).

NPG D17066; Catharine Macaulay (nÈe Sawbridge) by James Basire, after  Giovanni Battista Cipriani

Catharine Macaulay (née Sawbridge) by James Basire, after Giovanni Battista Cipriani,
line engraving, published 1767. Image: © National Portrait Gallery, London

Now, when we see that liberty and equality are as fragile as ever, she is understood and relevant again.

“How do I love thee?” collateral

Feeling weary, stale and unprofitable, I’d vowed to give up blogging for a while, but the always happy thought of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning has spawned this self-indulgence.

As I mentioned before, I was named after Browning’s Pippa Passes, and immersed by my mother in the love story of Robert and Elizabeth while I was growing up, Flush the spaniel and all. For a long time, as happens with history’s celebrities, their romantic personae overshadowed the value of their individual work.

NPG 322; Elizabeth Barrett Browning by Field TalfourdElizabeth Barrett Browning by Field Talfourd, chalk, 1859 © National Portrait Gallery, London. She was about fifty-three when this likeness was taken; allowing for artistic flattery, she retained an astonishing girlish beauty, despite fragile health and a laudanum addiction.

If ever there was one, theirs appeared to be a marriage of true minds. It is painful to consider the possibility that in reality he had a restricting effect on her writing, specifically on her social and political freedom of thought. Robert had trouble stopping Elizabeth from dressing their only child, their son Pen, as a girl. Ignore, ignore, forget, forget, facts are only the dreary letter, not the spirit of truth.

And, anyway, Pen grew up filial, amiable and cheerful, a lover of Italy, a restorer of a palazzo, a painter and a bon vivant. He did not inherit his parents’ intellectual genius or determination, he was not in the least poetic, but he did not implode, either.

NPG 1269; Robert Browning by Field TalfourdRobert Browning by Field Talfourd, chalk, 1859 © National Portrait Gallery, London. Browning’s affiliation to Team Jacob must not distract us from appreciating that he was considered an irresistibly handsome man by mid-Victorians, who favoured the whiskered werewolf look over the clean-shaven vampires of later in the 19th century.

More embarrassing to admit is that, when I was very small, without Luixe’s Genealogy of Style to guide me, my mother and I took our enthusiasm so far as to sing along to the 1960s musical Robert and Elizabeth in which June Bronhill surpassed the highest notes previously known in musical theatre. She could, and did, shatter glass. Continue reading

The Modern Salonnière

I’m blogged out, so a Lenten reblogging season begins early here with a day-dream about one of my best and oldest friends which was first posted elsewhere in the summer of 2013. Without her, I would never blog anything. You are more than likely to know her already….

While I was sitting in the dappled sunshine of the dying planet, reading my friend Sarah’s blog, two women coming from different directions met in my mind’s eye. They did not look or behave alike, but I saw them make a connection without a social networking site.

One of them was Sarah; the other one had just stepped ashore from a boat on my imaginary Lake Geneva, while talking volubly to a group of companions, who weren’t getting a word in. She was very loudly dressed, too. She was a very famous woman, whose life, loves and ideas I’d been recently reading and writing about, but now for the first time she appeared vivid to me.

Madame de Staël was always noisy and unrestrained, emotionally and sexually; her stormy moods drove away her unfaithful lover, misnamed Constant, while my friend Sarah never goes over the top or makes a nuisance of herself in public. She has classically and instinctively good manners; she knows why they were created in the first place, to make life pleasant for other people.

One of the sympathetic things about Madame de Staël was that she was a very loyal friend; so is Sarah.

Sarah lives near water, too, or that is how I imagine her, under clear Mediterranean skies. Though they both love hats, I’ve not yet seen Sarah in a bright silk turban like Madame de Staël’s.

MadamedeStaëlturbanGermaine de Staël showing off one of her trademark turbans, in a detail of a painting c.1810, attributed by different sources to François Gérard or, more likely from the style and background, Anne-Louis Girodet de Roucy Trioson. Image source: Wikipedia

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