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

Jane Austen’s feather

Reblogged from Margaret Eleanor Leigh’s blog. Ms Leigh is the author of several novels and the humorous travel memoir The Wrong Shade of Yellow, all available on Amazon.

margaret eleanor leigh

Jane Austen - public domain image. Jane Austen – public domain image.

When Romance Writing was Restrained

You may or may not be surprised to learn that in a recent article in the Guardian, the sexiest scene in literature was identified as coming not from E L James’ Fifty Shades of Grey, but from Jane Austen’s Persuasion.
It takes a fair bit of imagination to appreciate the erotic content in the Austen scene in question, but perhaps that’s the whole point. It goes like this:“Captain Wentworth, without saying a word, turned to her, and quietly obliged her to be assisted into the carriage. Yes, he had done it. She was in the carriage, and felt that he had placed her there, that his will and his hands had done it…”
Obviously the scene was written in a particular era, the early nineteenth century, a time when authors were tightly constrained in terms of what could and…

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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

Summer disturbed

g1775-7

The Painter’s Daughters Chasing a Butterfly, one of Gainsborough’s intimate studies of his daughters made in the late 1750s, which took 18th century sensibility forward into a Romantic awareness of individual development through the senses. Image © copyright The National Gallery London

He sees beyond the fragile innocence of two little girls, in the glancing light of a fashionably Rousseauian childhood idyll, to a more profound understanding. He is not just a portraitist exploiting vulnerability and shimmering fabric; he is their father who loves them and worries about them.

He would prefer to think his daughters are happy and well, hale and whole, but he dared to paint the anxiety showing in their faces as they ran, clutching each other’s hands, through the sinister half-darkness of a wood, which is both catalyst and externalization of their unconscious minds.

Happiness as represented by the decoratively winged insect is always out of their reach; they experience, as Keats described, “the feel of not to feel it”.

Love and madness disturb a summer’s day two hundred and fifty years after two little girls chased a butterfly.

I try to imagine again my first happy impression of this painting, first seen on visits to the National Gallery, when I was no older than the girls in the picture had been when their father painted them.

I took for granted they were living the ideal childhood of which I could only dream, long before I knew for a fact that both girls suffered from a genetic mental disorder, and grew up into deranged middle-aged women.

I didn’t see the sadness in their eyes, because I didn’t want to see it. The mysterious twilit wood looked enticing, not forboding.

When we look at their father’s painting, in ignorance of biographical details about the girls, shouldn’t our hearts still ache for them, with some knowledge intuitively divined, as Keats put it, “without irritable reaching after fact and reason”?

Or do we always impose our own preconceived ideas on everything we see, until some bossy person lectures us about it?

Let’s not make the mistake of thinking that the girls would have fared better in our time. Nowadays, Mary and Margaret might be taken away from Thomas Gainsborough, who loved them so, and his unstable wife, whom he also loved, to be put into mental hospital or a lifetime of unreliable drug dependency.

gainsborough wife

The painter’s wife, Margaret Gainsborough, by Thomas Gainsborough, c 1779, when she was about fifty years old.
Image © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

Imagine being both the painter and the parent of those little girls, chasing their butterfly, never being able to catch it.

One person’s wistfulness is another’s indifference. Nothing we see feels the same to the person in the picture. We congratulate ourselves on feeling so deeply about art that we must be good people or, at least, better than we thought we were a moment ago

Good or not, we cannot help the girls in the picture.

We chase the butterfly.

Don’t be an actor, my son, not even a comical one

AN ACTOR’S TRAGEDY

“Though the world is so full of a number things,
I know we should all be as happy as….”
from ‘Make ’em Laugh’ sung by Donald O’Connor, Singin’ in the Rain, 1952, music by Brown, lyrics by Freed, indebted to Cole Porter’s ‘Be a Clown’, sung by Judy Garland and Gene Kelly, in The Pirate, 1948

One of the saddest and most repeated histories in the world is of the child who knows they are not as great as the parent they spend their life trying to emulate.

HenrySiddonsbyStump

Hero with a fatal flaw: the tragically bad actor Henry Siddons (1774 – 1815), eldest son of the great tragic actress, Sarah Siddons, by Samuel John Stump, watercolour portrait miniature, 1808. “He is a fine, honorable, but alas! melancholy character. He is not well indeed…”* His anxiety and lack of self-confidence are apparent, even painted on a piece of card 79mm x 64mm. (NPG) Image source: Wikipedia

They are the collateral damage of celebrity, or genius, or romance, compelled to follow the same vocation as their mother or father, deaf to other callings, dazzled by star dust, enthused with idealism, often determined to work hard, unable to shine, unable to be happy.

The falling-off is steepest in public or artistic careers, and is not confined to celebrity families. The freeloading brats of celebrities raised by nepotism in any industry, political, business or entertainment, get all the press, but there are noble failures, who feel much and barely leave a mark.

Fame and talent are not indivisible. Children of unlucky actors are just as likely to be inspired to go into the same profession as children of rich and famous ones. It’s not a career choice, it’s an hereditary gift or curse; they are not sure which until there is no going back. Sometimes they have talent and ability, but not the temperament to withstand the slings and arrows of their vocation.

Of all the members of the Kemble dynasty of Shakespearean tragedians, the most tragic is Sarah Siddons’ eldest son, Henry, because he inherited all her passion for performance and her intellect for analysing character, without her talent and resilience.

All he had ever wanted to be was an actor, and he was entirely unsuited for an actor’s life. He was perfectionist, and acutely, even morbidly, sensitive to rejection and criticism. The family was fully aware that he suffered from excessive anxiety. His mother worried about his “melancholy character.” Continue reading

In this world and the next: a tragedy of gender and celebrity

“Perhaps in the next world women will be more valued than they are in this.”
SARAH SIDDONS (1755 – 1831)

Mrs Siddons, ? as Mrs Haller in 'The Stranger' c.1796-8 by Sir Thomas Lawrence 1769-1830Mrs Siddons as Mrs Haller by Thomas Lawrence, 1796-8 oil on canvas
© Tate Gallery London.

The painting was bequeathed to the Tate in 1868 by Mrs Siddons youngest child, Cecilia.

PART FOUR – In Spite Of

Sarah Siddons had to bear the worst tragedy that can befall a mother, the death of a child, five times. Two of her children died in infancy, an expected mortality rate for the time, but she gave the impression that only pouring grief into acting enabled her to endure the losses of two grown up daughters, one of them aged nineteen, the other twenty-seven, and of her eldest son when he was forty. “I can at least upon the stage give a full vent to the heart which, in spite of my best endeavours, swells with its weight almost to bursting.” They were killed by lung disease, victims of a genetic predisposition, as strong in the Kembles as acting. Continue reading

Out of the killing sun

PART FIVE of ROMANTIC FICTIONS AND CASUALTIES

two sistersbuckAdam Buck, Two Sisters, print, 1796. London. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London Sense and sensibility, reason and passion, love and illusion, neoclassicism and romanticism dancing on the eve of cataclysm. During the years 1795 to 1797, while the two elder Siddons sisters were engaged in their own danse macabre with Thomas Lawrence, Jane Austen wrote her first draft of the novel that was eventually published in 1811 as Sense and Sensibility.

It should have been the end, the two beautiful girls consumed by passion and disease, but the Tragic Muse had another daughter, only nine years old when her eldest sister died, a child with a name like the peal of golden bells under a blue sky, a tiny Buddha with a ferocious will [1] and eyes that glared like a torch in the night on the charades and vacillations of grown ups.

NPG D21820; Cecilia Combe (nÈe Siddons) by Richard James Lane, printed by  Charles Joseph Hullmandel, published by  Joseph Dickinson, after  Sir Thomas LawrenceAfter Sir Thomas Lawrence, Cecilia Combe, (née Siddons), 1798. Lithograph by Richard James Lane, printed by Charles Joseph Hullmandel, published by Joseph Dickinson, May 1830. © National Portrait Gallery, London. She glares out of the picture with fanatical fervour, lowering her brows like her mother did in dramatic parts.

Her resemblance to the second of her elder sisters was so close in “all the dazzling, frightful sort of beauty that irradiated the countenance of Maria” [2] that she made the Tragic Muse shudder.

She was designated the last companion of the goddess, the comfort of her melancholy age, and custodian of her shrine. For twenty-eight years the purpose of her existence was to serve her mother, now a monolith in “apparent deadness and indifference to everything”, who stared back at her with vacant eyes. [3]

But the youngest daughter had a flame inside her that would not be quenched.  She had a gift denied her sisters. She did not breathe the same fatal air as they had done. Her mother fretted that her sickly last-born would die like the others, but the girl grew to be strong. She outlived her mother to write her own last act. She was determined that it would be not be a tragic one. Continue reading