Silver medal, 19th century, based on a work of circa 1667 © NPG
Frances Stewart, chosen for her impeccable Roman profile, was depicted on two commemorative medals celebrating rare English victories during the Anglo-Dutch naval wars.
Pepys, who checked out all King Charles II‘s mistresses in detail, like a creepy judge at a beauty contest, thought the young Frances Stewart was the best-looking of the lot. She was a celebrity in France, too, where the bitchy Comte de Gramont said “it would be difficult to image less brain combined with more beauty”.
Like Maria Gunning a century later, she must have got used to being called beautiful and stupid. Maybe Frances was shrewd enough to play dumb, like Lorelei Lee, who knew how “to be smart when it’s important”, because she managed her life and her money more sensibly than most of her wittier, cleverer contemporaries.
Court observers suspected her of coquetry while playing the long game of becoming queen if the king’s wife died. As with most royal mistresses, there was a political faction pushing and grooming her, just as there are agents and casting directors and publicists promoting a starlet.
Frances, the socially ambitious daughter of a very minor courtier, distantly related to the royal Stuarts, had been talent-scouted at the French court, where she had been trained in flirtation, a more useful education than most pretty, vapid upper-class English girls of the Restoration were likely to get.
Unlike their Tudor ancestresses, Restoration girls were brought up in ignorance. The great feminist writer of the late 17th century, Mary Astell, denounced the education given girls as useful only “to make a fine show and be good for nothing.” She asked the rest of her sex, “How can you be content to be in the World like Tulips in a Garden?”
Frances excelled at all the things that made a fine show – dancing, playing, fashion and flirting – and her apparently empty head kept her safe from controversy. Clever men and women look down on apparently stupid girls like Frances unwisely.
If you were very good at flirting, you could use it for protection as well as promotion. It actually was good for something, like being good at politics.
And Frances, once she realized she was never going to be a queen, was playing a much longer game than the spiteful gossips guessed.
She married her duke, also a Stuart, when she was nineteen, was widowed at twenty-five and never married again. For the rest of her life as a Tulip she enjoyed high social status, wealth and prestige and, by not re-marrying, a rare degree of independence. She was adept at financial and estate management. She did not have children. She was a virgin again.
Maybe she didn’t enjoy sex. Maybe she disliked, or feared, physical intimacy. Maybe she wanted autonomy. After the frenetic sexual hide and seek, the flattering attentions and unwanted harassment of her teens, she won her freedom from patriarchal control.
She and the king were reconciled after her marriage and remained friends till his death, which was the happiest ending for the debonair predator and the chaste huntress.
Frances Teresa Stuart, Duchess of Richmond and Lennox
by Willem Wissing and Jan van der Vaart
oil on canvas, 1687. © NPG
Frances, painted two years after Charles II’s death, aged 40, dressed in her Duchess’s state robes, resting her elbow next to her coronet. She was long since free of the Duke, her husband, and enjoying all the advantages of her position.
Late 17th century court portraiture elongated the female figure, but Frances was tall in person, too. She was 5’8″. Queen Mary II (1662 – 94) was 5’11”, the same height as her great-great grandmother, Mary, Queen of Scots. It’s a myth that everyone in history was shorter than us. In the 1690s there was a movement, encouraged by Mary, against libertinism which attempted to eradicate the worst obscenities in social behaviour. The new seriousness was reflected in the subdued colouring and
sedate poses of their portraits.
The gift of beauty that Frances was granted is misunderstood by envious people. Psyche’s trials and tribulations were mostly caused by jealous women, including her own mother-in-law, Venus.
Beauty gives more joy to the beholder than to the owner who has the lifelong task of looking after it. Before inoculation was introduced in the 1720s being a beautiful female mortal was doubly hazardous because even if you were lucky enough to survive childbirth, you could so easily lose your looks or your life to smallpox.
La Belle Stuart was scarred by the disease in 1668, when she was only twenty, but she survived to be fifty-five, still small-waisted and elegantly proportioned, her face still distinguished by her sweet smile and her perfect little Roman nose, commemorated by her life-size wax funeral effigy, dressed in a duchess’s coronation robes, that stands in the vault of Westminster Abbey.
Image copyright Westminster Abbey
The memorial was her own idea. The other effigies of kings and queens around her look stiff and stolid, their faces tired and blank, as if they can’t bear the thought of another performance. Waxy, painted, corseted elderly Frances, false hair curled and piled high in a fontange, looks vibrant, walking towards her audience with the sprightly step of Diana the Huntress, with wide open eyes and that charming smile.
This is the fame she always wanted, with a title and the royal Stuart name, and no-one to touch her.
She is accompanied by a stuffed grey African parrot, who had been her constant companion in life for forty years. Together they make the most touching tableau among all the eerie monuments of the Stuart Age.
Image copyright Westminster Abbey
The case that Charles II, the most priapic and charming of English kings, only practised consensual sex with women is supported by his treatment of the teenage Frances Stewart, later Duchess of Richmond, a tall, slim, blue-eyed dark blonde, who turned him down repeatedly, except for kissing in corners, in full view of non-paying voyeurs like Samuel Pepys.
Frances Stuart, later Duchess of Richmond, by Sir Peter Lely, before 1662. Royal Collection. Image: Wikipedia
La Belle Stuart is portrayed in the character of the virginal huntress, Diana.
She looks like a golden sugared plum, a dainty dish to set before the king,
which is how she was treated in reality.
The royal chase lasted four years. Charles II wanted this splendid specimen in his harem. She preferred to elope with a duke than be the king’s whore. Rather than sulk or threaten to destroy her career, as a lesser man or misogynist might have done, the king, once he got over his resentment and was back in his usual good humour, made her famous for ever by using her as the model for Britannia on the national coinage, with her consent.
That is the story, anyway – Pepys’ story, of course. The influence that one man’s gossip has had over English history is unfathomably pernicious. Why trust a diary, anyway? It is not a reliable testament, any more than the average blog; a diary is for re-writing history before anyone else can, score-settling, wish-fulfillment, slavering over sex fantasies with the royal mistresses, confessions of groping women in church, a whitewashing of days to make the diarist sleep better at night.
Whether the Britannia anecdote is true or not, Pepys helped make Frances famous for centuries after her death, and the figure on the coin sexier.
The 1672 copper farthing, showing Britannia, supposedly based on a likeness of Frances Stewart, Duchess of Richmond (1674 – 1702), seated on a rock, holding a spear and an olive branch in either hand. The figure and pose were inspired by Roman coins. Frances was celebrated for her Roman profile, and tall, graceful figure,
so it is plausible that she was the model.
And how do we know who slept with whom? Who cares? What moral lesson do we learn? What archetype are we recognizing or longing for?
Whether or not Frances ever had sex with the King, it suited both of them to perpetuate the charming myth of her virginal resistance. Charles, according to the letters he wrote to his sister Minette, had genuinely deep feelings – “tenderness” – for Frances and was hurt by her behaviour – “as bad as breach of friendship and faith can make it”. Whether their relationship was sexually consummated or not, she was supposed to be his trophy, part of his collection.
After her husband the Duke of Richmond died, in 1672, the King granted the widow an annuity of £1000. He was generous to all his mistresses, even the one that said no. He stayed friends with them. It seems that the “easiest King and best-bred man alive” during cared about women as people, not objects.
Rochester in his Satyr on King Charles II also described the “merry monarch” as so “Restless he rolls about from whore to whore”. We – I mean me – are still charmed by King Charles, contemptuous of Mr Pepys.
They were both predators, in an era of unmitigated sexual harassment, and if either of them touched me, in controlled holographic conditions, I’d tell them to stop – but I’d flirt with one and slap a Court order on the other #metoo. Frances Stewart must have felt the same.
After the Restoration of the Stuart Monarchy, the fashionable ruling class no longer wanted to be portrayed in an elevated spiritual sphere where they knew they didn’t belong. The reward they claimed for going to hell and back was instant gratification, not introspection. Some of them were still secretly very religious, but knowing how short and brutal life could be, waited till their deathbeds for their conversions.
They had lived through Civil War and exile, and they didn’t want to look other-worldly like the previous generation. Nothing was sacred, except survival. A new generation of court painter was happy to oblige with contemporary takes on traditional allegory in a flashier, worldly-wise presentation. The studied nonchalance of Van Dyck’s figures, inspired by Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier, crumpled into the straight out of bed look.
On the great consensual casting couch of the Restoration Court, Charles II‘s mistresses competed to make him laugh as much as get into his bed, and one of Lady Castlemaine’s jokes was to have herself painted as the Virgin Mary with her eldest bastard son by the king playing baby Jesus.
Barbara Palmer (née Villiers), Duchess of Cleveland with her son, Charles FitzRoy, as the Virgin and Child
by Sir Peter Lely, c. 1664. National Portrait Gallery. Image: Wikipedia
Like a modern supermodel, but without make-up, she set the look of the day. Lely used her sensuous features, the heavy-lidded eyes and full lips, as the template for all his portraits of high society beauties, so there were complaints (from Pepys, for instance, and Rochester when he saw the portrait of his wife) that nobody else looked anything like themselves.
She was a sex-addict with a terrible temper and a gambling addiction. Today, she’d be diagnosed with a personality disorder. If she was a man, we’d be terrified of her, and prosecute her for harassment. Instead, we find her entertaining, titillating, challenging, ultimately pathetic.
Barbara is famous for being the most promiscuous, and unfaithful, of Charles II‘s mistresses, portrayed as the nymphomaniac Fuckadilla in a contemporary pornographic satire. Her list of lovers, including Jacob Hall the tight-rope dancer, John Churchill, later Duke of Marlborough, England’s most victorious general, and the playwright William Wycherley, shows she picked talent. She also paid them generously.
She was a life-force, and could be great fun. She enjoyed the thrill of power, or its illusion, and exerting political influence whenever she could, but for purely selfish reasons, to settle personal scores. She acted from the heart, not the head. She was unsentimental, and sometimes compassionate, an important distinction that we have lost sight of.
She was shocking to the country outside the King’s circle, the incarnation of the immorality and waste at Court, a curse on the country, a scapegoat for all the frustration and disappointment with the restored monarchy.
She was politically useful, that way.
She was not popular, like the People’s Choice among the King’s Ladies, Nell Gwyn; she was the Bad Girl, the Dirty Girl, the Bunny Boiler, the Alien Succubus, the space vampire played by Mathilda May in Lifeforce; she was X-rated, HBO, not terrestrial TV.
She was culturally essential, that way.
Barbara Palmer (née Villiers) as The Penitent Magdalene by Sir Peter Lely.
There was one gender injustice she could not defy, the plight of the older but still sexual woman. Barbara was forty-five when her protector, the King, died, and everything started going wrong. She got desperate and stopped discriminating. The once gorgeous predator became the prey of bad actors and con-men. She made a disastrous second marriage when she was sixty-five to a bigamist who was after her money.
The last years of her life read like the moralists’ revenge. It is documented in the DNB that in her final illness a dropsy “swelled her gradually to a monstrous bulk”, exactly the kind of private detail about our own or our beloveds’ deaths that we would want kept quiet.
There is a very sad ghost story about Barbara, Duchess of Cleveland as an old woman lamenting her lost beauty as she walks in her high heeled shoes tapping on the wood floor to stare out of the windows of her house on Chiswick Mall.
Good plastic surgery might have prevented that.
The woman while she lived was not penitent. She seized her moment, enjoying the sexual, and bi-sexual, liberation of the Restoration Court as much as any man. Her appetites, or addictions, and her temperament were entirely suited to her time.
The female libertine did not see herself as objectified or victimized, and we should not judge her differently.
Functional objects, vessels for light and fragrance, tables, clocks and other household accessories for the rich and powerful, gilt bronze status symbols that are also neoclassical sculptures of the finest art, piercing the soft darkness with their golden fluidity, making your jaded heart sing – I never understood ormolu before I saw The Wallace Collection’s current exhibition Gilded Interiors: French Masterpieces of Gilt bronze.
Video Gilded Interiors © The Wallace Collection 2017
And, in The Wallace Collection’s tradition for 117 years, entry to temporary exhibitions as well as to the permanent galleries is and always will be free. Liberty, Egality, Fraternity still exist in an Anglo-French union in Manchester Square, London W1.
It is a small exhibition, the pieces liberated by the curator from glass cases and cluttered rooms, out of the crude glare of museum electric lighting into simulated candlelight. The atmosphere is seductive. It is a tiny piece of gilded theatre. Continue reading
If you were young, how would you be feeling about your future, decided by your elders in a badly informed opinion poll last year?
Augustus Leopold Egg Past and Present, No 2 1858. Image: Tate
Two orphaned sisters are reduced to poverty and despair because of the actions of their parents. The elder girl is now responsible for both their fates, and neither she nor we see any hope for her as she looks yearningly at the moon.
On Saturday’s Unite For Europe march, the intelligence and passion of three speakers (Ismaeel Yaqoob, Elin Smith, Felix Milbank) representing Students for EU moved the crowd in Parliament Square and along Whitehall as in turn they pleaded eloquently for isolationist, zenophobic Brexit to be reversed so they can have their futures back.
The New Cosette, marching to Unite for Europe on 25 March, 2017 © Martin Hübscher
In 1858, Egg told another tale of an older generation’s betrayal of the young. A whole family, father, mother and two children, are victims of unfair, unnatural social rules designed by patriarchy to benefit itself.
Fashion, 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