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

Advertisements

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)

NPG D22010; Fanny Kemble by Richard James Lane, after  Sir Thomas Lawrence

 Fanny Kemble (1809 – 1893) transatlantic actress, writer, abolitionist and feminist, in a print by Richard James Lane after drawing by Lawrence, published 1829 -1830. She was the fourth woman in her family to be taken over by, in her words, a”dangerous fascination” for the portrait painter Thomas Lawrence, forty years older than her. He flirted with her, as he did every woman who sat for him. He noticed, while sketching her face, that she had the same eyes as her aunt and his close friend, the dominant tragic actress of the British stage, Sarah Siddons.

PART SIX – The Opposite of People “We’re actors – we’re the opposite of people!” Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

Sarah Siddons and her two eldest daughters can be excused for their infatuation with Thomas Lawrence, because he was notoriously charming, an homme fatale “using sex as a sort of shrimping net”, like the “self-conscious vampire” Myra Arundel in Hay Fever one hundred and thirty years later. Gifted with more than just bedroom eyes, he had that rare knack of making usually sensible men and women feel sorry for him even when he was being mad and bad.

Noone, not even Sally and Maria, could think him of as a villain. He was a catalyst, an accidental destroyer, a personality who would have been invented by Romanticism if he had not existed. He wanted to please, not provoke other people, because he wanted to be loved, without understanding how to love in return.

The cracks in the habitual seducer’s charm showed when he was older – he “had smiled so often and so long, that at last his smile had the appearance of being set in enamel” – but at the time he was playing for the Siddons sisters, the philosopher William Godwin, whose wife Mary Wollstonecraft was a depressive, was so worried about the younger man that he warned him of the dangers of giving in to melancholy.

It was the worm in the bud of sensibility, the morbid strain in Romanticism, that we are heir to, not the suicidal depression, which is par for the course, but the narcissistic failure of compassion, of which empathy is the easy and therefore overrated part. Imagining someone else’s suffering is not the same as feeling it, as any good actor knows. 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)

maria

The Gipsy Girl by Thomas Lawrence, oil on canvas, 1794
© Royal Academy of Arts, London
A disturbing piece of erotica by Lawrence, for which Maria Siddons, aged fifteen, has been suggested as the model. It is a plausible theory: the girl has the intense, dark-eyed and tousle-haired look of the Siddons family. If it is not Maria, it is representative of a physical type which fascinated Lawrence.

The RA website notes that the genre to which the picture belongs in art history is “fancy”, a sentimental objectification of rural life for rich people, but this wild, half-naked boyish girl with her flushed cheeks, parted lips and fierce gaze – “the frightful sort of beauty” that pierced her mother when she looked at her daughters – is inviting a far more sexually ambivalent response, such as what on earth Lawrence really wanted out of the Siddons sisters, let alone what she is doing with that chicken pressed to her bosom.

PART FIVE – Portrayal and Betrayal

At the beginning of Lawrence’s invasion of their peace, as Sally described it, Mrs Siddons was too blinded by her own affection for him to see the whirlpool into which he was pulling them; perhaps, unconsciously, she was enjoying one of the undercurrents too much, that his feelings were flowing towards her, not her daughters.

The fact so clear to us, that Lawrence was protesting his feelings for Sally too much because he was basically gay, explains but does not excuse his emotional abuse of the two sisters. It was probably just as apparent to Mrs Siddons, who was, after all, in the theatrical profession and not stupid. Eighteenth century and Regency perceptions of sexuality were more fluid than ours, even while the laws governing behaviour were barbarously repressive.

You were not defined in enlightened artistic and aristocratic circles by the sex of whom you slept with, so long as you didn’t make a scandal, or annoy the wrong people, who would use the law vindictively against you, as the “foul thing”, Lord Queensberry, did to Oscar Wilde in 1895. It is no wonder that the pressure of confused feelings and double lives, and often blackmail, drove so many to suicide.

Lawrence, as a self-made professional society portrait painter, dependent on respectable fee-paying clients for his livelihood, could not take the same risks as the aristocratic bisexual Lord Byron a generation later, and flee abroad to countries where the Napoleonic Penal Code had decriminalized homosexuality.

Intelligent women continued to fall in love with Lawrence for the rest of his life, just as they have loved and married sensitive, handsome gay men since. He made women look good and feel good about themselves. Like a lot of narcissistic people, he was probably a very skilled lover: he made love to women the way he would have liked to have been loved if he was a woman.

Like Byron, he used his sex-appeal to further his career. Sittings with Lawrence felt like seductions; sometimes they were seductions.

Marriage was the predominant career option for women without independent means, but the ones who could afford to love and live with each other openly were left relatively free of salacious and legal interference. Queen Charlotte got the Ladies of Llangollen a pension, which would never have been granted a male couple living together, because the concept of lesbianism as a sexual preference did not exist – while women who married conventionally lost their individual rights to their husbands. Defiance meant risking subsistence, reputation, children.

In 1849, Sarah Siddons’ niece, the actress, abolitionist and feminist Fanny Kemble, was one of the first women to challenge the divorce laws of the United States, but she still had to suffer the loss of custody of her daughters to her slave-owning, philandering husband.

NPG D21827; Cecilia Combe (nÈe Siddons); Sarah Siddons (nÈe Kemble); Charles Kemble; Maria Siddons by Richard James Lane, published by  Joseph Dickinson, after  Sir Thomas LawrenceSarah Siddons and members of her family by Richard James Lane, published by Joseph Dickinson, after Sir Thomas Lawrence, lithograph, published May 1830  © National Portrait Gallery, London.
The print has Lawrence’s sketch of Mrs Siddons as Sigismunda at its centre, a figure of brooding intensity with three of her children and one of her younger brothers revolving like satellites around her.
Clockwise: Cecilia Combe (née Siddons); Sarah Siddons (née Kemble); Sally Siddons (identified sometimes as Maria); George John Siddons; Charles Kemble (the actor)

Mrs Siddons had had a soft spot for Lawrence since their first meeting in Bath when he was a pretty nine year old boy earning a living as a portrait painter and she was establishing her reputation as a leading actress.

The adult Lawrence incited a heightened erotic self-consciousness in nearly every woman he met, regardless of age and type; flirting was his primary means of social interaction with both sexes; a friend who knew him very well called him a male coquet.

At the time he ruptured her daughters’ lives, Mrs Siddons was in her early forties, still slim and splendidly handsome, she was the most famous actress in the country, a conscientious, hard-working mother who needed assurance that she could still be loved as a woman, not just a national monument. 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

The Prophetess and the Muse

Part Four of ROMANTIC FICTIONS AND CASUALTIES

Shortly after the death of the Tragic Muse’s eldest daughter, in the same year of 1803, the artist who had once believed he loved her found his ideal personification of physical and intellectual femininity. She was an elegant and composed woman, a refined and independent spirit who understood his temperament and his art.

Thomas-Lawrence croft
The shining culmination of the artist’s love of his muse:

Sir Thomas Lawrence. Mrs Jens Wolff, painted 1803 – 1815. © The Art Institute of Chicago, Mr and Mrs W. W. Kimball Collection. At the time she first met Lawrence, Isabella Anne Hutchinson was unhappily married to the Danish diplomat and art collector Jens Wolff from whom she later separated in 1810.

She was a little older than the daughter of tragedy, tall and dark like her, but free of sisters and disease. She was a model of discretion as much as beauty, a social sophisticate who made no demands on him. She did not need marriage to consummate their loving friendship.

For this convenience, he was grateful, because it gave him freedom without responsibility, and though people gossipped, not a breath of scandal compromised his professional reputation as a society portraitist ever again. Her gratification came from inspiring and guiding the artist to create works that would invest her with immortality by association. She was his perfect muse. Continue reading

Silence

PART THREE of ROMANTIC FICTIONS AND CASUALTIES
silencefuseliSilence by Fuseli, 1799-1801 Oil on canvas, Kunsthaus, Zurich.
Image source: WGA

The lightning struck, and receded, the earth quaked and settled again. Resolute, she never spoke again of love and betrayal. She began to believe that the artist had never loved her for her own sake, but more for the sensation of passion, a drama of love, in which she and her sister had been no more to him than sparks of her mother’s fire.

She knew they still met, an ageing goddess and her acolyte, and that her mother “could never cease to look upon him with the partiality she always did” [1] and always would feel for him. She did not say a word of reproach to either of them, though she was cut to the quick. He never sent a loving message to her.

The worm had entered the bud. During the next five years, while his fame as an artist and a lover spread, a queen seduced him while he painted her portrait, and still he wore his sweet-sad smile, the daughter of tragedy started to wither away until her own muse fled. “I sing but little now to what I did once”.

She had lived only to give joy to those she loved, and she had no joy left. She had reached the limits of feeling. She lived, but it was the posthumous existence of despair. Every asthma attack was like a drowning, in which to die would be easier than the struggle for breath. She yielded to invalidism as if it was a lover. Continue reading