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

A Regency Romance

What explains the enduring appeal of the Regency Romance?

Why has that period in history lent itself more than any other to our fantasies about courtship and social acceptance? The origins of its potency lie older and deeper than the comedies of manners written prolifically by Georgette Heyer, the doyenne of Regency Romance fiction, and the costume rom-coms of the film and movie industries of the last hundred years.

Regency Romance is written to a winning formula nowadays, some of it blissfully unconcerned with syntax or history, but millions of women had fallen in love with Classic Literature’s Mr Darcy for nearly two centuries before the BBC got him wet.  Members of all sexes have obsessed over the period’s dead poets with a sense of connection that felt stronger than many real relationships. Many a girl and boy have thrilled to Byron’s “mad, bad and dangerous” celebrity, or pined to be the one to soothe Keats’ fevered forehead, rather than inadequate Fanny Brawne.

We are all touched by the Regency, even those of us who have never read a romantic novel or would know a pelisse if it arrested us.

John_Arthur_Douglas_Bloomfield,_2nd_Baron_Bloomfield_by_Sir_Thomas_Lawrence

John Arthur Douglas Bloomfield, 2nd Baron Bloomfield, already a career diplomat at the age of seventeen, a pillar of the Establishment trying desperately to look like poet, libertarian political writer and social outcast Lord Byron, painted at full Romantic throttle by Thomas Lawrence, 1819. (National Portrait Gallery. Image: Wikipedia).
The Regency created its own romantically sexy myth long before it was appropriated by later generations.

The Regency period looks more modern to us than either the preceding 18th century age or the following Victorian age. The style of clothes and short hairstyles are still around – even the men’s tight-fitting trousers have been revived as jeggings.

Regency architecture, interior and garden design still provide some of the most elegant home improvement options available today.

EdmundBlairLeightonOntheThresholdEdmund Leighton: On the Threshold (1900). Manchester Art Gallery. Image source: Wikipedia
Love the wrought iron and lead roofed porch. And his boots….

A late Victorian nostalgia for Regency style packaged the romance of consumerism, in which props and set dressing are more prominent than feelings. You’d never guess from later illustrations that there had been a war going on, in fact several wars, about ideology, trade, territory and ideas.

Women’s clothes in the neoclassical Regency period, for three decades after the French Revolution, were more comfortable, more symbolic of personal freedom, than later 19th and early 20th century fashions. By the late 1820s, tight lacing was back and got tighter. (Traditional stays had never really gone away for every woman in Regency times, and were superseded by the much-maligned corset which, correctly fitted, is far more comfortable and good for posture than its reputation allows. And some of us are comfortable and happier in high heels, just as some people have sea legs – but that’s for another battle at the Last Post.)

The female body of the following four generations was squeezed in and padded out, satisfying somebody or other’s fetishes, some of them as weird as Comic Con costumes.

At the time Edmund Leighton was turning out his chocolate box historical genre scenes, and C.E. Brock was producing his fairytale illustrations to Jane Austen, fashionable women’s bodies were trapped in S-shaped cages which they only started getting out of shortly before World War I. The Regency looked like a time of rationality and enlightenment in comparison.

Bingley&Jane. Brock

One of the later (1907) watercolour versions of C.E. Brock’s original 1895 illustrations to Pride and Prejudice: the sugary colours signal the export of Jane Austen’s “two inches of ivory” world to the arch land of Regency Romance.

to be continued

The audio version of A Worthy Wife by Barbara Metzger, read by Pippa Rathborne, is available now on Audible, Amazon and iTunes.

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)

PART ONE – A Celebrity’s Tragedy

2006AV2988Sarah Siddons, oil on canvas c 1784, attributed to William Hamilton (or Thomas Beech).
© Victoria and Albert Museum.

Siddons dominated the female tragic roles on the English stage for over 30 years. Her stately performances in the most immediate of art forms articulated the eighteenth century’s ideal of the sublime, and her representations of the classical passions, in combination with her outwardly virtuous private life, won over audiences as diverse as George III, who appointed her Reader to his family, his son the Prince Regent, with whom he never agreed about anything else, and Lord Byron, who admired her more than any other actor, male or female, worth more than Cooke, Kemble and Kean all put together.

Even the Duke of Wellington, as famous for dry understatement as she was for grand pathos, was a fan.

Going to see her act was like an ecumenical religious event. Hazlitt said she was a goddess, Tragedy personified. By the time she died in 1831, she had outlived two kings, her friend, the portraitist Lawrence, the poet Byron, her brother and fellow-actor John Philip Kemble, her upstaged and discarded husband William Siddons, and, worse than anything that a mother should endure, five of their children, but not her reputation.

The mystique of the Tragic Muse had been preserved, but only just. Even before her formal retirement in 1812, something had gone wrong. “She was no longer the same….” complained Hazlitt of her inaudibility and disproportionate emphases. She kept making ill-advised and distressing comebacks: “her voice appeared to have lost its brilliancy”; “….she laboured her delivery most anxiously as if she feared her power of expression was gone” (Robinson).

She had gone from goddess to joke. Continue reading

The art of loving

ROMANTIC FICTIONS AND CASUALTIES
Part one

artistpaintingamusiciangerardMarguerite Gérard, Artist Painting a Portrait of a Musician, c. 1803. Oil on panel.
The Hermitage, St. Petersburg. Image source: WGA

One autumn long ago, while Britain was at war with revolutionary France, whose armies under Napoleon had conquered most of mainland Europe, and the people at home were rejoicing at Nelson’s victory at the Battle of the Nile that saved the Middle East, while  Irish rebels were fighting their English oppressors with the help of the French, while Jenner’s findings on vaccination against the mass killer small-pox were newly in print, while Haydn completed Die Schöpfung, inspired by hearing Handel’s oratorio’s in England, and Beethoven, gripped by fears of deafness, composed his ‘Pathétique’ Piano Sonata, while quietly in a Hampshire village Jane Austen was writing Northanger Abbey, while readers were being introduced to a new kind of poetry in Coleridge and Wordsworth’s collection of Lyrical Ballads, and to a new kind of woman in a novel called Maria: or, The Wrongs of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft; in that autumn of 1798 while the world was turning upside down, the eldest daughter of the Tragic Muse renounced forever the man she loved. 

The Art of Loving or The Pleasant Lesson, furnishing fabric, Favre Petitpierre et Cie (possibly, maker), ca.1785-1790, detail © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Continue reading