Federico Fiori Barocci, Annunciation
1592-96 Oil on canvas, Santa Maria degli Angeli, Perugia. Image: WGA
A cat sleeps on a cushion in the corner of a room while a fourteen year-old virgin receives her pregnancy results from a beautiful, transgender visitor, who presents Madonna lilies as a baby shower gift. She smiles sweetly, and lowers her eyes modestly, grateful but not surprised. She accepts the news in the composed manner of a young prima donna receiving the bouquet that her talent deserves.
The visitor has only just arrived, interrupting the girl reading a small, pocket-sized book, which she lays aside instantly, without closing the pages or rising to her feet. The girl reads a lot. She has few possessions apart from her expensively bound books. She reveres their contents, kneeling while she reads. Her room is sparsely furnished, functional; only the voluptuous folds of the dark red drape loosely knotted over the window relieve the cell-like austerity. She cares about the cat’s comfort as much as her own. She has hung her hat and shawl neatly on a hook. The polished stone tiled floor is clean.
Nothing else is normal, and yet the scene is familiar. The visitor, who kneels before the girl as if she is a queen, has wings, and is accompanied by two over-excited flying babies, clapping their hands and gurgling with joy on either side of a hovering dove. The window drape looks like a stage curtain, framing a view of a white turreted castle on a hill, guarding a city beyond, a landscape in fairyland.
Strangest of all, the ceiling has been removed from the room. The billowing curtain blends into clouds that separate to allow a gigantic elderly man with a long beard to peer down out of a hole in the sky. Golden light radiates behind him, crowded with faces of more chubby babies, made of the Sun, all pressing closer and closer to the girl in the room. He holds his hands palms down over the girl like a puppeteer pulling invisible strings.
The cat sleeps.
extract from a story by Noëlle Mackay (reblogged from Tumblr)
“She’s mad. And she hates me. I’m sure she wants to kill me.” Imogen, unusually agitated, trying too hard to keep her tone flippant, was standing in her kitchen, clutching a glass of wine far too early in the afternoon, knowing she was about to give away too much to her avid audience of one. “And she’s living in my house, looking after my children, sleeping with my husband.”
“Darling, you are so lucky and so beautiful – your life is a Victorian melodrama. Oliver is so sexy, we all want to sleep with him.”
Mark, for all the campery, had hit the nail on the head. Oliver was less of a person than an object, everyone’s object, the golden goose, there for the laying, if only you could get to the front of the queue. She had known that when she married him; she could hardly accuse him of betrayal.
Mark was so wise for such a young man, young enough to be her son, though she would never say it. He was exquisite, slender and fair, with an angelic face and solemn judge’s eyes.
Flirting with him was a courtly pleasure that relaxed her. The mind sex invented by women when they were chattels of men in tights was still liberating. She wondered if Oliver thought atavistically of her as a chattel. It would explain a lot. “Marriage is no real excuse for not loving” she remembered, but couldn’t remember the last time she had felt loving towards her husband.
Annoyingly, Mark didn’t drink alcohol. She put down her glass of wine. “It would be better if I started smoking. All we need is something to keep fingers and mouth occupied. I’m sure that’s why my mother smoked so much. She did everything else in moderation. I wish I was like her. How is your mother?”
“She is well; she is beautiful like you; she knows how to organize her life, though it is harder now my father is home so much.”
“But they love each other, don’t they? They’ve made it work.”
“They got used to being apart. It was a pact: he earned the money abroad; my mother brought us up and worked when she could.”
“And I can’t manage without a frigging nanny.” Heroically, Imogen did not pour another glass.
She looked distractedly around the gleaming work surfaces and artfully distressed furniture of the room, where every utensil and flower was coordinated for a lovely whole.
Imogen had created this order herself. She was a priestess of shabby chic, manifested in her clothes, her expensive hair-cut and make-up that did not look like make-up. She wanted everything to look natural and spontaneous, which cost her great effort.
She continued: “Is that what you’re thinking? My poor, privileged children. I hate having a nanny. I don’t know how I let it happen. Any of it. Do you feel hard done by, have regrets, about your father’s absence I mean?”
“No. He made money to make us free. My sisters and I wouldn’t have got our flats without his help. We’d never have afforded tuition fees. They thought it through.”
“And are you free? Do you feel free? I don’t. Now I think I have to welcome refugees to my spare room – the one She’s got now. And I don’t really want them. Well, I want nice ones, of course. But I can’t choose people as if they were rescue dogs or cats. I can’t face more clutter, more emotion. Isn’t that bad? To reject my White Woman’s Burden? To think that I could use refugees as an excuse to evict the nanny? Thank God I never tell the truth on Facebook.” Continue reading
Once upon a time, long, long ago, longer than the first BB creams, or plastic surgery, longer ago than the film of How To Marry a Millionaire, longer even than the age of Flappers and their shingle bobs, when Anita Loos wrote Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and its sequel, But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, longer than when unstoppable American heiresses married into the British and European aristocracy, longer ago than universal suffrage and universal education, at a time when the only universally accepted truth for a woman’s fate was in the marriage market, there lived two beautiful, but very poor, dark-haired sisters known as the Gunning Beauties.
They became A-list celebrities of their day, Cinderellas who escaped from genteel poverty in Ireland – so poor that they had to try earning a living on the stage – to social ascendancy in England through marriage to aristocrats – fine, if you like that sort of thing, and even if you don’t, imagine a world in which a woman’s career options were so narrow that only a wedding in a silver dress could save her from destitution or prostitution.
Like Cinderella, they didn’t have dresses for their first ball in Dublin, until a fairy-godmother, in their case the local theatre manager, supplied them with two costumes from his wardrobe department.
Unlike Cinderella, they had a living mother who had a dream for her daughters, “a wonderful dream”, to get her daughters married to princes. She had the advantage of being born on the right side of the tracks, as the daughter of an Irish peer, and had an insider’s knowledge of how to market the girls for presentation at Court. Her daughters’ beauty would get them the wealth and social position that she had been denied by an unlucky marriage.
She steered them over the water to mainland Britain where they would, in the words Sondheim wrote for another ambitious mother, “stand the world on its ear / Set it spinning..” and “have nothing to hit but the heights”….
“…the cool type of temperament who thinks two is a crowd” (Anita Loos, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) Portrait of Elizabeth Gunning, by Gavin Hamilton, commissioned by her first ducal husband, the Duke of Hamilton, 1752/53. Image: Wikipedia Continue reading
or, The Royal Stag
The king’s promiscuity was an affair of state. It made government vulnerable to abuse from the wrong kind of woman pushed on him by a court faction, with domestic or foreign policy agendas, a scenario as familiar to modern republics as autocracies of any time. He was very lucky to find the rational, loyal and responsible Madame de Pompadour, or rather, that she introduced herself to him.
Nattier, Portrait of Louis XV of France, 1745. Oil on canvas The Hermitage, St. Petersburg
He was known as the handsomest man at Versailles; he was also the most libidinous and depressed. Here, portrayed in the year he moved his new mistress Madame d’Étioles, into Versailles, he looks disconcertingly like a chubby Dan Stevens, but Ryan Gosling would be better casting to convey his enigmatic emotional isolation.
Details of his sexual proclivities, especially his liking for young girls, later provided propaganda for the Revolutionaries in his grandson’s reign. He needed but was not obsessed with sex; he spent far more time gambling and hunting, anything to distract him from l’acédie. Unlike a lot of world leaders in the modern era, and the Marquis de Sade in Louis XV’s own time, there was no open suggestion during his reign even from his greatest enemies that the king abused or assaulted women, or that his tastes were perverted or paedophiliac; but there’s no doubt that he slept with a lot of young teenage girls.
How young is still disputed; the ones history is sure about were aged about fifteen or sixteen. This was considered just old enough for aristocratic and wealthy virgins to start sexual activity in arranged marriages with often much older men, but very early by the contemporary standards of poorer, working class girls, unless they were already prostitutes. The average age of marriage among peasant or working class women in the mid 18th century was as surprisingly, and sensibly, late as 26, suggesting they had much more power of choice than their more pampered upper class counterparts, pawns in mummies and daddies’ powergames.
Madame de Pompadour was essential to the king’s happiness, and she lived to make him happy. After their relationship became platonic, neither she nor the king, let alone his wife and daughters who preferred the Marquise as his official mistress to anyone else, wanted their harmonious ménage disrupted by some arrogant aristocrat or pushy parvenue whose abuse of patronage and mindless extravagance would cause national scandal. Flash-forward to the sad years after La Pompadour’s death, and cue slutty Madame du Barry moving in to Versailles.