Fortitude in high heels

SerpottaFortitude
Fortitude Sculpture by Serpotta in white stucco and gilding, height 200 cm, 1710-17.
Oratorio del Rosario di San Domenico, Palermo. Image: WGA

Elegantly dressed for the life she wants,
in her favourite high-heeled shoes, breastplate bodice and plumed headdress,
Fortitude leans her elbow on the pillar of patience,
never keeping her eyes off the longest battle.

She doesn’t like what she sees, but she will never give in, she will never be part of it, even when other people make snarky remarks about her posing in her Rococo niche.

She exemplifies the moral courage of sticking to her post “because it is noble to do so, or because it is disgraceful not to do so.”

Keeping true to herself, and her fashion sense,
without bragging or lecturing, she puts the fun back into virtue.

“Patience is the pillar which nothing can soften.”
St Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)

Music composed by Hildegard of Bingen

“She sat like Patience on a monument, Smiling at grief”
Viola in Twelfth Night, Shakespeare (1601)

Smile sung by Judy Garland (1963)

Fortitude is one of the four Cardinal Virtues of Christianity, recommended in a life skills course dating back to the 4th century, based on Aristotelian and Platonic ethics.

Aristotle defined fortitude as courage governed by reason (or temperance) in circumstances of fear or over-confidence: “Courage….chooses its course and sticks to its post because it is noble to do so, or because it is disgraceful not to do so.”

St Augustine of Hippo defined fortitude as “love readily bearing all things for the sake of the loved object”.

Kant: “Virtue is the moral strength of the will in obeying the dictates of duty, never developing into a custom but always springing freshly and directly from the mind.”

Fortitude has become rarer in the modern world where license has chained us to new tyrannies, and freedom is as elusive as ever.

The advantages of self-control in adverse circumstances have been forgotten in the revolt against the misunderstood stiff upper lip. It’s adorable. The straighter the face, the better the joke.

The primary importance of sincerity in human intercourse – “speak what you feel, not what you ought to say” – has been effaced by knee-jerk opinion polls and social media group anxiety – Like to be Liked, Follow and Ye Will Be Followed – which have compromised Freedom of Speech and promulgated the nonsense that passes for wisdom nowadays.

If you’ve read this far, you deserve a modest disclaimer: yes, I’m as foolish as you.

The most self-expressive of Romantic poets would not have predicted humanity blogging itself to death.

The people who died for Democracy did not expect the Voice of the People would come from Babel.

Fortitude rests on her broken pillar, not on popularity.
Fortitude does not betray her soul, which to her is virtue, which to us is self-identity.
She fights on.
She wears the shoes she wants.

She?

All four of the Cardinal Virtues, Prudence (or Wisdom), Fortitude (or Courage), Temperance (or Self-control) and Justice (or Fairness) were allegorized as female.

Figure_des_quatre_Vertus_from_Ballet_comique_de_la_reine

Figures of the Four Virtues from Ballet Comique de la Reine, 1582, one of the court entertainments commissioned by Catherine de Medici from which classical ballet, and political satire, developed. Image: Wikipedia

Fortitude lives up to her reputation for cheerfulness in adversity by playing the lute and holding a pillar at the same time.

“Ginger Rogers did everything [Fred Astaire] did,
backwards and in high heels.” Bob Thaves, Fred and Ernest comic strip, 1982

Step By Step
Poster for Top Hat, 1935

“Give a girl the right shoes and she can conquer the world.” Bette Midler
(often misattributed to Marilyn Monroe)

SerpottaFortitudeHigh Heels

USE DEMOCRACY AS IT WAS MEANT TO BE. SIGN AND SHARE THE PETITION FOR A PEOPLE’S VOTE TO STOP BREXIT DESTROYING OUR COUNTRY.

Rose tiara

Rose Tiara, Me Too Era © PJR

This ghostly exuberance, this rose-pink nostalgia, pink, the colour of ironic femininity and about-to-be-lost illusions, knowing and sweet; this decaying crown of experience in the benighted, bee-endangered, Brexit semi-coma is the last shout of beauty on the edge of dying.

On the edge of good taste, too, some would say. Such overt flirtation and florid excess, such abandonment to the moment, such tender voluptuousness, too fragile to touch; their éclat is not for all seasons.

Performance at this level is exhausting. Tomorrow, or the day after, their lovely faces will shrivel, shrink from their reflections, and shed fragrant tears, little pink silk sheets littering the floor, until they are bald.  I owe them the courtesy of hiding them before anyone else sees them like that.

On my last English mantelpiece, the flush of full-blown roses looks dimmed, as if an interfering prig has veiled a group of over-dressed, over-scented, over-the-top fifty-something women at a party long ago, their magnificent defiance muted into memory – 

nah, old pink roses will be back screaming and shouting at you from somewhere next year.

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.

Pretty and Powerful in Pink

Philippe de Champaigne, 1602 - 1674 Cardinal de Richelieu 1633-40 Oil on canvas, 259.5 x 178.5 cm Presented by Charles Butler, 1895 NG1449 http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG1449

ABSOLUTE POWER: Cardinal de Richelieu, oil on canvas, 1633-40 by Philippe de Champaigne.
Image: © Copyright The National Gallery, London 2015
“I have the consolation of leaving your kingdom in the highest degree of glory and of reputation”, the dying Richelieu wrote to Louis XVIII, father of Louis XIV. The foundations of French gloire in the reign of the Sun King were laid by Richelieu. He wears Cardinal’s Robes of pink, the liturgical colour of rejoicing in God.

gainsboroughcountesshoweREAL ESTATE, SEX AND FASHION POWER in one woman: Mary, Countess Howe by Gainsborough, oil on canvas, 1764.
Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood House, London. Image: WGA
This exquisite incarnation of 18th century elegance and aristocracy was the wife of a gouty admiral. She had been born into a wealthy, landowning family and was co-heiress with her sister of their father’s substantial property; her marriage brought her into the aristocracy when her husband inherited the title of Viscount.
She is pretty and formidable, sensually alluring and untouchable. The love with which Gainsborough imbues her portrait and the poetically moody sky is thought by art historians to not be an entire illusion, as he was known to become sexually attracted to his good-looking female sitters, a professional hazard for many portraitists of all epochs.

In the same year Gainsborough painted Mary Howe, on the other side of the Channel, the woman who had redefined, owned and commercialized pink, the king’s mistress and unofficial cultural minister of France, Madame de Pompadour, died.

pompadourboucher

Madame de Pompadour by Boucher, 1759. Wallace Collection, London. Image: WGA
SELF-MADE POWER: elegant, gentle, carnal yet intangible, suggestible but not forceful – this is the quintessentially feminine power of influence crafted by the woman herself.

Such a soft, shell-like pink reminiscent of idealized human flesh tones, is flattering next to a middle-aged woman’s skin, but it is also suggestive of the colour of the sky when the sun rises and sets, and, in the iconography of her relationship with Louis XV, the sun god was the symbol of her lover and master, the king. Her favourite portraitist Boucher, was the genius and pander of pink.

MarilynpinkCELEBRATION OF PINK POWER: Marilyn Monroe singing “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” in the pink satin dress designed by Travilla, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 1953. Image: Wikipedia
Blatant materialism and feminine predatory sexuality find absolution in pure, sweet, shocking pink celebration of being alive.
Marilyn is the girl whose faults we all forgive.

Pink is the colour of joy.

Angel in a pink dress under a pink glass ceiling (2)

“I have as much soul as you — and full as much heart! …I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh: it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal — as we are!”

If the first dear readers of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre had known the writer was a woman they would have smirked over Jane’s cry for freedom. Oh, poor, plain, chatty Jane! How embarrassing for her. An hysterical woman screaming for attention. Love me love me Mr Rochester even though I’m poor and not pretty.

Under the impression that a man was communicating to them through an imaginary female body, the reader thinks – oh, if HE says so, perhaps there’s a point to all this spiritual and sexual equality thing after all.

And collusion with prejudice, having to play along with patriarchy, was the reason Charlotte wasn’t happy pretending to be a masculine writer. But, traditionally, this was how women had achieved enormous power over sexes and nations.

mariatheresa ghent

Martin van Meytens, Empress Maria Theresa, Town Hall Ghent. Image: WGA
A Serious Woman in a Pink Dress
Like the dress choices of Elizabeth I, and, intriguingly, the present Duchess of Cambridge, everything the great Habsburg empress and European matriarch wore in public was laden with political and diplomatic significance.
The pink dress she wears is covered in Flemish lace, a gift from the states of Flanders. She presented this formal portrait to them as a reciprocal gift, and it still hangs in Stadhuis Ghent.
She was an able, pragmatic and hardworking statesman, who passed many reforms though deeply conservative in her convictions and a devout Roman Catholic instinctively intolerant of religious diversity.
Though she held the real power, she only bore the title Empress by virtue of being married to the elected Holy Roman Emperor, because no woman could be a candidate, and after his death, as co-ruler with her son Joseph II. In her domestic life, too, she observed the glass ceiling: she was an obedient wife who had sixteen children by her faithless husband.
Like many strong-minded women who achieve power on their own merits she was not interested in the cause of female emancipation in general.
It is easy to understand why Elizabeth I never married.

Prejudice is resilient. It is ancient as the time when Eve replaced Lilith – and which of them wore pink, then? Every time the ceiling cracks, it is quickly repaired, by as many women as men, afraid of their shade of pink, the eternal feminine, being subverted by female literary terrorists.

Once upon a time, the most powerful of angelic messengers wore pink when they brought good news.

pink

Fra Angelico Annunciation 1433-34 Tempera on wood, Museo Diocesano, Cortona. Image: WGA
The announcing angel Gabriel is wearing a pink dress and an expensive gold leaf androgynous haircut.
Rose-pink is the liturgical colour of rejoicing.

Pink should not need an apology. There are many shades of pink. I’m not going to give it up; it is a misunderstood colour reclaimed by women writers every day. The best things in life are ambivalent.

Irony is pink.

Yes, dear reader, you can be a woman, wear lipstick, high heels and a pink dress, and be a feminist. You might even grow up to be a writer one day.

Pink. It’s a mistake not to take it seriously.

Angel in a pink dress under a pink glass ceiling

“You may try, but you cannot imagine what it is to have a man’s force of genius in you, and to suffer the slavery of being a girl.” George Eliot, Daniel Deronda, 1876

There are two glass ceilings for female writers and artists, arranged one on top of the other, a crystal palace of prejudice and illusion. There’s the transparent political and economic one, the barrier to equality of status and pay.

The other, under that, or above, I can’t see that far, I don’t understand technical details ’cause I’m a girl, and the light refracts so prettily, I wonder if I should buy that pink hat, is a rose-pink coloured barrier to having your work taken seriously.

This one, the pink one, was smashed in the 19th century by the Brontë sisters and Marian Evans, but they knew they could only break through if their ideas were camouflaged under male names.

They were not worried about commercial failure, or shocking people; they were worried about not being taken seriously.

Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, and George Eliot, would have sold their books under their own feminine names and been admired for their romance and intelligence, for the local colour and dialects of their novels, their compassion for underdogs and their understanding of children and servants, for provocative scandals and the delicacy of their sentiments and morals. Pink.

Compassion, but not passion; feelings but not reasons; intelligence but not intellect; morals but not politics; wit but not humour; nurturing not building; melodrama not abstract symbolism; social satire but not revolution.

Even today, as in her own time, there are readers who attribute the philosophical and scientific principles driving Mary Shelley’s Gothic fiction Frankenstein to her husband.

Writing under male names was not female writers’ modesty, it was a covert declaration of war: “J’accuse”.

Shocking_Pink_SchiaparelliThe 20th century’s rediscovered PINK through Elsa Schiaparelli’s use of textiles dyed in “Shocking Pink” in the 1930s . Image: Wikipedia

Readers still expect women to write pink books, and make pink films, and there’s an awful lot of those, and literary agents and publishers are looking for boy-blue to flag the earth-moving big ideas.

Pink. Tender as baby’s flesh, innocent as the blush on a maiden’s cheek, the scent of rose petals and the sweetness of strawberries with cream, a poetic dream of love, the silken negligée strewn on the candle-lit bed, the colour of a coquettish tongue, the suggestion of sex without the mess.

From the softest bloom of dawn to the blazing glory of sunset, pink is our rescue from darkness, the wistful yearning to touch something greater and better than ourselves, and nostalgia for the people we might have been if experience and temptation hadn’t got in the way. That shade of pink is the colour of creation.

There’s another shade of pink which still giggles and trills and simpers more tea, vicar? Don’t the children look sweet? Look at that baby! A posy for your wife. And it’s charitable, too, a badge of Empathy and Do-Gooding.

Oh, bring me a devil dressed in pink, quick.

Gentle, caring, feminine, innocuous, virginal – wait! Pink can be powerful, depending on the woman wearing it.

195_24434_1 3x 001

Martin van Meytens, Portrait of a young woman said to be Maria Theresa, Archduchess of Austria, later Holy Roman Empress and Queen of Hungary and Bohemia. She had to fight a major European War to win acceptance of her right to rule, as a woman, the hereditary Habsburg territories. Image: Wikipedia

I, declares the Female Author, might wear pink, look pink, have been born pink, but I write with blood and iron. Dressed in a pink dress, with a garland of pink roses in my hair, I wield a sceptre of fire and hold the scales of justice. I am a woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a writer.

The most successful tragedienne of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the only actor of either sex who fused the two dominant cultural ideologies of the age, Neoclassicism and Romanticism, was rare in having her work taken seriously, but she herself was not. Though she was acknowledged by many to be  a better actor than her male contemporaries, she was not given equal status to them.

And she was furious: Perhaps in the next world women will be more valued than they are in this.” (Sarah Siddons.)

Soon after publication of the Bells’ first novels, and a decade later of George Eliot’s, everyone knew or at least suspected that the authors were female, just as Robert Galbraith’s cover was quickly blown in 2013. But the books had shouted so loud that they had already shaken the glass ceiling until it smashed.

END OF PART ONE

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a vague impression of pink

1850

“We did not like to declare ourselves women, because — without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called ‘feminine’ — we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice.”

Charlotte Brontë, in her explanation of why she and her two sisters wrote under the male pseudonyms Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, published in Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell for the 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights.

2015

Catherine Nichols has found that submitting her manuscript under a male pseudonym brought her more than eight times the number of responses she had received under her own name.

“It’s assumed that women writers will not write anything important – anything truly serious or necessary, revelatory or wise.”

“Our work [is] pruned back until it’s compact enough to fit inside a pink cover.”

Catherine Nichols in an essay published in Harpers, 2015

READ THE ARTICLE ON THE SUBJECT IN The Guardian

by Unknown artist, watercolour, 1850

Unknown woman, formerly known as Charlotte Brontë by Unknown artist
watercolour, 1850 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Foreshades of Grey (12)

or, The Power of Pink: She’s a Girl, get over it

Portrait of Marquise de Pompadour by Boucher, 1759. Oil on canvas © The Wallace Collection, London

So here, at last, it couldn’t be resisted, the most familiar and most delectable of all the images of Madame de Pompadour that enchanted my childhood is posted here for DvP, like everything else that matters in life.

It is not just the story of a dress, though what a dress, which can transform a woman into a rose, it is the story of the balance of feminine power between personal ambition and love for another person. She sacrificed peace of mind for ambition, and then fell in love, first with a king, then a man, then a country, and finally a civilization which she made universal.

Notorious as the quintessential courtesan, sneered at by the court for being bourgeois, called “putain” by the king’s sour doughball of a son, reviled by the public, viewed ambivalently today as a well-dressed figurehead of a rotting totalitarian system, there was nothing vulgar, tarty or heartless about her. The illegitimate daughter of a financier showed the world how a cultural leader and benevolent queen should behave.

She was not a parasite; she graced the ancien regime, she gave it lustre and refinement, and it is to Louis XV’s credit that he recognized her contribution to French culture, beyond her private services to him. She transcended the official position of royal mistress through her own accomplishments and charm, of which sex was the smallest part.

If you examine her portrait closely, with the same forensic intensity we study photo-shopped celebrities for flaws today, you might be thinking, by this time, 1758, she was in her late thirties, her looks deteriorated prematurely by anxiety, poor health and rich food, she wanted to hide her ageing neck and chin with that chic ruffle round her neck, then, yes, you are right, of course she did, and let her alone, for heavens’ sake; she lived to please; one person’s vanity is beauty’s gift of happiness to everyone with eyes to see, and shame to you who evil thinks.

She lived beautifully, and showed the rest of us how to do it, too. She united femininity with power, without concessions to coarseness or snobbery. She was a talented actress who knew how to put on a good show with complete sincerity. That is not a contradiction; good acting is about unpeeling layers to the truth underneath, however you are feeling. No-one has ever achieved and exercised power in quite the way she did, in such elegant style, on such a grand scale, and being nice to everyone along the way.

She is leaning on Pigalle’s statue of ‘L’Amour embrassant l’Amitié’, Love embracing Friendship, which she had commissioned in 1754 to aggrandize her new relationship with the king. They agreed they would not sleep with each other more, but that she would keep her job, because Versailles and French civilization were better with her, and he needed her, he couldn’t rule or live without her, and promiscuous lover though he was, he would be the most faithful of friends.

A lot of us can’t live without her, either. She’s one of the most enduring and likeable of icons, a woman for all seasons. We love her for the beautiful display, and the vulnerability.

“It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupery,
The Little Prince

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Foreshades of Grey

or The Moral Dangers to Young Women of Reading

readingheloise

Depending on what you want from a book, you might say “I’ll have what she’s having” and sales of the book would exceed Fifty Shades of Grey and Harry Potter combined.
Bernard d’Agesci Lady Reading the Letters of Heloise and Abélard
c.1780 Oil on canvas, Art Institute, Chicago. Image source: WGA

In the age of Enlightenment and Sensibility, women were encouraged to read moral novels for self-improvement, and discouraged to read anything politically or sexually exciting, so of course they did, with an all-consuming passion.

There was a real fear that if women’s imaginations were stirred too much, or if they lost themselves completely in a book, erotic or not, their weak feminine minds would be depraved.

The very private nature of the pastime was suspect; unsupervised reading of a novel might lead to masturbation.

So, as is the way of the world, portraits of girls reading became a popular soft-porn genre for men, sometimes unconvincingly disguised as moral warnings.

Moralists and misogynists could berate as much as they liked, but it was in no-one’s interests to stop women reading novels, either for instruction or diversion.

For all sorts of reasons, many people of both sexes were afraid of independent thinking, erudite women, like the Bluestockings, so they laughed at them, the premise of the jokes being that having more sex or children would set them right.

There were exceptions, women whose learning and writing was of so high a quality or relevance that it transcended gender prejudice. No sensible man could deny that these female authors were rational creatures.

NPG 5856; Catharine Macaulay (nÈe Sawbridge) by Robert Edge Pine

Catharine Macaulay, by Robert Edge Pine, oil on canvas, circa 1775 © National Portrait Gallery, London
Historian, political writer and activist, republican supporter of American Independence, opponent of inequalities in wealth, and proponent of co-education, linked to the ‘Bluestocking’ group of intellectuals, she explained she had been “a thoughtless girl till she was twenty, at which time she contracted a taste for books and knowledge…” She lost the respect of her contemporaries not for any flaw in her intellectual system, but because when she was forty-seven she married a man twenty-six years younger than her.

At the same time as women declared their intellectual and moral equality there was a huge increase in light literature. In the new enlightened culture, men and women both believed in the importance of educating girls, if only for the amelioration of the male condition, and this could be best achieved through presenting complex or lofty ideas in an entertainingly accessible way. Continue reading