Unknown Woman with Spear by Antoine Trouvain, French engraving late 17th Century
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Dagger of Henry IV of France c. 1599 on permanent display at The Wallace Collection and one of the ancient global artifacts displayed in Sir Richard Wallace: The Collector, gleaming in an atmospheric new exhibition space which is like a sacred temple of riches, just off tacky Oxford Street. Entry is free, because Sir Richard wasn’t just a rich collector in the Imperial British tradition, or schmoozing art dealer eyeing his chance, he was a cosmopolitan Europhile philanthropist, whose legacy was bequeathed to the nation by his French wife. Photo © Martin Hübscher Photography
Running the Gauntlet of the Arts London, 2018
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
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….
French 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.
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
High Fantasy, Science Fiction and Arthurian Romance
A LIFE LARGER THAN THE SENTENCE
True Shaggy Dog Story for Children of All Ages
All three titles available for Christmas and the New Year on iTunes, Audible and Amazon (UK and USA)
A limited number of Audible codes for free downloads of THE DRAGON AND THE UNICORN and THE WRONG SHADE OF YELLOW are available upon request – please leave a message in the comments section specifying Audible.co.uk or Audible.com and I will email you back.
“FOR MY PART I KNOW NOTHING WITH ANY CERTAINTY BUT THE SIGHT OF THE STARS MAKES ME DREAM” (Vincent van Gogh)
Woman reading Vickie Lester’s novel “It’s In His Kiss” at night. Photo © Martin Hübscher
LISTEN TO THE FIRST CHAPTER OF It’s In His Kiss
on Vickie Lester’s brilliant blog
on which each apparently effortless post strikes deep behind the razzle-dazzle to give insight into the design and inspiration, humour and human cost that go into creating the glamour of classic film-making.
All these qualities are evident in Vickie Lester’s fiction.
It is easy to dream when we look at a starlit sky, more difficult to represent it, even harder to understand how it was made.
“IT SHOULD BE CLEAR THAT PUTTING LITTLE WHITE DOTS
ON A BLUE-BLACK SURFACE IS NOT ENOUGH””
(Vincent van Gogh)
The most comprehensive and authoritative site I know about dramatic and comedic arts in all media, from historic to present times, is Sarah Vernon’s Rogues and Vagabonds, rich in articles and illustrations, edited by someone who understands theatre through and through.
Another recommended site dedicated to classic movies, combining charm with informed criticism, is Silver Screenings.
The Beguiling of Merlin by Edward Burne Jones, 1874. Oil on canvas. Image source: Wikipedia
“You couldn’t even get my name right”, explained the Lady of the Lake to Merlin, as she started reading the audio version of his own spellbook to put him to sleep, imprisoned in a hawthorn tree, for eternity.
Who is the witch who binds us with other people’s stories? She, or he, beguiles us with their voice, conjuring characters, passions and landscapes as vividly as CGI while they read novels and manuals aloud. Try selling that to the teenager, or spouse, playing GTAV in the room next door.
The storyspelling power belongs to actors when they narrate audiobooks. Does it always work? Probably not. I turn off BBC Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime as a barrier between me and imagination, and, sometimes, sanity.
I loathe narration in movies, which, except when used ironically or to heighten emotional effect (Sunset Boulevard?) mitigates experience by explaining information to audiences which they or the film-makers are too stupid to share through images and dialogue.
It’s reassuring for me that Harrison Ford objected to the voice-over imposed by the studio on Blade Runner. As he said, “it was simply bad narration”.
But – “but” being the most important word in peaceful communication and the most laborious in fiction – there are other testimonies. When the spell works, you are transported to other worlds through your headphones:
– Without fail, the time I spent in your storyspell upgraded the quality of my day. – A. A. Attanasio, author of The Dragon and the Unicorn, describing listening to the audio version of his novel.
Is the audiobook merely a modern convenience for assimilating information already available in print, or can it enhance the listener’s imaginative experience in a sensory way? Whose voice or voices do we hear when we read to ourselves?
– I got to looking forward to the next installment, for the aesthetic rush of your performance that invariably left me feeling uplifted, strengthened. Somehow – magically! – your artistic élan brightened my own mundane history. That’s the authentic power of art! Thank you for bringing that power to my novel. – A. A. Attanasio
Do we prefer the voices in our own heads, or the insistent voice of the witch trying to enthrall us?
– I am mesmerized by the voice you have given this novel. –
The siren’s magic works for some aurally sensitive people – but not for all of us, fed up of other people’s intrusive voice-overs when what we really want is to live in the moment ourselves. Do I really find the witch’s voice more enchanting than imaginary ones?
Can the witchiest of readers transport me away from my everyday dullness and anxieties to take part in “a life larger than the sentence?” (A. A. Attanasio again – he’s got a way of putting awesome concepts into words.)
Am I promoting an audiobook, or sabotaging it?
Am I for the witch, or against her?
Consider Merlin – a genius, a philosopher, a sage with superpowers who could see into the future. Look at him, in your mind’s eye or in Burne Jones’ painting, voluntarily surrendering to the nymph Nimue/Vivien/Ninianne – hardly anyone in Arthurian legend knows for certain what they want to be called or spelled, as if they are resigned to their symbolic significance being more important than their individuality – whom he had foreseen would enchant him into eternal sleep by turning one of his own spells against him.
In the end, people gave up calling her by a name: we know her as the Lady of the Lake. He could have avoided her; he could have carried on reading the print edition of his spellbook to himself, as he had done for hundreds of prosaic years, but instead he gave himself up to the voluptuous blossoms and pleasurably piercing thorns of enchantment by choosing the audio version.
– Words – those impish logoi – only carry the human spirit so far … and then not always where the writer intends; so, [the actor’s] narrative power, [their] skillful communion with those words, makes them live a life larger than the sentence. – A. A. Attanasio.
The Dragon and the Unicorn: The Perilous Order of Camelot (Volume 1) by A.A. Attanasio is now available as an audiobook on Audible, Amazon and iTunes. The author blends Arthurian myths and legends with philosophy, history, theology and science fiction. At the heart of the book is the story of Ygrane, who triumphs over adversity in multiple roles, as maiden-sacrifice, witch-queen, wife and mother, whose emotional life seems so vividly real to readers that she rises out of fantasy as a real woman, a once and future heroine.
– I feel privileged that my text now wholly partakes of the larger life of performance art through your talent.–
A.A. Attanasio writing about the audio version of his monumental novel, read by Pippa Rathborne, on sale at Audible, Amazon and iTunes.
Fragonard Le Verrou (The Bolt) c. 1777 Oil on canvas Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image: WGA
Clarissa’s tribulations – she is treated abominably by her lover and the author – were too much for the gravity of some of Richardson’s worldly-wise contemporaries. Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749) is unapologetic fun-loving, lusty fiction; Clarissa is a beguiling mix of comedy of manners, social criticism and erotic tragedy disguised as moral improvement.
The anti-hero, Robert Lovelace, is handsome, sardonic and self-loathing in the great libertine and vampire tradition. We know the type, the complete shit, wearing Whiff of Sulphur Aftershave, whom we secretly fancy more than the nice man next door. Lovelace belongs, or rather wants to belong, to Dark Erotica. “While I, a poor, single, harmless, prowler; at least comparatively harmless; in order to satisfy my hunger, steal but one poor lamb….” (Letter 515)
He is also a rapist who uses an 18th century variant of Rohypnol. Clarissa is as susceptible to his sex-appeal as the reader; she fights her desire with moral intelligence and instinct for self-preservation, but we know, reading between the lines of her letters, how much she is attracted to her abuser.
Our young female reader will need all the heroine’s strength of character to stop herself being seduced by Lovelace, particularly when he reveals, too late, that he really does love and esteem her. There’s no doubt he’s an epistolary bastard; having his cake, eating it, and throwing it up.
Oh, no, it’s her again, our young 18th century friend falling out of her dress while being debauched by reading the love letters of two of the finest minds of the Middle Ages. What effect would the gratuitous sex and gore of Game of Thrones have on her?
What will she read next that will cause images to rise like heat in her mind and release forbidden chemicals in her blood? If we believe the picture, reading is a Dionysian ritual for this young woman, in which she abandons self through arousal of desires and emotions she had never guessed she had.
What isn’t shown is that when she reads, she identifies with all the characters; like Tiresias, the first recorded human transsexual, she now knows what it is like to love as a man and a woman. Through imagination, we become angels. A similar orgasmic expression was given by painters of religious subjects to saints in ecstasy, with the approval of the Church.
The next book she will pick up is one of the seven volumes of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, first published in 1748. It was Number Four in The Guardian’s 100 Best Novels list in 2013.
Clarissa is an enormous book of approximately 970,000 words – the author himself was worried about the length. The size and weight of the Penguin Classics edition is a deterrent to picking it up to throw, let alone read.
It is an epistolary novel – 537 letters followed by a postscript – and the word epistolary is itself a turn-off in this emailing, Tweeting world. It should be adopted as a swear word: I’m having an epistolary day today.
But our young lady doesn’t want to read Clarissa on Kindle, or in extracts of 140 characters on an impersonal screen; she likes the intimacy of a physical book, which belongs to her; she enjoys the mystery and suspense of opening each page as if she is unlocking a jewel chest.
Antoine Pesne Luise Ulrike of Prussia, Queen of Sweden 1744. Image: Wikipedia. The sitter was a younger sister of Frederick the Great of Prussia. Her ensemble is studded with diamonds on her black cap and the bow on her choker, an ostentatious aristocratic style of fashion emulated by the impostors who arrive at Clarissa’s safe house “richly dressed and stuck out with jewels.” (Clarissa, Letter 312)
And the young woman likes jewels, and clothes, just like Clarissa does. Even when her virtue is being tested, even when her heart is broken, and she is overcome with shame and indignation at her treatment by her ruthless lover, Lovelace, Clarissa has time to note another woman’s fashionable dress, stuck out with jewels:
Clarissa is a middle-class girlie-girl, like Cher in Clueless (1995), who is momentarily distracted from her remorseful, Jane Austenesque epiphany by a shop window display: “Ooh, I wonder if they have that in my size.”
That’s the point, you see: multi-faceted, capable of thinking and feeling several different things at the same time – and knowing it; being female; being human. You can wear high heels, and be a feminist; you can be a lesbian and wear lipstick.
The obsessive materialism of the aspirational middle-classes, whose new wealth was often founded on sugar and slavery, is presented as the source of society’s moral corruption in Clarissa. We are so much closer to the 18th century than the gap of years, fashion choices and sanitary inventions suggests…..