The comfort of dogs

Wright of Derby, Joseph, 1734-1797; Maria, from SterneHeartbroken Maria, with her beloved dog, Sylvio, from Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey (1768) by the great Joseph Wright of Derby.
Ferens Art Gallery. Image source: All Things Georgian an essential online guide to the society and culture of the British 18th century.

“Her goat had been as faithless as her lover; and she had got a little dog in lieu of him, which she had kept tied by a string to her girdle: as I looked at her dog, she drew him towards her with the string.—“Thou shalt not leave me, Sylvio,” said she. I look’d in Maria’s eyes and saw she was thinking more of her father than of her lover, or her little goat; for, as she utter’d them, the tears trickled down her cheeks.” From ‘Maria’, in A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy by Laurence Sterne (1768)

Maria is another casualty in the line of emotionally abandoned girls, like Ophelia, driven out of her mind by grief from a lover’s desertion and a father’s death, and Marianne Dashwood, whose excess of 18th century sensibility is the same as a major depressive disorder today, and real-life sisters, Sally and Maria Siddons.

Facing the world (3) through Acedia

 “The blues are brewin” (sung by Billie Holiday)

Acedia is a form of depression that was identified by theologians of the early Christian Church with sloth, a spiritual fatigue caused by too much time to brood and day-dream, especially in monasteries and convents, where self-discipline and self-motivation were essential for mental health.

At least one blogger is feeling the same symptoms today.

In the early 5th century, the ascetic and mystic John Cassian described acedia as “weariness or distress of the heart…akin to dejection”. Some of his suggested cures were manual work, sympathizing and caring for other people with loving kindness, taking plenty of exercise.

Later, in secular society, the same feelings of boredom and hopelessness were caused by the dull repetition of tasks at work or at home, whichever you were chained to, and by excessive pleasures and luxury of choice among the leisured classes.

More recently, acedia has been linked to the rise of consumerism in the 20th century. I’d add the Lottery, and the misuse of the word “aspiration” to dress up acquisitiveness in angel’s clothing. Modern shopping for stuff isn’t quite what the socialist arts leaders had in mind when they called for cultural beauty to be accessible and affordable to all of us.

Acedia is a sickly leveller, affecting rich and poor, the haves and the have-nots.

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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)

as euphrasia - Copy

Sarah Siddons as Euphrasia in ‘The Grecian Daughter’. Print of Pine’s painting by the female engraver, Caroline Watson. Published in London by John Boydell, 1st May, 1784. © Victoria & Albert Museum. Euphrasia was one of the parts in which she conquered the London stage on her return in 1782. The heroine triumphs in restoring peace to her country after an extraordinary, even gross, display of filial duty, when she suckles her own father rather than escape to safety from despotic tyranny with her husband and infant son.

The mix of sensationalism – the audience enjoyed shrieking along with the heroine – and serious moral about debate a woman’s right to determine her public and domestic roles, without becoming a victim, were ideal for Sarah Siddons’ stage persona.

PART TWO – A Woman’s Tragedy

Mrs Siddons understood the value of art, both as an aesthetic and a publicity tool. Her collaboration with all the leading portraitists of the day and the subsequent national distribution of prints spread her fame.

Though she became a cultural icon, she was not an easy subject; she was considered a beautiful woman, with her bold features, long nose, Romantically fashionable cleft chin, large dark eyes, and lithe figure, but like many expressive, charismatic people, her beauty could not be captured in repose.

It was the beauty that lies in conveying passion and intellect, not in stimulating sexual fantasies or decorating a wall. Her physical appearance was fit for dramatic purpose, and she used it to full effect without personal vanity.

Mary Wollstonecraft reminded the readers of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman that in “history, we shall find that the women who have distinguished themselves have neither been the most beautiful nor the most gentle of their sex.”

Many of the heroic qualities that she was admired for on stage were regarded as unsuitable for a lady in real life. The power she conveyed with the grandeur of her elocution and sweeping, authoritative movements, were supposed to be exclusively masculine attributes.

Except for Thomas Lawrence, society portraitists shied away from her forcefulness, emphasizing instead her willowy grace, and the tender beseeching pathos of her raised eyes, rather than showing them blazing with passion under frowning brows.

Sitting in her elegant black plumed hat and blue-striped dress in Gainsborough’s 1785 portrait, she looks uneasy, coiled, as if she’d rather spring up and throw that muff like a dagger at a villain, and save her country, defy a tyrant, or murder Duncan. Social comedy and kitchen sink drama, at home or on stage, did not suit Mrs Siddons.

When Lawrence painted Mrs Siddons, rather than avoiding the challenging masculine aspects of her stage persona, the fierce concentration of her gaze, her imposing height and the athletic build of her shoulders and arms (reminiscent of Mrs Freke’s “masculine arms” in Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda), he celebrated them. Continue reading