Wednesday, September 30, 2009
One marvelous thing about setting a book in Venice is that so much hasn’t changed. True, today there are far fewer gondolas than in Byron’s time, and the few are for tourists. He would not have seen a gigantic cruise ship bearing down on the fragile city or heard motors. Still, he would have found today’s Venice far more recognizable than today’s London. This made my research for Your Scandalous Ways quite a bit easier. I could read his letters and the entries in his friend Hobhouse’s diary, peruse other contemporary travel guides and accounts--and, for the most part, find every location mentioned, even when the names of places had changed or, as in the case of La Fenice opera house, when it had burned down.
But when I decided to set a climactic (ahem) scene in the Campanile, I was on my own. The building had fallen down early in the 20th century and been rebuilt; now it has elevators, and no one climbs up, apparently, and so it took some digging to find out what the interior was like in 1820. But thanks to the magic of the Internet, it wasn’t hard to find pictures of the view from the top. And most important for my love scene were the bells. In that case, Byron couldn’t help me. A bit of video is worth a thousand words, even by him. So if you want to know what Francesca and James heard that morning, turn up your speakers and listen here and here.
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Monday, September 28, 2009
Imagining Byron in the Palazzo Mocenigo, "working" on his poetry, got me thinking about money. Like other Englishmen, he found most of continental Europe easier on his pocketbook. (It's believed that one of the reasons for his crazy behavior, which led to the dissolution of his marriage, was money, a prime cause of marital turmoil today.)
Let us contemplate the wealth of the Regency era upper classes. Browsing in The Complete Servant, by Samuel & Sarah Adams, Butler & Housekeeper, first published in 1825, we find that a "Gentleman and Lady with Children" in possession of an annual income of £3000-4000 could afford "Nine Female and eleven Male Servants; viz.--A Housekeeper, Cook, Lady's-Maid, Nurse, two House-Maids, a Laundry-Maid, Kitchen-Maid, and a Nursery-Maid; with a Butler, Coachman, two Grooms, Valet, two Footmen, two Gardeners, and a Labourer.”
What's £3000 worth today? Depending on the measure you use, the amount varies from around $225,000-550,000. If you want to know why it varies, here's the place to investigate. One less finicky way is to simply multiply by 60 and then convert pounds to dollars. It takes you to the same general vicinity.
The housekeeper would be paid about 24 guineas. A year.
A guinea was twenty-one shillings (old style shillings, before the switch in 1971 to a decimal system), or one pound plus one shilling. Do not ask me to explain British money. At least not in this post. I only wanted to give a little basis of comparison, between our gentleman's annual income and the incomes of his various servants.
The butler would be paid about 50 guineas a year.
A nursery maid would be paid 7 guineas per year.
Hardly princely sums. But let's bear in mind that the household servants were fed, housed, and clothed at the employer's expense. He paid their medical bills and, usually, an annuity when they retired. As jobs went in those days, service wasn't a bad job.
But of course, it was better to be the master or mistress, and when I think of time-traveling, I do not picture myself as the scullery maid.
Saturday, September 26, 2009
Friday, September 25, 2009
Venice, January 28th, 1817
"...in walked a well-looking and (for an Italian) bionda girl of about nineteen....we had some talk ... when lo! in a very few minutes, in marches, to my very great astonishment, Marianna S[egati],* in propria persona, and after making a very polite courtesy to her sister-in-law and to me, without a single word seizes her said sister-in-law by the hair, and bestows upon her some sixteen slaps, which would have made your ear ache only to hear their echo. I need not describe the screaming which ensued. The luckless visitor took flight. I seized Marianna, who, after several vain efforts to get away in pursuit of the enemy, fairly went into fits in my arms; and, in spite of reasoning, eau de Cologne, vinegar, half a pint of water, and God knows what other waters beside, continued so till past midnight...."
"After about an hour, in comes--who! why, Signior S[egati], her lord and husband, and finds me with his wife fainting upon the sofa, and all the apparatus of confusion, dishevelled hair, hats, handkerchief, salts, smelling-bottles--and the lady as pale as ashes...." "It is very well known that almost all the married women have a lover; but it is usual to keep up the forms, as in other nations. I did not, therefore, know what the devil to say....I thought the best way would be to let her explain it as she chose (a woman being never at a loss--the devil always sticks by them)--only determining to protect and carry her off, in case of any ferocity on the part of the Signior."
Byron's Letters & Journals, Volume 5, 'So late into the night'
*Byron's mistress of the moment in Venice
Thursday, September 24, 2009
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
The drunken, promiscuous crowd at Almack's were the same people who read poetry and argued about it and wrote letters to the papers about it. Poetry was the rock 'n' roll of the Regency era, and for a time, Lord Byron was the Elvis of his generation. Like so many other rock stars, Byron lived hard and died young. He had a disastrous marriage and a noisy, ugly divorce. Too, like your typical rock star, he had a little problem with overindulgence. In his case, it wasn't drugs but sex. But then, sex was the drug of choice for his crowd. Instead of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll, it was sex, drink, and poetry. He even had groupies, like Lady Caroline Lamb. He had sex with either sex and sometimes with relatives. (That's him to the left.)
Sex hasn't gone out of fashion, nor has drinking. But poetry has a hard row to hoe these days. Bright Star, the new Keats movie made us NHGs wonder about Lord Byron. Given his extravagant life and wild adventures, you'd think he'd be prime film material. But we came up with two, count 'em, two. Susan found this gem, Bad Lord Byron, from the 40s. And I was wondering how I missed the 2003 Byron. I'm going to put it on my Netflix list, but I'm not getting my hopes up. His life is in my encyclopedia under Truth is Stranger Than Fiction. It's a real challenge to take a life that was so extravagant, so theatrical, and make it believable on screen. All the more amazing that he lived that life and wrote poetry that's still deliciously readable today. Try Don Juan or Beppo, if you want a taste of great Regency era rock 'n' roll. (To the right is Keats, who died young not of extravagance but of consumption, aka tuberculosis.)
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Monday, September 21, 2009
As I mentioned last time, American Richard Rush in 1818 saw an Almack’s where youth by no means predominated. He was thirty-eight at the time, rather older than all but three (depending on who the source is) of Almack’s hostesses: the ladies who decided who was allowed to buy tickets to the famous Wednesday night assemblies. (At left is one of them, the Countess Lieven.) We of the Regency persuasion have learned to think of Almack’s as the Marriage Mart. Rush’s comment about the age groups made me wonder about this.
Other things make me wonder: So many of the attendees were already married--and cheating on their spouses, in some cases to a phenomenal degree. Lady Cowper, one of the patronesses, was not only unfaithful to her husband but to her lover, Lord Palmerston, who got even with her infidelities by sleeping with (among many others) the courtesan Harriette Wilson. Whom the Marquis of Worcester slept with, too (see Gotta Dance for a picture of Worcester sort of dancing with his wife).
Then there’s this: “Although alcohol was not served on the premises, many arrived late from the theater or elsewhere already quite drunk. Added to this nightclub atmosphere was the particular delight of people who believed they had gained entry to a gathering of an elite, which amounted to a frenzy,” according to Ian Kelly's, Beau Brummell: The Ultimate Man of Style. Kelly describes the atmosphere as "fraught but sexually heightened."
Well, gee. Don’t know about you, but I’m starting to wonder whether Almack’s is the right place for somebody’s innocent seventeen-year-old daughter to meet her future husband.
Sunday, September 20, 2009
Saturday, September 19, 2009
The print I used in my last blog of pretty people dancing at Almack’s reminded me of a puzzler I came upon when researching my last book:
1818 April 16
We were at Almack’s last night. The younger part of the company danced. They were not the most numerous part. Statesmen, cabinet ministers and their ladies, peers, peeresses, and their daughters, foreign ambassadors, and others, were present. In these circles, if all classes do not intermingle, all ages do. Gibbon, writing to Lord Sheffield from Paris, says, that Horace Walpole gave him a letter to Madame du Deffand, ‘an agreeable young lady of eighty-two,’ who had constant suppers at her house, and the best company. There may be seen in society in London, as part of its ornaments, ladies whom I should set down as not much short of that youthful age. It would be doing injustice to the stronger sex, to supposed that they give up sooner.
Richard Rush (U.S. Minister to Great Britain 1817–1825), A Residence at the Court of London
The puzzler was the bit about the “younger part of the company” not being “the most numerous part.” It threw all askew my image of Almack’s as the Marriage Mart. More on this subject next week.
Thursday, September 17, 2009
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
As I've mentioned previously, I can be utterly captivated by masculine grace. Dancing men, like Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly or John Travolta hold me enthralled.
But when it comes to grace and dignity, no one can match Mr. Darcy. Now, thanks to the wonders of cyberspace we can all see it, too, right here.
To those who've already seen it, I say, "Well, watch it again." To those who haven't: Aren't you glad now you didn't miss it? And to everyone: This is just in case you started thinking we weren't shallow or something.
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Monday, September 14, 2009
The Victorians have given us a distorted view of a number of things. When we talk about corsets, many readers imagine the Scarlett O'Hara torture device. When we talk about hoops, they're probably picturing the mid-Victorian-era big dome hoops, which strike me as the antithesis of sexy. But 18th C hoops, and the sort my heroine Zoe of Don't Tempt Me would have worn to a Regency- era Royal Drawing Room are something else altogether. At Colonial Williamsburg, we were struck by the view from behind--and the emphasis hoops give to the booty.
Above is an 18thC hoop petticoat in the CW milliner's shop. As you can see, it's not a giant steel cage. They have a nice flex, and give a sexy undulation to a woman's walk. Susan first gave me a sense of their seductive possibilities, when she suggested I take a look at DANGEROUS LIAISONS--not the Laclos novel but a book published in connection with an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
It must have felt funny to our Regency misses, to wear the style their grandmothers wore, and of course many resented it, as teenage girls today would resent having to wear the fashions their mothers or grandmothers wore in high school. But I have to believe that some of those young women, like Zoe, grasped how alluring they could be.
Saturday, September 12, 2009
Bindo Altoviti (1491-1556, painted by Raphael about 1515)
Fabio notwithstanding, gorgeous blonde guys are few and far between in Western male portraits. But this picture of Bindo Altoviti, a wealthy young Florentine who was a prominent Renaissance banker (!) and art patron, certainly makes a case for fair-haired gentlemen. In fact, the story behind this portrait is so shamelessly romantic, that I'm quoting at length from the National Gallery of Art's web page:
[In the portrait, Bindo]"turns in a dramatic, almost theatrical, way to fix the eye of the viewer. Perhaps one viewer in particular was meant to receive his captivating look: Bindo's wife Fiammetta Soderini. Renaissance poets and courtiers were unanimous in believing that a person first fell in love through the eyes. They were called the guides of love, which could reveal the passion within more effectively than the tongue itself, or letter, or messengers. Bindo's flushed cheeks contribute to the impression of passion, and a ring is prominent on the hand he holds above his heart. The robe slipping from his shoulder reveals a bare nape caressed by soft curls. Their golden color would have underscored the nobility and purity of his love.
"Bindo and Fiammetta, daughter of a prominent Florentine family, were married in 1511, when Bindo would have been about twenty. The couple had six children, but Fiammetta continued to live in Florence while Bindo's business with the papal court required his presence in Rome. This portrait, which apparently hung in the couple's home in Florence, would have provided Fiammetta with a vivid reminder of her absent husband."
Granville Leveson-Gower*, Earl Granville** (1773-1846)
“Adored Granville, who could make a barren desert smile,” was what Harriet Cavendish*** wrote as his bride. They married in 1809, and she went on loving him until the day she died, in 1862.
“LORD GRANVILLE died on January 8, 1846. Long as his death had been expected, when the end came it was a crushing blow to his wife, from which she never quite recovered,” (Some Records of the Later Life of Harriet, Countess Granville by her Grand-daughter Susan H Oldfield)
I came upon the “barren desert” line a long time ago, when reading Judith Schneid Lewis’s In the Family Way. It stuck with me, and ended up, paraphrased, in one of my stories.
He was deemed “the handsomest man in England.” I’ve been trying for years to find pictures of him. I've got two so far. The family portrait includes his two illegitimate children by Harriet’s aunt, Lady Bessborough--another interesting story, which I mention in Lord of Scoundrels. I’m pretty sure I came upon a portrait at Dunrobin Castle in Scotland, but I’m not positive it was the right man. It’s hard to keep the Granvilles and the Leveson-Gowers straight. But the gentleman at Dunrobin was quite handsome, so I did gaze worshipfully at him.
**Became Earl Granville in 1833
***daughter of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire--the one Keira Knightly played
Thursday, September 10, 2009
Yes, it’s difficult to judge the past by satiric cartoons of the time. If we consider the op-ed version of the Women’s Movement of the 1960s, we’d think that every female in American was flinging her bra into the liberation fires. Nope, not by half –– any more than every Englishwoman in the early 1800s paraded through a northern winter in a handkerchief’s worth of cotton muslin, with nothing at all beneath it.
That said, the cartoons sure ARE a lot of fun. This one shows the older generation appalled by the newest fashions, with a dreadful pun for good measure (click on the image to enlarge so you don’t miss the details.) FYI: Bombazine is a stiff, heavy silk, while Bum-be-seen is pretty self-explanatory.
The Fashions of the Day, or Time Past and Present, by George Moutard Woodward, 1807. From the collection of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
The more I study the topic, the more I realize that here, as in so many cases with history, there's no easy answer. The first print (1805) shows a woman, who's clearly a young miss, in the classic white muslin dress.
The Gillray print (1802) offers another angle on the story. One of the caricaturist’s jobs is to mock the follies of the time. If a fashion is being mocked, we can be sure it was popular. This isn't the only print I've come across that portrays women wearing a style that might not suit them. But what got my attention here is that the two ladies are obviously not young misses.
Tuesday, September 8, 2009
Reading Loretta's blog yesterday, I was struck not so much by the white muslin gowns themselves, but what was happening beneath them. This high-waisted style must have been truly shocking. For the first time in hundreds of years, the curves of a woman's breasts were on display.
European ladies began reshaping their bodies for fashion in the 15th century or so, via stays, corsets, busks, boning, even iron. Weirdly, their goal didn't do nothin' for feminine attributes. The ideal was a long, pointed, straight front that bound the breasts almost flat. Check out these two examples below left: the first is mid-16th century, the second is two hundred years later in the mid-18th century, but the silhouette is almost exactly the same.
All this changes in the last decade of the 18th century. Whether it's a classical inspiration, the French Revolution, or just the ever-swinging pendulum of fashion, suddenly it was stylish to show the actual shape of both breasts. Yes, there are caricatures of the time showing dubious "ladies" going completely au natural, but most women turned instead to the newest in corsetry (above left) for support, separation, and enhancement. Divide and conquer, indeed.
As fashion/art historian Aileen Ribeiro notes in her excellent Ingres in Fashion, "It is interesting how many portraits of this period exploit the sexual appeal of the early nineteenth-century equivalent of a Wonderbra and depict women leaning forward in this way; Lawrence's portrait of the Countess of Blessington [below right] exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1822 is an example."
So are the portraits of Madame Recamier and Harriette Wilson. Can you hear those early 19th century men still cheering?
Monday, September 7, 2009
Off and on, Susan & I have been discussing those ubiquitous white muslin dresses of the Regency, and trying to decide whether it’s a romance myth that this was the standard attire for the innocent Regency miss. Madame Récamier (note the bare feet--there’s another blog) seems to contradict that concept, but then, she’s French.
Reading Frances Wilson’s The Courtesan’s Revenge, a biography of the famous Regency era ho Harriette Wilson, I came upon this sentence: “It was now that she began to dress in her trademark white muslin and to ensure that she was seen everywhere.”
Trademark white muslin? I’ve read a lot about Harriette, including two versions of her memoirs, but never realized that white muslin was her trademark. Does this mean it was unusual for a young woman to wear it? Are we mistaken to send our Regency misses to Almack’s dressed in white muslin dresses? Or it was she unusual in wearing white muslin exclusively?
Or does this simply tell us something about Harriette? She wasn’t married, after all, at least not during the period of her fame, so she’d qualify as a “miss,” albeit no virgin. She did like a joke, and while her substantial bosom (emphasized in many caricatures) was certainly an attraction, so was her sense of humor.
Maybe, when she adopted the white muslin dress, Harriette was just being funny.
What do you think?
Sunday, September 6, 2009
Saturday, September 5, 2009
"Mai Jeendan wants to marry you! There now!"
After all, it’s one thing to win a maiden heart, and very fine, but when a man-eater who’s sampled the best from Peshawar to Poona cries “Eureka!” over you, it’s no wonder if you glance in the mirror. At the same time, it’s quite a facer, and my first words, possibly instinctive, were:
“Christ, she ain’t pregnant, is she?”
Harry Flashman, Flashman and the Mountain of Light, George MacDonald Fraser.
Thursday, September 3, 2009
While the memory of Loretta’s footmen and their brawny thighs still glows warmly in our Dear Readers’ hearts, we’d like to add a little confession, and give you all something else to look at, too.
First, the confession: after our now-legendary visit to Colonial Williamsburg, we have developed a major, uh, interest in 18th century gentlemen on horseback.
These guys were completely at ease on their mounts, one fluid movement of man and horse with a healthy serving of swaggering confidence, too. It’s that whole centaur thing. They’re everywhere in CW, those elegant gentlemen riding slowly through the town, or acting as dragoons drilling on the green –– which adds gorgeous uniforms and flashing swords to the mix. And breeches, and boots, and cocked hats low across their brows, and the way the skirts of their coats fall over the backs of the saddles.
In other words, Fantasyland for the TNHG.
Here are a couple of our pictures. See what we mean?
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
By the 19th century, wearers of the plush breeches referred to in my last blog tended to be, as I indicated, servants, public and private. A comment from Michelle Buonfiglio of Romance B(u)y theBook reminded me that of the private servants who wore livery (and breeches), the most glamorous were footmen.
They were, generally, hired for their looks. They ought to be tall and good-looking, and of course their snug breeches and stockings must show off well-muscled legs. Mrs. Beeton wrote, “When a lady of fashion chooses her footman without any other consideration than his height, shape, and tournure of his calf, it is not surprising that she should find a domestic who . . . considers the figure he cuts behind her carriage and the late hours he is compelled to keep a full compensations for the wages he exacts, for the food he wastes, and for the perquisites he can lay his hand on.”
One perquisite might be one of the ladies of the house. Or--as in the case of the heroine of John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, the boss’s mistress.
Fanny Hill, annoyed with her lover, Mr. H--, (who's paying the bills) turns her attention to the young manservant Mr. H-- has just hired: “a very handsome young lad, scarce turn’d of nineteen, fresh as a rose, well shap’d , and clever-limb’d; in short a very good excuse for any woman’s liking.”
She takes careful note of his livery and how well it becomes him: “new buck-skin breeches, that clipping close,* shew’d the shape of a plump,”** well-made thigh, white stockings, garter-laced livery, shoulder-knot . . .”
Fanny, like Mae West, could resist everything but temptation.
Tuesday, September 1, 2009
One of the questions that writers are always asked is "Where do you get your ideas?" For the TNHG, this is easy to answer. Where history lies, so do our ideas, scattered so thick that sometimes we have to watch where we walk.
Which is not to say that our inspiration comes only from the mustiest of tomes, or even in museums or via the internet. Sometimes it appears in far more humble places, like a flea market.
Last month at the weekly flea market in Sandwich, MA, I was poking about the boxes on the grass, hunting through the cheapie jewelery. I have a weakness for gaudy Bakelite bangles, and One never knows what One might find. As I looked, a vendor dropped another box beside the cartons of jools, a large flat box filled with...feathers.
It was a sales rep's sample box from the first decade or so of the 20th century. I suppose it was meant to entice milliners, for the feathers had all been fashioned into little cockades and curled bunches and pretend roses. Sadly, most had disintegrated over time, rootless quills and barbs and drifting scraps of down. But what amazed me was how, a hundred years later, the ones that survived still wore their original tags, pinked edges and gold borders pinned in place and waiting to be filled out with a customer's order.
I looked, and touched, and thought of who might have sold them, who might have bought them, and what circuitous circumstances had brought them to my feet in the grass. Why hadn't the samples ever been used? What had become of the rep? Had he (or she) quit the business, eloped, won the Irish Sweepstakes, or been run over by a horse-drawn streetcar? Or had the box been bought by a single milliner who intended them for hats she'd never made? Oh, Dear Readers, the melancholy shades of doomed Lilly Bart!
"I'll make a deal for the whole box, if you want it," the vendor said. "End of summer, y'know."
The whole box was somehow too much. I took only one, this beautiful curling black feather, with two more at the base. Cost me a dollar.
But you can't put a price on what I got with it.