Tag Archives: 18th Century

Romances or History? A Belle-Esprit and a Marchionesse Debate Novels

As it is my custom to troll through the Lady’s Magazine, looking for tidbits of writing inspiration, I came across a discussion of novels circa 18th century France.  I’ve written previously on how novels were openly scorned in the Georgian era. Even instructive fictions on the deviltry of rogues like Clarissa and Pamela by Samuel Richardson were considered suspect.  History was the only subject worth reading in public spheres, but not everyone, including this open-minded Belle-Espirit, was an opponent of novels.  Rather, like Jane Austen, he advocated that men (and women) of sense would favor a romance* over the ever-popular annals of history.

Visit to a Library, 1760 | Pietro Longhi.
Visit to a Library, 1760 | Pietro Longhi.

A Contrast Between Romance and History

The Belle-Espirit and Marchionesse Debate

A Fine lady in France has generally two toilette; the first is rather reserved, because the cosmetics made use of should be secret; the second is the reign of coquetry.  At the marquise’s second toilet was her confidante madam Lorval, a counsellor and a belle-espirit.

The subject of conversation was novels, and the Marquise [Belle-Espirit] addressed himself to the counsellor on that subject.  His answer was, that there were a great many new ones.  “True,” said the Marchionesse, “but I might soon by satiated at hearing their very names.”

Belle-Espirit:  “Excuse me, my lady, there is no choice–they are all abominable.”

Marchionesse:  “Is it possible? — Why cannot there be a good romance? the subject is easy enough.  Imagination is under no restraint; the field is copious; it may seize on every object that offers, and may gather every flower it meets with in its progress.  A man must really be a —- if he cannot succeed in this line of writing.”

Belle-Espirit:  “My lady, the greatest authors have shown that it is very difficult, a very arduous attempt in this line.   To blend costume and probability; to invent a fable that is simple, fruitful in events, and full of naivete; to please, to rouse, to affect, to surprise, and be able to spin out a long narrative, is an undertaking which few writers are qualified for.  Of all the gifts with which heaven honours mortality, the imagination is the most precious, and the most universally agreeable.  It is a token of our want of reason, not to attribute much esteem to the writer of romances as to the historian.”

Marchionesse:  “Dear Sir, what a paradox!  It is true that history either satiates or shocks me; but the Historian, in the sublimity of his style, is by far superior to the composer of Romances, let him be what he may.”

Belle-Espirit:  “Why, my lady?  The question does not turn upon sublimity, but on sympathy and true.  A Romance is very often more true than a history, without intimating that it is more interesting.  How often does the Historian invent his details; they do not shock the truth, but they are cold, useless and puerile.  What obscurity, with respect to the leading causes!  The writer of Romances gives you a detail of every thing; he assigns a motive for every step which his hero takes.  The thread of events, if he be a skillful writer, is never broken.  He digs deep, he invents, he avoids contradictions, and the improbabilities which about in history, wherein we frequently cannot discover any relation.  The perusal of a romance is not unworthy of a man of sense.   I know nothing more amusing to the most florid undertaking, or to cherish the sensibility of the human heart.   There at least we view men that are good, generous, and full of virtue, and the contemplation of them diverts us from the miseries of humanity.  There is not, perhaps, any thing  of the beautiful, which does not reside in the imagination.  How many persons are there of my acquaintance, who affect to despise romances, and yet do not cease to read them!”

Marchionesse:  “You have then read them passionately, Sir?”

Belle-Espirit:  “Yes, my lady.  This kind of study, I am not ashamed to confess, has formed the most agreeable avocation of my life.”

*Definition of Romanticism in C18/C19 literature

Dueling Fashionistas: Lady Jane Harrington v. Jane Halliday

The latest edition of Dueling Fashionistas is fresh from the press, and ready for a vote.  First though, let’s see where the ladies who bear confusingly similar names stand in Reynolds’s portraiture:

The two Janes before you are painted in a pastoral style by the great Sir Joshua Reynolds.  In both portraits one hand is outstretched, as if directing the viewer toward the majesty she alone has seen.  Their flowing gowns are reminiscent of their muses.  Whereas Halliday’s whips on a violent breeze, Harrington’s seems composed, an extension of her easefulness.  The scenery around Harrington is also less elemental than her opponent’s disturbed backdrop of air and shadowed land.

In terms of movement, I find Halliday’s portrait irresistible.  A pale wrapper streams across her arm; her coiffure is romantically askew.  The wind is an influence she cannot control, and in rippling with it she becomes sylph-like.

Harrington’s portrait possesses more restraint.  Her hair is partially undone where it grazes over her shoulder and her gown puddles where she stands, but her general appearance recollects sublimity.  Overall, her tableau is gentler and dignified, the urn and Grecian style robes a nod to classicism over naturalism.

Lady Jane Halliday, 1779 | SIr Joshua Reynolds
Lady Jane Halliday, 1779 | Sir Joshua Reynolds
Jane Fleming, later Countess of Harrington. 1778-79 | Sir Joshua Reynolds
Jane Fleming, later Countess of Harrington. 1778-79 | Sir Joshua Reynolds

Which style do you prefer, and, moreover, does the triumph go to Lady Harrington or Jane Halliday? Which Jane is fairer and why? And do you think Reynolds did the ladies justice?

I’d love to hear your opinion! (Especially regarding Lady Halliday’s shoes — they’re sandals, right?)

In Defense of Novels: Jane Austen’s Perspective

In December 1817 Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey was published posthumously.  She’d been a novelist in print since 1811, and presumably, like all novelists, had occasioned to meet with derisive, if not outright patronizing, commentary when she’d discussed that activity which had brought her the most joy and possibly the most angst: writing novels.

The New Novel, 1877 | WInslow Homer
The New Novel, 1877 | WInslow Homer

In the 18th century, as well as throughout the 19th century, reading fiction was a questionable avocation.  It led the mind toward fancies and illusions; for weak-minded females, reading romances could turn the potentially perfect wife into an Elizabeth Bennet, a bluestocking, a virago with irrepressible opinions.  Gentlemen cautioned against these idle amusements, but Jane Austen and erudite intellectuals like herself offered their vehement replies.  Her sentiments on the matter appear within Northanger Abbey.  Couched within is a soliloquy in defense of novels, and I can put her argument in no cleverer words than she already has.  The passage of interest appears shortly after a description of Catherine’s and Isabella’s progressing friendship and informs how novels allow for invaluable ingress into the human condition:

” . . . and if a rainy morning deprived them of other enjoyments, they were still resolute in meeting in defiance of wet and dirt, and shut themselves up, to read novels together.  Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding–joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages in disgust.  Alas!  If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard?  I cannot approve of it.  Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans.  Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition have been so much decried.

Lady Reading in a Wooded Park, 1770 | George Stubbs
Lady Reading in a Wooded Park, 1770 | George Stubbs

From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers.  And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens–there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them.  ‘I am no novel reader — I seldom look into novels — Do not imagine that I often read novels — It is really very well for a novel.’  Such a common cant.  ‘And what are you reading, Miss –?’ ‘Oh! It is only a novel!’ replies the young lady, while she lays down her books with affected indifference, or momentary shame.  ‘It is only Cecelia, or Camilla, or Belinda'; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.

Now, had the same young lady been engaged with a volume of the Spectator, instead of such a work, how proudly would she have produced the book, and told its name; though the chances must be against her being occupied by any part of that voluminous publication, of which either the matter or manner would not disgust a young person of taste: the substance of its papers so often consisting in the statement of improbably circumstances, unnatural characters, and topics of conversation which no longer concern anyone living; and their language, too, frequently so coarse as to give no very favourable idea of the age that could endure it.”

Hurrah for Jane!  The above is a total smack-down, and I can’t say I blame her for the rebuke, but I do adore history. Of course today’s society is much more approving of novels, but I, too, have heard many an opinion on the uselessness of fiction–from people who have obviously never read Austen! The bottom line is: can we not applaud both pursuits and be all the more finely tuned by what the two subjects have to offer each other? I like to think so, but I also can’t help but wonder that if Austen were alive today, would she be writing incisive commentary on modern day life, something along the lines of (don’t smack me) Lena Dunham’s Girls? Or even Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary?

A Beautiful Anatomy: Gautier d’Agoty’s Mezzotints

Jacques Fabian Gautier d’Agoty was an 18th century French anatomist and engraver, a Marseille native, and a painter of Court ladies including Marie Antoinette.  For his anatomical and naturalist art he worked with colored mezzotints, using red, yellow and blue impressions on copper plates, a method he’d learned during his brief six-week employment under Jacob Christoph Le Blon.

After leaving his post over a low wage dispute, he shed the role of assistant and, immediately upon Le Blon’s death in 1741, assumed that of principal inventor, but his assertions were part fiction.  He’d added black or brown to make a four-plate mezzotint, “perfecting” Le Blon’s method, but this was not considered revolutionary by his peers.   He was nevertheless awarded a patent by Louis XV to continue making his art–a patent that remained in his family throughout the 18th century.

‘Anatomical Angel’ is his most well-known anatomical print.  The female depicted is eroticized, young and refined despite her presumed death.  She’s morbidly beautiful, the skin on her back splayed into red angel wings, her coiffure curled and pinned, her hips and upper buttocks exposed.

Jacques-Fabien Gautier-d'agoty (Back of Female) 1746
Jacques-Fabien Gautier-d’agoty (Back of Female) 1746

Aside from the fact his models are stripped to their flesh, his mezzotints are similar to 18th century portraiture in posture and graceful expression.  It’s disarming, to say the least.

Pregnant Woman | 1773
Pregnant Woman | 1773

 

And lastly, the Queen whose tragic anatomy was exposed by the guillotine:

Marie Antoinette | 1775
Marie Antoinette | 1775

Lord Chesterfield on Trivial Pursuits, Day 7 REPOST

Originally posted 1/2/11

Dear Lord Chesterfield,

As a lady of substantial cranial proportions, I say with all humility that I simply cannot countenance the follies of my age.  To dance and make merry?  Bah!  ‘Tis a waste of sturdy, spinster feet.  Likewise, I do not care to garland my person in the most dear and newfangled fashions, thereby bankrupting my paltry accounts, simply to join in the happy pursuits of society.  Yet what choice have I but to make myself a lemming?

Verily Yours,

Miss Anthrope

Marie-Adelaide de Bourbon, one of Louis XV’s spinster daughters

Dear Miss Anthrope:

In truth, whatever is worth doing at all, is worth doing well; and nothing can be done well without attention: I therefore carry the necessity of attention down to the lowest things, even to dancing and dress. Custom has made dancing sometimes necessary for a young [wo]man; therefore mind it while you learn it that you may learn to do it well, and not be ridiculous, though in a ridiculous act. Dress is of the same nature; you must dress; therefore attend to it; not in order to rival or to excel a fop in it, but in order to avoid singularity, and consequently ridicule. Take great care always to be dressed like the reasonable people of your own age, in the place where you are; whose dress is never spoken of one way or another, as either too negligent or too much studied.

Adieu!

From Bath, October 9, O.S. 1746

Missed the previous Lord Chesterfield’s posts? See On Friendship and On Giving Compliments and On Domestic Affairs and On Secrets and On Political Atmosphere.
 

Lord Chesterfield on Political Atmosphere, Day 6 REPOST

Originally posted 12/31/10

Dear Lord Chesterfield,

I solemly swear before God and country that all politicians are liars and thieves!  They never accomplish what they vow, and upon my soul, there is a not a noble man among such a house of fools.  I dare say, in the next election I will not suffer to vote.  What say you on this most important matter?  Given the day’s unsavory climate, am I wrong to feel apathetic towards these demmed pimps?

Verily Yours,

Straight Suffering from Lack of Having Sovereigns

joseph, baron ducreux

Dear Straight Suffering, etc., etc.,

Another very just observation of the Cardinal’s [de Retz] is, That the things which happen in our own times, and which we see ourselves, do not surprise us near so much as the things which we read of in times past, though not in the least more extraordinary; and adds, that he is persuaded that when Caligula made his horse a Consul, the people of Rome, at that time, were not greatly surprised at it, having necessarily been in some degree prepared for it, by an insensible gradation of extravagances from the same quarter. This is so true that we read every day, with astonishment, things which we see every day without surprise. We wonder at the intrepidity of a Leonidas, a Codrus, and a Curtius; and are not the least surprised to hear of a sea-captain, who has blown up his ship, his crew, and himself, that they might not fall into the hands of the enemies of his country. I cannot help reading of Porsenna and Regulus, with surprise and reverence, and yet I remember that I saw, without either, the execution of Shepherd,—[James Shepherd, a coach-painter's apprentice, was executed at Tyburn for high treason, March 17, 1718, in the reign of George I.]—a boy of eighteen years old, who intended to shoot the late king, and who would have been pardoned, if he would have expressed the least sorrow for his intended crime; but, on the contrary, he declared that if he was pardoned he would attempt it again; that he thought it a duty which he owed to his country, and that he died with pleasure for having endeavored to perform it. Reason equals Shepherd to Regulus; but prejudice, and the recency of the fact, make Shepherd a common malefactor and Regulus a hero.

Adieu!

From London, September 13, O.S. 1748

Missed the previous Lord Chesterfield’s posts? See On Friendship and On Giving Compliments and On Domestic Affairs and On Secrets.

Lord Chesterfield on Secrets, Day 5 REPOST

Originally posted 12/30/10

Dear Lord Chesterfield,

Recently at a party a most scintillating secret was relayed to me by an acquaintance and I simply cannot bear to keep it to myself!  If I go and whisper this trifle of a tale to say, a few of the fashionable ladies with whom I play the lute , would this be a violent breach of trust?  The secret did, after all, come by way of a rakish acquaintance.

Verily Yours,

The Gossipmongering Gent from Kent

Dear Gossipmongering Gent from Kent,

My word of advice from the Cardinal de Retz is, “That a secret is more easily kept by a good many people, than one commonly imagines.” By this he means a secret of importance, among people interested in the keeping of it. And it is certain that people of business know the importance of secrecy, and will observe it, where they are concerned in the event. To go and tell any friend, wife, or mistress, any secret with which they have nothing to do, is discovering to them such an unretentive weakness, as must convince them that you will tell it to twenty others, and consequently that they may reveal it without the risk of being discovered. But a secret properly communicated only to those who are to be concerned in the thing in question, will probably be kept by them though they should be a good many. Little secrets are commonly told again, but great ones are generally kept.

 Adieu!

From London, September 13, O.S. 1748

Missed the previous Lord Chesterfield’s posts? See On Friendship and On Giving Compliments and On Domestic Affairs.

Lord Chesterfield on Domestic Affairs, Day 4 REPOST

Originally posted 12/29/10

Dear Lord Chesterfield,

After fighting with my beau, I decided to confide the subject of our quarrel to several of my closest friends. Now I’m afraid I have made a mess of the situation, for where my beau and I have promptly forgotten our dispute, my friends, taking my momentary poor constitution to heart, now quite thoroughly detest him! As the damage is already done (and woefully irreversible in the near future) what advice have you to offer so I do not err further?

A Whimsical Woman

Dear A Whimsical Woman,

Cautiously avoid talking of either your own or other people’s domestic affairs. Yours are nothing to them, but tedious; theirs are nothing to you. The subject is a tender one; and it is odds but you touch somebody or other’s sore place; for in this case there is no trusting specious appearances, which may be, and often are, so contrary to the real situations of things between men and their wives, parents and their children, seeming friends, etc., that, withthe best intentions in the world, one often blunders, disagreeably.

From Bath, October 29, O.S. 1748

Come back the day after tomorrow for Lord Chesterfield on Secrets

Missed the previous Lord Chesterfield’s posts? See On Friendshipand On Giving Compliments.

Lord Chesterfield on Friendship, Day 2 REPOST

Originally posted 12/27/10

Dear Lord Chesterfield,

I find myself in a common predicament these days: I have an abundance of friends when I have no real need of them and few friends when I do. What, pray, is the difference between a true friend and friend to pass the time, and why, when in most cases companionship is not wanting, should I care?

Adrift and Addlepated

Dear Adrift and Addlepated,

People of your age have, commonly, an unguarded frankness about them; which makes them the easy prey and bubbles of the artful and the inexperienced: they look upon every knave, or fool, who tells them that he is their friend, to be really so; and pay that profession of simulated friendship, with an indiscreet and unbounded confidence, always to their loss, often to their ruin. Beware, therefore, now that you are coming into the world, of these proffered friendships. Receive them with great civility, but with great incredulity too; and pay them with compliments, but not with confidence. Do not let your vanity, and self-love, make you suppose that people become your friends at first sight, or even upon a short acquaintance. Real friendship is a slow grower; and never thrives, unless ingrafted upon a stock of known and reciprocal merit.

There is another kind of nominal friendship, among young people, which is warm for a time, but, by good luck, of short duration. This friendship is hastily produced, by their being accidentally thrown together, and pursuing the same course of riot and debauchery. A fine friendship, truly! and well cemented by drunkeness and lewdness. It should rather be called a conspiracy against morals and good manners, and be punished as such by the civil magistrate. However, they have the impudence, and folly, to call this confederacy a friendship. They lend one another money, for bad purposes; they engage in quarrels, offensive and defensive, for their accomplices; they tell one another all they know, and often more too; when, of a sudden, some incident disperses them, and they think no more of each other, unless it be to betray and laugh at their imprudent confidence. Remember to make a great difference between companions and friends, for a very complaisant and agreeable companion may, and often does, prove a very improper and a very dangerous friend.

Adieu!

From London, October 9, O.S. 1747.

Missed the first post The Sagacious Letters of Lord Chesterfield?

Come back the day after tomorrow for Lord Chesterfield on Giving Compliments!

The Sagacious Letters of Lord Chesterfield REPOST

For the next 12 days I’ve scheduled a series that may assist with your resolutions for 2013  (naw, probably not, but I’m trying here).  I didn’t get many blog hits back in 2010, so with any luck these reposts will be fresh for the majority of you.

I’ll be on blog vacation through the second week of January, but will be responding to comments, as usual.

Happy New Year, readers!  Here’s hoping that 2013 gives you the best it has to offer.

Originally posted 12/26/10

In the spirit of bettering oneself in the New Year we make resolutions to be fitter, richer, and, if we’re all lucky, kinder. But do we ever resolve to be wiser? Common sense suggests a well-turned out mind is earned through experience over tutelage, but in the case of the 18th century upper classes, les maniéres nobles were gained through rigorous adherence to a social code that demanded one improve upon politesse.  An enviable restraint in animal spirits–virtually extinct today–was what afforded ladies and lords the power to glide through fashionable circles with few incidents to mar their family name.

Given our current fall from social graces, we thankfully possess Lord Chesterfield’s correspondence.  It serves as a guide to what may seem like many a muddled affair of dead persons to the uncritical observer, but I assure you, the advice is pertinent.   For the edification of us all, please allow me to introduce you to our guest, Philip Dormer Stanhope, the 4th Earl of Chesterfield . . .

Best known for his letters to his namesake son, his preeminent work involves schooling his heir on lessons most of us suffer to learn through painful trial and error.  His excessive sophistication at times seems foolish (“In my mind there is nothing so illiberal, and so ill-bred, as audible laughter. . . I am sure that since I have had the full use of my reason nobody has ever heard me laugh.”) but on the whole, his advice is suprisingly apt.  Think of his letters as an 18th century version of the popular book by Dale Carnegie, How to Make Friends and Influence People.

Tomorrow I will begin the first of a seven day course for those interested in how to improve wanting social graces, 18th century style.  We’ll call it Dear Lord Chesterfield (a refined Dear Abby) but for the moment, I’ll leave you with a few fine words from his lordship on achievement dated October 9, 1746:

“. . . I have discovered [in you] laziness, inattention, and indifference; faults of which are only pardonable in old men, who, in the decline of life, when health and spirits fail, have a kind of claim to that sort of tranquility.  But a young man should be ambitious to shine and excel; alert, active, and indefatigable in the means of doing it . . . Without the desire and the pains necessary to be considerable, depend upon it, you never can be so; as without the desire and attention necessary to please, you can never please.

I am very sure that any man of common understanding may, by proper culture, care, attention, and labour, make himself whatever he pleases, except a good poet.”