Monthly Archives: March 2011

Madame Tussaud Giveaway

Since it’s Monday and I’ve been a little light on posts lately, I thought I’d pass along a giveway for an exciting new book, Madame Tussaud by Michelle Moran.  Histficchick is putting it on and also throwing in a cheeky pair of Eat Cake Marie Antoinette earrings so  hurry on over and enter!  You have until 11:59 PST on Friday, April 1st to sign up for your chance to win.

In case the name sounds familiar, Madame Tussaud is indeed the wax sculptress who founded the famous wax works musuem.  The details of Tussaud’s long life are fascinating:  entre into Versailles and the court of Louis XIV, survivor of the French Revolution, travelling businesswoman, and much, much more.  The novel spans the years of 1788-1794, amidst France’s tumultous time of the storming of the Bastille, the imprisonment and beheading of the royal family, and the birth of the Republic.

Devotees of Marie Antoinette will also appreciate the doomed queen’s appearance as the review for publisher’s weekly states Antoinette  “in particular becomes a surprisingly dimensional figure rather than the fashionplate, spendthrift caricature depicted in the pamphlets of her times.” 

Marilyn Monroe, Greuze’s Reincarnation

When one considers the iconic Marilyn Monroe, images of breathy sexuality come to mind.  There’s Marilyn, demure yet daring as a rush of hot air from a subway grate lifts her pleated, white dress; Marlilyn wrapped in a cloud of snowy mink, her lips pursed and blood-red; Marilyn in a glittering sylph-skin dress, leaving nothing to the imagination as she sings her breathy rendtion of “Happy Birthday, Mr. President.”

The Marilyn shown in many images is the actress, laying her fame before her fans.  Sexy.  Untouchable.  Make believe.  To the curious, another tale is told, powerful in the way of fallen angels rooted in the untenable ground. 

Anyone who has delved behind the facade of her celebrity knows her public persona is the least interesting part about her.  Her world weariness, her increasing doll-like sadness and impressionable hope carve out the figure of a woman at odds with herself.  She exists in the wrong time or place, fragile against an onslaught of teetering self-perception and the need for constant improvement.  With her large, glistening eyes full of unrestrained trust and feeling, she is a throwback from another century: the 18th century.  She is, as the man who produced some of her best photographs put it, an incarnation of the famous French painter, Jean-Baptiste Greuze.

Voluptousness (Girl with Dove), Jean-Baptiste Greuze, 1790

The 2010 book Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters recalls a session with the legendary photgographer, Cecil Beaton:

“[He] saw her as a very paradoxical figure, a siren, a tightrope walker, a femme fatale and naive child, the last incarnation of an 18th century face in a portrait by Greuze living in the very contemporary world of nylons, sodas, jukeboxes and drive ins.”  

I can’t help but see this myself.  The reflection is somewhere in the eyes: wide, feeling pools waiting for the touch of the world–or hiding what has already been touched.  Like Marilyn, Greuze’s figures are commonly clutching something to their breasts–an animal, a ribbon–giving viewers the sense of connection and shelter, exposure and quiet fear.

Young Girl in a Lilac Tunic, Greuze

Marilyn’s favorite photograph of herself as shown in ‘The Last Days of Marilyn Monroe’ was one of honesty and vulnerability. It was taken by Beaton on February 22, 1956.  As Fragments describes it, “This photograph is . . . an improvisation.  Marilyn pulled this carnation from a bouquet to put in her mouth like a cigarette, only later lying one  sofa to place the flower on her breast in a gesture of protection and gift.”  For a woman notorious for pre-approving which photographs were available to the public, this is a surprising choice.  Like Greuze’s paintings, it is tender and idealized, nothing like the glaring (un)reality of Marilyn’s last sitting by Bert Stern.

Humphry Repton: Landscape Gardener and Jane Austen Inspirer

From Austen’s Mansfield Park:

In a recession society, stories of entrepreneurs “making it” after years of financial struggles and doomsday predictions are our psychological bread and butter.  Underdogs, late bloomers, scrappy fighters turned self-made–we love them.  Although removed from us by time and space, Humphry Repton, the 18th century’s last great English landscape gardener, was such a man. 

To call him a jack of all trades would be an understatement. Repton was great at two things, one of which was failing in professional pursuits.  When he was 12, his parents shipped him off to the Netherlands to cultivate his mercantile sensibilities . . . of which he had none.  Instead he was artsy, born. . .

He apprenticed as a textile merchant and set up his own shop, proving his stint at falling short of success was more than an abbreviated trend.  In 1778, his dismal lack of accomplishment magnified by his parent’s recent death, Humphry left his family home of Norwich, and treaded a course of trades in his new domicile of Sustead.  Among them, he was secretary to Lord Lieutenant of Ireland (briefly), a journalist, a political agent (read: consultant and possibly unemployed), a dramatist, an artist, a reformer of mail coach system,  etc., etc.  In short, the fellow lost a lot of capital.

Fast forward ten years to 1788.  Our dear Humphry is 36, broke, and a father to four children.  Earlier in his youth while training to be a merchant, he’d hobnobbed with a wealthy Dutch family wherein he acquired a penchant for botanical sketches.  This interest later played a pivotal role in his future when his botanist friend, James Edward Smith, encouraged him to study the subject for who is Repton’s neighbor in Sustead but Mr. Wyndham, owner of a vast library containing works on botany.  What luck!  Mr. Wyndham was also coincidentally named Lord Lieutenant of Ireland during their acquaintance which explains Repton’s secretarial work.   

This is the point where everthing changes for Repton.  After years of floundering, he has acquired three avenues that point toward his future success:  a network of wealthy, high class individuals (who, of course, require gardens), access to the right information, and a compendium of personal experience achieved through improving upon his own country property in Sustead.  Humphry Repton, dignified landscape gardner is thus born.

Armed with no real horticultural experince, it comes as somewhat of a suprise that Repton’s designs, displayed through his watercolors, were an immediate  sensation.  What made Repton different from his peers was his ability to work with an established character and situation of a  house and its adjoining landscape.  He improved upon designs of other artists, choosing to deviate from a garden’s traditionally straight paths by opening up natural vistas to incorporate bordering architecture, say a church spire, or compelling topography, such as rolling hills, into his scheme.  He published “Red Books”, landscape designs reminiscent of “before” and “after” makeovers found in today’s fashion magazines.  Although he received criticism by others in his profession for his straightforward, simple designs, he worked with nature’s dictates, not against them.  As a result, his work was made more affordable because he didn’t tear out existing structure, but modified, added, and enhanced.  Neither informed by asceticism nor our modern sense of minimalism, he approached his design with the pragmatism common today.  This is apparent in the Red Book of Stanage Park:

 An impressive “before” and “after” of Harleston House and Park, illustrating improvments in symmetry and balanced architecture, is shown below:

Regarding Jane Austen

During Repton’s thirty years as a landscape architect, he gained over 400 commissions and worked on a number of beautiful 18th century estates, some of which are mentioned in Jane Austen’s novels (Blaise Castle, for example).   Austen was no stranger to Repton herself, having seen Adlestrop house in person,  and was known to be an admirer of his work.  Mr. Darcy’s Pemberly house is Repton personified:

ELIZABETH , as they drove along, watched for the first appearance of Pemberley Woods with some perturbation; and when at length they turned in at the lodge, her spirits were in a high flutter.

The park was very large, and contained great variety of ground. They entered it in one of its lowest points, and drove for some time through a beautiful wood, stretching over a wide extent.

“Elizabeth ‘s mind was too full for conversation, but she saw and admired every remarkable spot and point of view. They gradually ascended for half a mile, and then found themselves at the top of a considerable eminence, where the wood ceased, and the eye was instantly caught by Pemberley House, situated on the opposite side of a valley, into which the road with some abruptness wound. It was a large, handsome, stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills; — and in front, a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance. Its banks were neither formal, nor falsely adorned. Elizabeth was delighted. She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste. They were all of them warm in their admiration; and at that moment she felt, that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!

They descended the hill, crossed the bridge, and drove to the door; and, while examining the nearer aspect of the house, all her apprehensions of meeting its owner returned. She dreaded lest the chambermaid had been mistaken. On applying to see the place, they were admitted into the hall; and Elizabeth , as they waited for the housekeeper, had leisure to wonder at her being where she was.

The housekeeper came; a respectable-looking, elderly woman, much less fine, and more civil, than she had any notion of finding her. They followed her into the dining-parlour. It was a large, well-proportioned room, handsomely fitted up. Elizabeth , after slightly surveying it, went to a window to enjoy its prospect. The hill, crowned with wood, from which they had descended, receiving increased abruptness from the distance, was a beautiful object. Every disposition of the ground was good; and she looked on the whole scene, the river, the trees scattered on its banks, and the winding of the valley, as far as she could trace it, with delight.”

 For more on Repton and Austen, visit these links


Murder and Moral Dissection

In case you don’t read the New York Times Book Reviews (which you should, I should, we all should!), here’s me clueing you in on novel involving “a forbidding country estate and the unlikely forensic duo who set out to uncover its deadly secrets.”  I like the NY Times’ snappy tagline better–CSI: Georgian England–but the book description is pretty deuced appealing:

 “In the year 1780, Harriet Westerman, the willful mistress of a country manor in Sussex, finds a dead man on her grounds with a ring bearing the crest of Thornleigh Hall in his pocket. Not one to be bound by convention or to shy away from adventure, she recruits a reclusive local anatomist named Gabriel Crowther to help her find the murderer, and historical suspense’s newest investigative duo is born. . .”

One reviewer on Goodreads described it as:

“Jane Austen fans will quickly associate Harriet Westerman with Mrs. Croft, the captain’s wife from “Persuasion.” She has traveled, seen war, is outspoken and not to be put off.  Her younger sister, Rachel Trench, is “Jane Eyre,” in her attraction to the war-wounded Hugh Thornleigh, younger brother of the missing Alexander and the Mr. Rochester of our story. Gabriel Crowther is a scientist, and something of a recluse until being pulled into the investigation by Harriet and his own curious mind.”  

Sounds like there’s a bit of a romance plot tucked away amid murder and mayhem, but frankly any 18th century novel sparks my interest.  As far as I’m concerned, they’re far and a few between for a century teetering on social unrest, scintillatings scandals, and the last hurrah of the landed English aristocrats.

Historical Basis

Of particular interest in Instruments of Darkness is Robertson’s decision to frame the novel around the Gordon Riots, which on the night of June 2, 1780 were the spectacularly violent culmination of anti-catholic sentiments stirred by the Papists acts of 1788 (i.e. on wiki: an imposed oath, “which besides a declaration of loyalty to the reigning sovereign, contained an abjuration of the Pretender, and of certain doctrines attributed to Catholics, as that excommunicated princes may lawfully be murdered, that no faith should be kept with heretics, and that the Pope has temporal as well as spiritual jurisdiction in Britain.”  

Here’s five reasons why Instruments of Darkness is worth your time:

  • Reminiscent of Austen and Bronte?  Sold!  Based upon the myriad incarnations of Mr. Darcy (Vampire, Sultan, Leprechaun Slayer) and the endless Jane Eyre movies, you’re curious how underappreciated characters might be reimagined.
  • Dickens tackled the Gordon Riots in Barnaby Rudge and you, literary aficionado, want to see how Robertson stacks up.
  • Did you miss the CSI: Georgian England part?
  • You love a strong heroine–Harriet Westerman, the willful mistress. . . 
  • You read Tess Gerritsen or Anne Perry, the cross of which (as suggested) gives us Imogen Robertson.

I need your help!  I’m thinking of creating of two 18th century reading compendiums for this site, one including novels actually dating from the period and the other compiling historicals occuring during the period.  If you have any suggestions, please leave them in the comments and I will thank you ever so much.

Example of Embroidered Shoes, 1740

Bonhams on New Bond Street in London is selling an exquisite pair of shoes dating back to the mid 18th century.  A notetable example of finely preserved embroidery, they’re worth a closer look.  The shoes are a part of the Richmond Extensive Needlework Collection which, among various 16th and 17th century works, includes the following 18th century pieces of interest:

Bonhams itself has 18th century origins.  Established in 1793, the auction house is one of the last remaining antique dealers hailing from the Georgian period.  It was founded by an antique print dealer and a book specialist.