Monthly Archives: February 2013

Through the Fish Bowl: A Girl at a Window

The fish bowl within a fish bowl feel; the drapery flowing out the girl’s window, mirroring the sinuous cloth depicted in the stonework below the ledge; the bird in a cage canopied with greenery–what mysteries are embodied in this grisaille by Louis-Leopold Boilly?

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The ribald scene forbidden to the viewer is exposed to the young girl and a companionable boy. They spy through their binoculars activities curiouser to the boy than the girl, but does their observation signify a loss of innocence? A commonplace distraction to relieve their boredom?

I find a striking sense of innocence and depravity in the work. The engraving beneath the ledge (where the girl rests in pale splendor) is an indication of passions but not ecstasies: A young maiden, swooning and looking scarcely conscious in the arms of a brutish man, their party of many joined by an opportunist (yet another?) The girl looks cleverly acquainted with the situation.

What do you see, readers? Have any thoughts on what root vegetable hangs above the fish bowl? Or what’s in the stoppered bottle? Tell me all about it!

18th Century Beauty Rituals: Chicken Skin Gloves

A model white complexion, 18th century
Portrait of a Lady, English School, late 18th century From: Dreweatts, Pictures from the Collection of Tony Hayes, Donnington UK

Although the term “blueblood” did not enter the lexicon until 1838, ladies and gentlemen alike had been inspecting their skin for whiteness since Egyptians slathered themselves with powdered lead. Skin bleaching creams gained widespread usage in medieval Europe, and the frenzy for milky complexions lasted through the 1920s when the siren Josephine Baker showed Paris just how beautiful caramel could be. Even Coco Chanel, ever the forerunner of trends, contributed to what would later become the tanning craze when she got sunburned in 1923 aboard a yacht in Cannes. Once she returned home, bronze was officially all the rage.

One would be hard-pressed, however, to convince a 18th century aristocrat of the merits of tanning. Laborers and peasants were browned by the sun, not lords or ladies. Those born pale and rich suffered little to keep what nature had provided, so long as they remained vigilant. Any lady shrieking at the sight of a liver spot or—demme me!—a freckle had restorative options such as elderflower water or cover-up in the form of powdered white lead.

18th Century lady
LVIII by Sergei Solomko

Since ancient Greece, white lead had killed many a vain female, and by the 18th century, husbands were advising against its use. By then the powder used to achieve the sophisticated Elizabethan look had fallen to the purview of courtesans and the French at Louis’s court.

While considering my heroine’s situation in Shadow Fire Lady, I dealt with this twin prejudice of her wanting smooth, pale skin while at the same time not wanting to use cosmetics that screamed “trollop”.  As an émigré, Thea had the misfortune to appear in London, penniless, French, and decidedly not a courtesan. Desperate for employment, she worked a short-stint as a laundress—labor being a true enemy of poreless, seamless skin. This was a time when the city was clogged with aristocrats who’d lost their right to pale and had to venture beyond gilded doors to earn their next meal.

I imagine Thea would’ve laughed at the idea of chicken skin gloves, but their popularity was quite remarkable. From the 1600s all the way through the reign of George III, they were considered essential in preserving beauty for both women and men.

Despite their name, they weren’t entirely composed of chicken skin—the inherently nubbled flesh being an understandable drawback—but instead were a combination of unborn calf-skin for smoothness and chicken skin for whiteness. (How did chicken skin contribute to whiteness?  No idea).  Due to their place of manufacture, the gloves gained the nickname “limericks” and a major selling point was the fact their delicacy afforded them a novel ability. They folded easily inside a walnut shell.

In his book Gloves:Their Annals and Associations: recounting an imagined history from the New Bath Guide, S. William Beck shared a poem about chicken skin gloves:

18th Century Study of a Fowl
Study of a Fowl, Lateral View, with skin and underlying facial layers removed, from ‘A Comparative Anatomical Exposition of the Structure of the Human Body with that of a Tiger and a Common Fowl’ | George Stubbs

“Come, but don’t forget the gloves
Which, with all the smiling loves,
Venus caught young Cupid picking
From the tender breast of chicken;
Little chicken, worthier far,
Than the birds of Juno’s car,
Soft as Cytherea’s dove,
Let thy skin my skin improve;
Thou by night shalt grace my arm,
And by day shalt teach to charm.”

He also recounts the extremes fashionistas would resort to in order to flaunt their best face. Makes me wonder what methods he left out: “. . . it was but a mild measure to lard the face over at night, nothing extraordinary to wear gloves lined with unguents, or to cover the face with a mask plastered inside with a perfumed pomade to preserve the complexion. Some steeped slices of raw veal for some hours in milk and laid them on the face. Young and tender beauties bathed in milk; beauties who were no longer young, and far from tender, bathed in wine or some other astringent.”

Raw veal?  Ugh.

Dearest readers, what do you think of this chicken skin business?  Not only were gloves manufactured, but chicken skin fans too.  Were you an 18th century lord or lady, would you don them at night and maybe, just maybe, transport them in a hand-painted walnut?   Let me know.  I’d love to hear what you think.

Review: Shadow on the Crown by Patricia Bracewell

Back in college when I was getting my BA in English Literature I took a linguistics class on Old English.  Among being taught to translate OE and finding that it was lovely to articulate guttural sounds of “wergild” and “wyrd”, we also learned about Ӕthelred the Unready.  Nice fellow, but first some background.

Ӕthelred was king of England from 978 to 1016.  He produced an abundance of male issue and fought ferociously with the Danes in a time when the chill air of the British Isles was misted with English and Danish blood.  He also had an elder brother, King Edward, who was murdered when he was 10.

In Patricia Bracewell’s book, he has issues.

Emma of Normandy, the sister of Richard II, Duke of Normandy, is his third wife.  Young, beautiful, and, at 15 years old, unprepared for the trials that await her, Emma is Ӕthelred’s latest “wyrd” or fate.  (*History geek squee* You will learn some OE words reading Bracewell’s novel.  If this is your thing, read on.)

As the protagonist in a tale rife with villains, Emma is a likable character, but she’s no Mary Sue.  She marries pluck with poise, intellect with equanimity, and she’s a challenge for her king, who behaves like a spoiled man-child whenever he faces fear or opposition.  It’s been ages since I wanted to skewer a character beneath the nearest portcullis, but Ӕthelred is an irredeemable beast.

Fortunately, another villain waits in the shadows, one that has the potential to fascinate.  Elgiva is Emma’s constant foe, the femme-fatale who tries to outwit and out-seduce her queen.  I warmed up to Elgiva first before gradually thinking the proper punishment for her might be an oubliette.   She is a vain, opportunistic witch.  This is also her charm.  I couldn’t help thinking of Anne Boleyn minus the sympathy factor.  Elgiva’s brother and father use her to their advantage, but Elgiva is more than willing to pay any price to ascend to her rightful place to the throne.  (This is the problem of believing you will be queen, Elgiva: those thoughts get stuck in your head.)

Ultimately, even though Elgiva is strong-willed, the ethos of the age is against her.  This is the hardship every woman in the novel must bear.   Athelstan, Ӕthelred’s eldest son and Emma’s love interest, sums it up best when he reflects on his late mother: “Her impact upon her sons and daughters had been of no greater weight than that made by a single snowflake when it touches the earth.  She had been but a shadow in their lives, almost invisible in the far larger shadow cast by their father, the king.”

If you’re blissfully unaware of early English history, you’ll wonder if Emma’s fate as potential mother to the crown and queen will be the same.  This theme of making one’s mark despite disadvantages is integral to every major character, and Emma gives her best effort.  Whether or not she will triumph is the subject of later books, as Shadow on theCrown is a trilogy.

Verdict

The only real difficulty I had with the novel was the amount of events covered in short frames of time, the effect being the story sometimes had a fast-forward feel.  Shadow on the Crown is based on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and the author incorporates periods in Emma’s life which must be largely imagined due to lack of period sources directly related to the queen.  The history is vast, and the cast list comprises a big party, to say the least.

Conversely, one of my favorite aspects to Shadow on the Crown is how I frequently recollected other stories:  Macbeth (when Ӕthelred is ridden with fraternal guilt) and Le Morte d’Arthur (with Elgiva – Morgan le Fay, Athelstan – Lancelot, Emma – Guinevere, and Ӕthelred – decidely not King Arthur).  Whether this was intentional or not, novels that refer to previous literary works have a richness and depth to them and Shadow on the Crown satisfies in this regard.

Bottom line is, if you’ve a soft spot for historicals, particularly about medieval queens and periods seldom explored in fiction, Bracewell’s debut novel is a pleasurable read.

Goodreads Book Description:

A rich tale of power and forbidden love revolving around a young medieval queen

In 1002, fifteen­-year-old Emma of Normandy crosses the Narrow Sea to wed the much older King Athelred of England, whom she meets for the first time at the church door. Thrust into an unfamiliar and treacherous court, with a husband who mistrusts her, stepsons who resent her and a bewitching rival who covets her crown, Emma must defend herself against her enemies and secure her status as queen by bearing a son.

Determined to outmaneuver her adversaries, Emma forges alliances with influential men at court and wins the affection of the English people. But her growing love for a man who is not her husband and the imminent threat of a Viking invasion jeopardize both her crown and her life.

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