Category Archives: Where History Intersects

An 18th Century Perspective on Elizabeth Bennet

In anticipation of an upcoming review I’ve been reading Susannah Fullerton’s Celebrating Pride and Prejudice: 200 Years of Jane Austen’s Masterpiece.  I’ll be posting the full review on December 16th, Jane Austen’s 237th birthday, but in the meantime, I wanted to share with you an 18th century perspective that shows just how incredible the character of Elizabeth Bennet truly was.

Unproven portrait of Jane Austen at Bath, age 15 | Johann Zofanny
Unproven portrait of Jane Austen at Bath, age 15 | Johann Zofanny

Jane Austen started writing Pride and Prejudice in October 1796 at the age of twenty.  She would no doubt have been exposed to the popular publications of the period, including the ever so entertaining Lady’s Magazine: or, Entertaining Companion for the Fair Sex.  A few years prior to Austen putting pen to paper for what was then called First Impressions, The Lady’s Magazine published in their 1791 edition “A Letter from a Father to his Daughter on Relative Duties,” part of which is excerpted below.

“Of all the weaknesses the younger part of your sex are most prone to are pride and affectation, and there are none scarce which render more contemptible in the eyes of the thinking and sensible part mankind; therefore as you value the esteem of your friends, crush them in the bud.  The ingenious Mr Addison says “Pride in a woman destroys all symmetry and grace; and affectation is a more terrible enemy to a fine face than the small pox.  

And yet there is no passion so universal or steals into the heart more imperceptibly than pride; at the same time, there is not a single view of human nature, under its present condition, which is not sufficient to extinguish in us all the secret seeds of pride.  As nothing appears more odious and disgusting than pride and affectation, to nothing is more amiable in your sex than humility; it adds a beauty to every feature and a luster to all your action.”*

These epistolary tutelages served as continual nudges against youthful waywardness, advising sons on achievement in politics and education, and daughters on obedience and humility.  Based on works they produced, writers like the young Jane Austen must have felt the thorn in these infuriatingly narrow instructions at one time or another.

From 'Pride and Prejudice' film showing Jane and Elizabeth | 2005
From ‘Pride and Prejudice’ film showing Jane and Elizabeth | 2005

Elizabeth Bennet was a character written from the breed of proud, independently-minded women who were mightily disapproved of by the majority of gentlemen (and a whole lot of gentlewomen) during the 18th century. She is, in many ways, diametrically opposed to the ideal gentlewoman and her genius, of course, is in being appealing nevertheless.  As Fullerton says, “She was a highly unconventional, new sort of heroine, and it is easy for modern readers to underestimate just how astonishing she was for readers of the time.”  What’s interesting is that Austen made Elizabeth THE favorite daughter of her father and despite all obstacles of temperament, she is our heroine.  As Fullerton points out, according to the values of the time Jane Bennet would’ve been the appropriate choice.  I think we can all say thank goodness she wasn’t Austen’s choice, as today only Elizabeth would be ours.

*Find the full letter on page 42 here

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Comte de Buffon: Not to be Confused with Buffoon

“Genius is only a greater aptitude for patience”

by François-Hubert Drouais (1753)

The Leclercs

Late in his life the prolific French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, wrote that he had inherited his intellect and morality from his mother, Anne-Christine Marlin.  Considering the day’s specious arguments against female intellectualism, this was a significant acknowledgement from one’s eldest son.  It said more about Buffon than his noble-born mother, for whom few facts beyond birth, marriage, and death have been recorded.  It should be noted that she was older than Buffon’s father, Benjamin-Francois Leclerc, and that she performed an essential role.  Like many wives who were once abiding daughters, she afforded the bourgeois Leclercs a rung from the aristocratic staircase.  Her circumstances were advantageous, to say the least.  Her uncle Georges Blaisot had married but produced no children.  He’d made his fortune as the tax collector to the Duke of Savoy and without a prospective heir had promised its munificent blessings to Anne-Christine.  For the Leclercs, such was a lucky match.

Upon the marriage in 1706, the Leclercs gained a considerable dowry and a pledge that wealth would come.   The reward arrived no sooner than ten years after the birth of Buffon in 1707.  In this manner, the Marlin-Leclerc union was cut from an established pattern of French upward mobility.  Their slow but sure ascent–erstwhile achieved through the graduating stations of laborers, barber-surgeon, doctor, and judge–had secured swift elevation only when Buffon’s father, a lawyer, had the funds to acquire Buffon’s namesake village and nearby manor title at Montbard.  Generations of social maneuvering and the family had arrived via the right plot of land.

“Parc Buffon a Montbard” by Pline
Buffon’s permanent residence

The Formative Years

Buffon owed his placement in the world to his patient forebears, but from there he built a life of science, devoting his hours to observation and study.  His family’s rise was not uncommon in the Ancien Regime, but how far he grew from his birth was nothing short of inspiring.  One would be hard-pressed to find a more disciplined man.  That being said, his path to success was hardly linear.  His grandfather was a judge, his father a counselor in the Burgundian parliament.  As the eldest son, Buffon was expected to continue the tradition and he was, for as long as he could bear, a good son.

It should be remarked that Buffon showed no early signs of brilliance and was, in fact, a middling law student.  His matriculations at the Jesuit College of Godrans and University of Dijon did not impress upon his teachers any peculiarity in aptitude.  He was, in all proficiencies, normal.  His entry to the University of Angers in 1728 and abandonment of the law in favor of biology and mathematics heralded a series of disappointments.  But switching vocations was by no means THE egregious act.  Buffon, like many young men of his stature, was tempted by vice and sloth and, on occasion, tended toward impetuosity in manner.  After a heated love affair, which we must assume ended badly, Buffon engaged in a duel with an officer.  The transgression got him expelled from university and, quite rightly, he panicked.  He fled to Nantes, the temporary residence of his friend and English nobleman, the Duke of Kingston, for relief.  After a brief interlude of “Sacre Dieu! What have I done?” they agreed the next logical step in Buffon’s career was a Grand Tour.  Buffon, it seemed, was becoming a proper gentleman, just as his family had wished.

Rome Ruins of the Forum, Looking Towards the Capitol, Canaletto (1742)

After several seasons in France, Italy, and Switzerland, however, the 25 year old Buffon returned to France, but his was no happy homecoming.  In his absence his mother had died.  His father had remarried and made off with Buffon’s inheritance.  The dispute that followed resulted in permanent estrangement of father and son, but the courts favored Buffon.  It was a propitious decision.  He would need independent means to succeed in his lifelong undertaking.

Beyond Infamy

Against the odds, Buffon had matured into a man of enormous energies and discipline.  His schedule, even in the presence of dignified guests like Thomas Jefferson, tolerated few deviations.  Every morning he rose at 5 am (an ungodly hour for an aristocrat).  Unlike many of his peers, he wrote in French, the people’s language, and eschewed Latin.  Despite his evident concern for accessibility, he also yearned for respect and was willing to work vigorously to that end.  His papers on the timber industry were revolutionary.  A publication on probability theory earned him an invitation to join the Royal Academy of Sciences.  In the interim, he translated Newton’s Method of Fluxions and infinite series and Stephen Hales’s Vegetable Staticks.  By 1739, he’d caught the attention of the King.  Louis XV was impressed by the young polymath’s contributions and, as it just so happened, he needed a new director for his garden (the previous lay dying).  A well placed recommendation and Buffon was named intendant of the Jardin du Roi.  Never mind that he wasn’t exactly a naturalist yet.

Buffon’s legacy at the Jardin du Roi (later Jardin des plantes) from an 1820 bookplate

Noted for his execution and forethought, Buffon had every intention of distinguishing himself in his new endeavor.  What he envisioned during his tenure with the king went beyond a mere garden.  His fifty year plan involved producing a microcosm of natural history, as much as the king’s funds and amiability would allow.  He added galleries, hothouses, and a school of botany, doubling the size of the garden.  Under his brilliant direction, the garden experienced unprecedented growth and led Buffon to fully develop his skills in botany and zoology.

But city life was not for Buffon.  In the 1750s he announced that retiring from Paris for half the year suited him splendidly.   During the spring and summer, he would reside in the country, devoting himself to study and experimentation.  His funds secure, his holdings increasing beyond his initial inheritance, he set a goal to publish 50 volumes on natural history–no small feat given that he rejected Carl Linnaeus’s classification system of binomial nomenclature (“Overly simplistic,” he might have groaned).  By the time of his death, he wrote his way through 36 volumes, describing everything from formation of the earth to mating habits of pigeons.  Today he is known for these books and the unconventional ideas he championed in them.

From Natural Histories

Although the eighteenth century was the Age of Enlightenment, it was steeped in creationism.   Pre-Darwin, an undisputed belief had been set forth that all living organisms existing at the end of God’s seventh day of creation existed currently.  Buffon rejected this notion wholeheartedly.  He put his faith in evolution, hypothesizing that environment determined variation, and he dared to compare, if not outright relate, the orangutan to man.*  A Newtonian admirer, he nevertheless rejected the assertion that God developed the natural world and that the earth was 50,000 years old.  Rather, Buffon attributed all earthly and cosmic phenomena to natural events.  His experiments with cooling two dozen one-inch globes to predict the age of the earth are a testament to his ingenuity, even if his methods were imprecise by today’s standards.  To suggest that the earth’s age went beyond Newton’s estimation of 50,000 years, that it possibly continued into the millions, if not infinity, remained heretical, which was the primary reason Buffon published his figure of 74,832 years, adding, “the more we extend the time, the closer we shall be to the truth.”

His Legacy

Buffon’s contributions relied upon his incessant questioning of accepted truths.  He was the people’s scientist before the peoples’ time, raising interest in naturalism and thus the self.  As the first writer to make popular science a bestseller, his exhaustive work Histoire Naturelles enjoyed reprints throughout the 19th century.  These texts proved his true heirs when his flesh and blood heir failed.

Regardless of his solitary nature and his single-minded pursuit of knowledge, he did manage to marry in 1752.  He was 45; his wife barely twenty.  They produced an heir in 1764, but five years later his wife was dead.  Many speculated on the axiom “like father, like son”, but the future Comte de Buffon’s fate was harsh.   In contrary fashion to his father, Buffon junior showed an early brilliance that quickly winked out.  He toured, like his father, across Europe but the experience created a prodigal, rather than a productive, son.  Buffon senior died one year before the storming of the Bastille–a kindness, for his son’s neck caught the edge of a guillotine.  The social ascendancy Buffon’s ancestors had toiled for had fallen victim to the revolution.  But Buffon’s ideas, his indelible mark on the sciences, got to live on.

From Natural Histories

*Orang-outang meant “wild man” in its native language.  Of man’s relation, Buffon said this:

“In the history of the orang-outang we shall find that if figure alone be regarded, we might consider this animal as the first of apes or the most imperfect of men because, except the intellect, the orang-outang wants nothing that we possess, and in his body differs less from man than from the other animals which receive the denomination of apes. Hence, mind, reflection, and language depend not on figure or on the organization of the body. These are endowments peculiar to man. The orang-outang, though he neither thinks nor speaks, has a body, members, senses a brain, and a tongue perfectly similar to those of man.”

Ladies in Turkish Dress: A Visual Feast

For all of you celebrating Thanksgiving, I wish you a feast of delights, and to those of you who aren’t, I hope your week brings you something to celebrate, in edible fashion or otherwise.

The Grand Turk Giving a Concert to his Mistress, Carle Van Loo (1737)
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in Turkish Dress, Jean Etienne Liotart (1756)
After her stay in Constantinople with her husband, the British Ambassador, Mary brought Turkish dress, along with “The Secret Language of Flowers”, to Britain.
Lady Sunderlin, Sir Joshua Reynolds (1786)
Notice the Turkish details? They’re creeping in
Marie-Adelaide of France dressed in turkish costume, Etienne Liotard (1753)
Turkish woman with a tambourine, Etienne Liotard (1738-43)

A Breech or a Travesty? When Actresses Wore the Pants

Mrs. Robinson was known to don breeches.  Her compeers Dorothea Jordan, Anne Oldfield, and Charlotte Charke likewise shimmied out of stays prior to treading across the boards, and they did so with considerable aplomb. Increasingly they and others in their select group were part of a tradition that reversed another tradition–men playing women’s roles–that dated back to ancient Greece.

David Garrick in Vanbrugh’s The Provoked Wife — Johann Zoffany (1763)

Here and there instances of women in pants are recorded, but as much as modern readers might find actresses traipsing around in breeches a liberation of sorts, it didn’t gain favor with the general western populace until the 20th century.

Despite an excess of cross-dressing heroines in literature, women rarely surrendered their skirts, either at home or, as we are presently concerned, on the stage.  In fact, before the Restoration such a thing would’ve been verboten.  All throughout the Middle Ages and the English Renaissance, boy players dolled up their faces, but fashion, as always, was in flux.  By the end of 1661, women were once again permitted on the stage, and, as one may expect wherever the rib of Adam* is involved, the sexualizing of breeches roles commenced.

An Actress At Her Toilet, or Miss Brazen Just Breecht — John Collet (1779)
Playbill states: “and the part of Capt. Macheath by Miss”

Perception and Reception

The sharp outline of buttocks and thighs, not to mention the inherent amusement in perverting society’s established dress code, titillated many, but not all found breeches roles charming.  In 1702, the premiere of Nicolas Boindin’s Bal d’Auteuil was met with outrage.  To her great indignation, the Duchesse d’Orleans (who—let’s be honest—appears no stranger to idle amusements here) had to suffer through a shocking lesbian flirtation wherein two girls in men’s clothes meet, and, each truly believing the other the opposite sex, make unseemly overtures.  However common breeches roles were at this stage, Boindin’s comedic attempt went miserably awry.  At his youngest daughter’s insistence, Louis XIV announced that officials would be appointed to approve every play prior to production and naughty intrigues were forced to darker places.

Mrs. Jordan in the Character of Hypolita (1791)
Mezzotint by John Jones after John Hoppner portrait of Dorothea Jordan

Under the Clouds of an English Sky

Although actresses ‘usurped man’s prerogative’* by endeavoring to play breeches roles, rules existed to distinguish the actresses as female.  Lest anyone remain confused, the beguiling Monsieur Incognito was to expose her honest assets, typically an ankle or a snowy breast, thereby reaffirming the act as merely a fetish* of women in menswear.  Because the actress unmasked herself during the play, the impersonation was harmless.  Her virile performance aroused and regaled, and in most cases, she did not appall her audience.   Travesty roles, on the other hand, took the artifice to a deeper level, chipping away at the rudimentary distinction between men and women that some found distinctly distasteful.

The great travesty actress of the 18th century was Charlotte Charke, née Cibber.  She will be the subject of an upcoming post, so I don’t wish to spoil her larks with anecdotal abundance, but the most pressing fact I will share is this: she was the only actress of her time to assume a masculine identity both  onstage and off.  Unlike breeches roles, which she learned in 1733-34, travesty parts were sly in that they never revealed the true sex of the actor.  There was no exposure, no wink-wink, nod-nod, followed by gay laughter all about.  By necessity the actress was not a classical beauty.  Rather, she was masculine by virtue of vigor, bearing, or, in the best cases, both.

Dictum number one stated that she had to pull off the role without anyone being the wiser during performance, and as luck would have it, Charlotte Charke excelled in this.  She possessed what might be described an Italian boyishness: dark, slanting brows; wide, hooded eyes; and a strong nose set atop smaller lips.  Not an unattractive look by any means, but one that caused young ladies to swoon at the sensitivity inherent in such a gentle mien.  As Charke writes in her memoirs, she was even “the unhappy object of love in a young lady, whose fortune was beyond all earthly power to deprive her of, had it been possible for me to have been what she designed me, nothing less than her husband.”  But there were also punishments for straying too far outside conventionality.  When Charlotte died in 1760, she was penniless, estranged from her late father, Colley Cibber, and merely a footnote in history until a 21st century interest in cross-dressing and homosexuality resurrected her as a cause célèbre.

*Rib of Adam was a justification in the Gentleman’s Magazine The Actress of Usurper of Man’s Prerogativefor why women chose to play male parts.  This seemed sensible to them since, as women were a part of men, women would logically at some point wish to emulate them at one point or another:  “Even in those who are most gently feminine there remains an inkling of the primeval rib, only needing a special environment for complete development. . .  When woman assumed her proper position in the economy of the theatre, a subtle atavism induced her to retaliate.  Having tasted blood in ‘breeches parts’,” like Rosalind, she was not content until she had fastened her teeth in sternly virile roles.”  

*I almost hate to call it a fetish because it seems quite ordinary today, but the sexualization of women in menswear persists.  Starched white businessman’s shirt, naked woman underneath, firstly comes to mind.

Sex Education for Women Circa 1802

In this early 19th century version of “the video” females of all ages, from a grandmother to a child who must stand on her tiptoes to view the exhibition, come to learn from the wax-work pregnant woman, her womb and fetus exposed by cut-away flesh beneath a glass box.

“O famous wax-work!” states the satirical poem below, “Where our fair ones come, Like female Neros made to see a womb, To hear fine Lectures, read on Generation, And all the Arts explain’d of Procreation.”

The figurines entwined in erotic embraces on the side table serve as further instruction for the curious ladies who, much to the chagrin of those remembering “politer times”, are eagerly “Exploring in the sight of all the world, The dark Receptacle from whence we’re hurl’d.”

The Poem:

In days of Yore, when modesty reign’d here,
Virgins were bashful, Matrons were severe;
None knew then what it was to chat with Men,
Or in smart Billets-doux to use the pen.
Sermons and Psalm-Books much employ’d their time,
Nor, save the latter, read they ought in Rhime.
If e’er they wrote, ’twas when some choice Receipt 
Was found to cure a Cough, or toss up Meat;
Such th’ Assiduous House-wife sought with Care,
And in her Books preserv’d as Treasure rare.
Each Woman then, the Glory of her Spouse,
Look’d to his Wealth, and constant kept his House.
Decent her Garb; her Language true and plain;
She heightened ev’ry Joy, and softened ev’ry Pain.
 
In our politer times, the Female Race
An easier mode of Living [by] far embrace.
No more such arduous Methods Women try,
But with the Men in thirst of Pleasure vie:
Like them, they Ride, they Walk, nay Rake and Drink,
And seldom say their Prayers, or deign to Think.
Thus rub thro’ Life, forgetful of its End;
By none Befriended, and to none a Friend;
Wild without Wit, from Spleen — not Judgment — grave;
Despising Faith, but to her Lusts a Slave.
Each courtly Wanton wanders thro’ her Time,
And feels Declension ere she reach her Prime.
 
But of all Follies, sure the last and worst
Is that with which our learned Age is curs’d.
This bawdy Itch of knowing secret Things,
And tracing human Nature to its Springs;
Exploring in the sight of all the world
The dark Receptacle from whence we’re hurl’d.
O famous wax-work! Where our fair ones come,
Like female Neros made to see a womb,
To hear fine Lectures, read on Generation,
And all the Arts explain’d of Procreation.
That Rake, in time to come, when he convenes,
What copious Drury sends, and Wild-street gleans,
He may have Bawds in Bibs, and Midwives in their teens.
 
What Vices Greek and Roman Dames defil’d,
How they on Slaves and Fencers often smil’d,
Rode, Drink, and Danced, we’re by old Sat’rists told;
But of no Thais of our modern Mold —
Who ere for Wedlock ripe is wild to see
What must its Joys, and what its Pains must be;
How in the Womb the Foetus is reclin’d;
What Passage thence by Nature is design’d;
With ev’ry other Circumstance beside,
That may inform her ere she be a Bride,
And make her wiser than the Dame who bore
This prying Wench, — or Grandmother before,
Who liv’d when Innocence sway’d here of Yore.
 
O might the shocking Scene so strike the Mind,
As that true Sense from this strange sight they’d find:
Learn to believe themselves but frail, tho’ fair;
And make their Souls what they deserve — their Care;
Live to those Ends for which their Lives were given,
To bless Mankind, and make this World a Heaven.
The Wax-work then — should be deem’d worthy Fame,
Not be, as now, all its Spectators’ Shame.

Risk One’s Hair, Risk One’s Head: Losing the Periwig

As I am wont to do, I was recently digging around a volume of The Gentleman’s Magazine when I discovered a fictionalized account regarding the first brave soul to don natural hair après the periwig fashion and the row that ensued.  Dare I say this is a version of Gentlemen brawlers, bandying over hairstyle supremacy? Victor Hugo, if only it were true!  I would be most amused.

From ‘By Order of the King: A Romance of English History’ by Victor Hugo

“Lord David held the position of judge in the gay life of London.  He was looked up to by the nobility and gentry.  Let us register a fact to the glory of Lord David.  He dared to wear his own hair.  The reaction against the wig was beginning.  Just as in 1824, Eugene Deveria was the first who dared to allow his beard to grow, so in 1702 Price Devereux dared for the first time to risk his natural hair in public, disguised by artful curling.  For to risk one’s hair was almost to risk one’s head.  The indignation was universal.  Nevertheless Price Devereux was Viscount Hereford, a peer of England.  He was insulted and the deed was well worth the insult.  In the hottest part of the row, Lord David suddenly appeared without his wig and in his natural hair. Such conduct shakes the foundations of society.  Lord David was insulted even more than Viscount Hereford.  He held his ground.  Price Devereux was the first; Lord David Dirry Moir, the second.  It is sometimes more difficult to be second than first.  It requires less genius, but more courage.  The first, intoxicated by the novelty, may ignore the danger; the second sees the abyss and precipitates himself therein.  Lord David flung himself into the abyss of no longer wearing a periwig.

Later in the century these lords found imitators.  After these two revolutionists, men found sufficient audacity to wear their own hair and powder was introduced as an extenuating circumstance.  In order to establish, before we pass on an important period of history, we should remark that the true pre-eminence in the war of wigs belongs to a Queen Christina of Sweden, who wore man’s clothes and had appeared in 1680 in her hair of golden brown, powdered and brushed up from her head.  She had besides, says Nisson, a slight beard.  The pope on his part, by his bull of March, 1694, had somewhat let down the wig by taking it from the heads of bishops and priests and in ordering churchmen to let their hair grow.”

Related Posts:

18th Century Wig Curlers

If This Were The 18th Century: Madonna’s Superbowl Half-Time Performance

I was planning on featuring this Madonna performance in an entirely different post, but it’s too tempting now that she performed “Vogue” at the Superbowl.  She’s stunningly perfect with her platinum pouf, darkened brows, and beauty patch near the eye (signifying passion).  Very Madame Pompadour.  And like Madonna at her best, she makes it all look naughty.

Curious about patches?  See To Patch or Not to Patch

Origin of Abigail, A Lady’s Maid: It’s Downright Biblical!

Ever wondered how the waiting woman got her moniker?  Look no further than the trusty old book called The Bible.

Resource: Chambers’s Encyclopedia: A Dictionary of Universal Knowledge, Volume 1

Handmaid Passage From 1 Samuel 25

18 Then Abigail made haste, and took two hundred loaves, and two bottles of wine, and five sheep ready dressed, and five measures of parched corn, and an hundred clusters of raisins, and two hundred cakes of figs, and laid them on asses.

19 And she said unto her servants, Go on before me; behold, I come after you. But she told not her husband Nabal.

20 And it was so, as she rode on the ass, that she came down by the covert on the hill, and, behold, David and his men came down against her; and she met them.

21 Now David had said, Surely in vain have I kept all that this fellow hath in the wilderness, so that nothing was missed of all that pertained unto him: and he hath requited me evil for good.

22 So and more also do God unto the enemies of David, if I leave of all that pertain to him by the morning light any that pisseth against the wall.

23 And when Abigail saw David, she hasted, and lighted off the ass, and fell before David on her face, and bowed herself to the ground,

24 And fell at his feet, and said, Upon me, my lord, upon me let this iniquity be: and let thine handmaid, I pray thee, speak in thine audience, and hear the words of thine handmaid.

The common use of Abigail as a lady’s maid also appears in  The Scornful Lady, a play from the 1616 by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher. 

The male version of Abigail?  Andrew.

A Lady’s Weapon Against Stench: Pomanders and Vinaigrettes

When I get past the the overall sumptousness of the Georgian period with its lush embroidered fabrics, exquisite flourishes of gilt and marble and precious imports, I inevitably think of the stench.  It’s not a pleasant topic and one we–thank ye gods to modernity–can avoid when romantizing the past, but let’s face it, London was a sty.  Even before the industrial age, the Thames was a gurgling pot of indelicacy, the streets teeming with what we shall call the ever present eau de malodorous monkey.   In short, not good.

Mary Denton by George Gower – 1573

Pomander and Chain – 1526-1575

While men might have straightened their shoulders and suffered through the miasma (though they, too, had stench-ridding weapons), ladies and their sensitive sniffers required relief. They found it in the form of pomanders which first came to the rescue in the 14th century.  Carried over from Arabia, these scented objects take the name from the French “pomme d’ambre“, referring to the pomme or apple shape of the container, and ambergris, the waxy resin substance used as the recipe’s base from which perfumes are then added. 

Pomanders became popular in plague years when physicians theorized disease was trasmitted through befouled air.  Alas, woefully untrue, as physicians would later discover, but pomanders still had plenty of practical uses.  Worn around the neck or the waist for immediate access, their form was as varied as their bearer.  Aristocrats carried perforated miniature globes made of fine metals and decorated with precious stones and/or intricate designs.  These globes were the predecessors of the vinaigrette, used around the early 1700s throughout the mid 19th century.  Similar to the popular orange and clove pomanders of today, the  lower classes might fashion a ball of aromatic gum pounded with rose water and blended with wax.  Occassionally the recipe included apple pulp.  Sometimes a lanced bag filled with aromatics such as herbs and dried flowers would also be used.

Pomander – a very literal interpretation – late 16th -17th centuries

Although pragmatic, as stench has a way of emanating without proper sanitation, the vinaigrette box was first and foremost an object of pretension.  Used almost exclusively by women by the 1820s, every female aspiring to the gentility wore one at her waist or stashed one in her reticule.  They were mostly made of silver, sometimes gold, and were necessary accoutrements to improve a lady’s sense of comfort and grace.  Their composition was slightly different than the pomander, having a hinged lid on the box and beneath that, a grill.  As the vinegar was corrosive, the grill was often gilded to prevent deterioration to the silver from ascetic acid. 

During this period only the finest vinagrettes sported grillwork in relief or ornamentation (the Victorians preferred their boxes to appear much like jewelry–examples of these are very pretty).  Most had a simple punched grill.  Novelty shapes did exist, mostly as wallet, satchels, and shells, although they could come in any shape one desired.  Many of the surviving Georgian vinaigrettes bear the Birmingham stamp as 90% of English made vinaigrettes were manufactured there.

The basic recipe for the substance within the vinaigrette was exactly as we define vinaigrette today: vinegar with herbs and spices.  The liquid was then added to the sponge that sat beneath the grill.  Vinegar emits a strong odor, albeit not as splendiforous as violets or roses, but as anyone who has visited the circus and battled dung with a scented wrist can attest, shit covered in perfume is still shit. Vinegar, at least, wages the battle admirably.

 

Portrait of an English Schoolboy

One rule about schoolboys you must observe: they are unruly.  Early attendees of schools such as Eton, Oundle, and Rugby were under no fear of their headmaster’s stern hand.  Rather, these beastly tyrants annihilated each other in what is affectionately remembered as “mob rule.” 

Excepting the shy, sensitive boys, early pupils ran roughshod over each other, erecting traditions such as fagging, carousing about the local countryside, and fighting amongst themselves in pint-sized coups. 

Ah, the terrors.  Or, rather, not so much this anymore . . .

A Visit to the Boarding School, George Morland, 1788

This bad behavior, in part, spawned from the public schools’ need for fee-paying students.  During the early Georgian period, most young children were educated at home with a governess or, in the case of a male, a tutor.  After discovering that the acceptance of non-paying scholars did not allow for suitable growth, the schools decided to develop a platform with the express purpose of readying noblemens’ sons for university.  This occasioned the worst sort of student who had no mind of being a student at all. 

Lordlings, accustomed to the pomp and bluster associated with their future status, reigned over their schools like mini-dictators.  They brought with them personal tutors, rented local lodgings, and lived under no direction but their own, looking for trouble at all hours.  George III, on the occasion of meeting an Eton pupil, was known to ask, “Have you had a rebellion lately, eh, eh?” 

As most children are wont to be hellions without supervision, these boys were no different.  Learning Latin–the primary course of study at the time–by no means exhausted their minds.  Subjects outside the classical curriculum such as science, mathematics, and geography were considered “extras” or private studies to take up on Saturdays.  The Dissenting Academies, two of which were located in London, began in the Restoration period as pedagogical institutions for dissenting clerics and, unlike other schools, were taught exclusively in English.  They exposed their students to the most progressive educational atmosphere available at the time.  Daniel Defoe attended Newington Green and other notables such as William Godwin (founder of philosophical anarchism) and Richard Harley, Earl of Oxford, cut their teeth on the curriculum at the Dissenting Academies.

An 18th Century Classroom

The middle to latter part of the century saw reformation within the school administration, altering the frat boy lifestyle.  One of the major changes was boarding.  Under supervision, however poor, the boys were no longer able to let rooms in town and drown in their cups till dawn.  Gambling and drinking (and wenching for the older boys) were still mainstays of their education—a custom which would serve them well when they later joined Gentleman’s clubs like White’s, Brook’s, or Boodles—but partying was now conducted under the eyes of the headmaster.  Although sports were disapproved of by some headmasters, organized games likes cricket and football also diverted the boys’ rampaging energy.  Matches within and between schools brought the kind of structured rivalry we know and love today.