Celebrity Couture: A New Trend? Fashionista Mary Robinson Led the Way – Over 230 Years Ago

Figure 1.  John Hoppner, Mary Robinson as Perdita (1782), Chawton House Library.

Sean John, DASH, Material Girl, William Rast, OVO, House of Harlow, Yeezy, Paper Crown, the Jessica Simpson Collection, Rocawear, The Row, Twenty8Twelve.  Celebrity fashion labels are flooding the sartorial marketplace, and the phenomenon shows no sign of stopping.  Rihanna recently announced a collaboration with Chopard for a joint collection of jewelry, combining “urban chic and classic glamour.”[1]  And this coming October, Sarah Jessica Parker will launch her new SJP footwear collection on the Internet behemoth Amazon, featuring the exclusive designs “Dash,” “Flirt,” and “Wink.”[2]  InStyle.co.uk broadcasted the affair with the texty title “OMG!  Soon You’ll Be Able to Shop SJP’s Shoes On Amazon.”

Not everyone, however, is a fan of the pop-up celebrity designer.  Upon receiving the Couture Council’s Award for Artistry in 2012, the late Oscar de la Renta spoke out against the trend:  “Today, if you play tennis, you can be a really good designer,” he said, “Or, if you’re an actress, you can be a designer.  I’ve been at it for 45 years and I’m still learning my craft.”[3]  In addition to suggesting that upstarts are infiltrating the fashion world, de la Renta’s statement imagines a time—his time—when the art of fashion recognized quality design that bespoke training, skill, and experience, rather than sheer fame.

Elegiac musings may have their appeal, but do they reflect reality?  There’s no question that celebrity style has long had an impact on the fashion world—think Beau Brummell, Lillie Langtry, Jean Harlow, Katherine Hepburn.  The question is how new is the celebrity-cum-couturier?  The life of the British actress Mary Robinson (1757?-1800) (Figure 1) would suggest that celebrity clothing and accessory lines are, in fact, nothing new.

Mary Robinson’s meteoric rise to fame began in 1776 with her dazzling performance on the London stage as Juliet, and in 1779 with her spirited rendering of Perdita in David Garrick’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.  The latter representation captivated the Prince of Wales (the future George IV), and an infamous romance between the newly styled “Perdita” and “Florizel” ensued.

Like many starlets today, her love life became a source of scandal and intrigue.  When the Prince’s affection waned, Robinson left the stage and travelled to France.  She befriended Marie Antoinette and was courted by the wealthiest man in Europe, the Duke de Chartres.  In 1782, after her return from the Continent, Robinson indulged in romances with the dashing young dragoon Colonel Banastre Tarleton, a leading commander of British troops in the war against the American colonies, and Charles James Fox, the charismatic leader of the Whig party.

Robinson’s stage career, though brief (she retired from the boards at the close of the 1779-1780 season), was a tour de force. Her performances—both as an actress and a mistress—earned her widespread acclaim and notoriety.  In the manner of magazines such as Hello! or People, the newspapers reported continually on her whereabouts.  And while paparazzi did not yet exist, painters did.  Top artists of the day, Thomas Gainsborough, John Hoppner, Joshua Reynolds, and George Romney, all painted portraits of her.

But while Robinson’s acting and amours sparked her popularity, it was her fashion sense and style that kept the flame ablaze.  By decorating herself in stunning confections known as the “Perdita Hood,” the “Robinson hat for Ranelagh,” the “Perdita handkerchief,” and the “Robinson gown,” she transformed herself into one of the foremost fashion icons of her day and sent the stylish set into a frenzy.[4]

Her most voguish look was the 1782 “Perdita chemise,” a hoop-free muslin tube cinched at the waist and styled after Marie Antoinette’s version of the gown:  the Chémise à la Reine (Figure 2).  This design—later promoted in England in a different form by the Duchess of Devonshire (remember Keira Knightley in The Duchess?)—paved the way for the neoclassical gowns of the 1790s and early 1800s.  According to one London newspaper, Robinson’s trend-setting styles “set the whole world ‘a madding.’”[5]  Women eager to appear à la mode began adorning themselves in her sartorial creations.

Figure 2.  Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Marie Antoinette in a Chemise Dress (1783), Hessische Hausstiftung [The Hessian House Foundation], Kronberg.

Robinson’s fashions attest to her desire to ensure unending media buzz.  But they also demonstrate the fact that she literally made a name for herself in the world of fashion.  Her signature designs were both recognizable and reproducible.  They were, after all, labeled “the Perdita” or “the Robinson”—a form of proto-celebrity branding.

Unlike modern celebrities, Robinson did not profit financially from her designs.  Yet her savvy marketing of them ensured her decisive impact on contemporary couture.  Robinson made her mark in other artistic circles as well, becoming one of the top authors of her day—a playwright, a novelist, and a poet.  Samuel Taylor Coleridge deemed her a woman of “undoubted Genius.”[6]  Ultimately, Robinson ensured her legacy in the world of fashion and in the world of letters.  Victoria Beckham—eat your heart out.

[1] Erica Gonzales, “Rihanna is Designing a New Jewelry Collection,” Bazaar (7 April 2017) http://www.harpersbazaar.com/fashion/designers/news/a21876/rihanna-collaborates-with-chopard/

[2] Chloe Mac Donnell, “OMG!  Soon You’ll Be Able to Shop SJP’s Shoes On Amazon,” InStyle.co.uk (18 July 2017) http://www.instyle.co.uk/news/youll-soon-be-able-shop-sjps-shoe-collection-amazon-fashion#9ClsHusWo6Kqg9iC.99

[3] Ella Alexander, “Oscar de la Renta Honored,” Vogue (6 Sept. 2012) http://www.vogue.co.uk/article/oscar-de-la-renta-receives-couture-council-artistry-award

[4] The Lady’s Magazine began reporting on Robinson in 1780 and continued throughout the decade.  For coverage of Robinson’s fashions during the 1782-1783 season, see the Lady’s Magazine, or Entertaining Companion for the Fair Sex 14 (1783):  187, 268, 331, 650-651.

[5] Morning Herald (17 December 1781), p. 2.  Additionally, on 15 October 1782, the Morning Herald reported, “An amateur of the Cyprian Corps recommends to our fair countrywomen a total abolition of the large hoop and long petticoat, and to adopt the PERDITA, a system of elegant simplicity and neatness, which has ever so conspicuously marked the dress of that celebrated leader of the wantons of the age!”.  Just one month later, the same newspaper was predicting the pervasiveness of Robinson’s fashion trend:  “The Chemise de la Reine, in which Mrs Robinson appeared at the Opera, is expected to become a favourite undress among the fashionable women” (Morning Herald, 20 November 1782).  Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire was also instrumental in popularizing the chemise in England.  In 1784, she reported having gone “to a concert in one of the muslin chemises with fine lace that the Queen of France gave me”; qtd. Georgiana:  Extracts from the Correspondence of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, ed. Earl of Bessborough (London, 1955), 91.  In 1786, Angelica Kauffman painted Lady Elizabeth Foster, a close friend of the Duchess, in a version of the chemise with a double falling collar.  By 1787 the Lady’s Magazine reported that “all the Sex now . . . appear in their white muslin frocks with broad sashes”; see the Lady’s Magazine (London, 1787), 331.

[6] Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Robert Southey (25 Jan. 1800), The Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  Ed. Earl Leslie Griggs.  6 vols.  (Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1956).  1:  562-564.

Open-Access Anne Finch Digital Archive

Readers of early British poetry and early women writers will soon be able to discover all of Anne Finch’s poems and plays in the first scholarly edition of her work:  The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, general editor, Jennifer Keith:  Volume 1:  Early Manuscript Books, edited by Jennifer Keith and Claudia Thomas Kairoff, associate editor Jean I. Marsden; and Volume 2:  Later Collections, Print and Manuscript, edited by Jennifer Keith and Claudia Thomas Kairoff. The print edition establishes for the first time an accurate record of all known work by Finch that has survived:  more than 230 poems (the number varies depending on how one enumerates different versions of some poems), two plays, and letters.

Already available is the open-access Anne Finch Digital Archive, which complements the print edition.  Materials on the open-access Anne Finch Digital Archive enable users to explore the archival elements of Finch’s texts.  The featured poems on this site have been selected from a great number in Finch’s œuvre to illustrate her work in different poetic kinds, including song, fable, biblical paraphrase, translation, verse epistle, and devotional poetry.  For every featured poem, the site includes commentary with embedded links to illustrations, information about composition and printing dates and sources, audio files of the poem read aloud, and source copies showing authorized manuscript and print texts with transcriptions.  We will continue to add resources to the site, including recordings of musical performances of the songs featured.  The multimedia elements of this site reflect the various ways that Finch’s work engaged her contemporary readers and listeners, who knew her work in manuscript, print, or performance, or in all of these forms.

Writing in an era known for the overtly public and political poetry of John Dryden, Jonathan Swift, and Alexander Pope, Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea (1661-1720), articulated a different literary and political authority.  From her position as a female aristocrat, once at the center of the court and then for many years a political internal exile, Finch explored the individual’s spiritual condition as inextricable from social and political phenomena.  Her interest in affairs of state frequently informed her exposure of patriarchy’s constraints on women and men.  Finch’s work participates in the strategies of her contemporaries such as Dryden and Pope—the public speaker who sought to influence state politics, the renovator of classical mythology and pastoral who exposed contemporary mores, the fabulist who satirized state and society, the friend who used the couplet for conversation and exchange, and the wit who made discernment a moral good.  But Finch both furthers and deviates from these practices.  Readers will discover her innovative use of form and genre to explore a wide range of themes and her complex use of tone to enlist the reader’s discernment and develop a poetics of intimacy.

The edition has received generous support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Folger Shakespeare Library, the Women’s Caucus of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and Wake Forest University.

The Novels Reviewed Database, 1790-1820 (NRD)

NRD Logo 1

Novels Reviewed Database, 1790-1820 (NRD)

The period from 1790 to 1820 was a significant moment in British women’s literary history.  During this period more women published novels than men, even as the novel was solidifying as a respected literary genre.  By the end of this period the novel was reputable enough a medium for Sir Walter Scott, celebrated poet, to pen the wildly successful Waverly series (1814).  His success, however, came on the backs of the many women novelists who paved the way before him in the previous thirty years.

But what was the contemporary critical response to such a momentous period in the history of the British novel?  The Novels Reviewed Database, 1790-1820 (NRD) seeks to uncover just that.

The NRD is the first and only database to focus on one genre’s historical reception.  Cataloging reviews of novels from the period’s two foremost review periodicals, the Monthly Review and the Critical Review, the NRD brings together book reviews and book market data, providing a repository of criticism reacting in print to this period in the novel’s, and women’s, literary history.

The NRD includes 1,836 book reviews, representing 1,215 novels and 445 identified authors.  It features transcriptions of review criticism as well as data on women writers, novels, and review periodical makeup.  The NRD contains a unique combination of contemporary primary sources that speak to the novel’s solidification as a literary genre during this period, including review articles, advertisements, and novel prefaces, many from archival sources not available digitally.

The NRD also offers a data-set by which distant reading of this period in literary history can be explored, uncovering for the first time the Reviews’ role in shaping our modern novel canon.  Distant reading studies of the novel, such as this study from the NRD of publisher William Lane, offer a new means of asking questions about the history of the novel and how contemporaries experienced its evolution.  Its scope enables the NRD to encourage a broad survey of the literary marketplace in which the novel grew in the late eighteenth century, one that brings forward the many anonymously published and still obscure women novelists from this period that are often neglected in our study of the novel.  The NRD presents opportunities for text mining review criticism, tracing economic market changes in novel production and sales, or publishers’ trends, tracking the novel’s evolving gendered authorship, understanding how reviewers discussed and understood a novel’s authorial gender, and excavating growing genre parameters by which the novel was evaluated and effectively produced.

The NRD is currently in Phase I of three phases of development.  Phase I features transcriptions of review criticism—criticism that due to poor OCR in digital archives and scattered periodicals collections, are currently unavailable to most scholars.  The NRD seeks to make this text corpus available to scholars in an open-access relational database platform.  This platform, Phase II, which introduces a review bibliography, novel publication data, and authorial gender demographics, is under construction with hopes of a 2017 release.  Phase III will provide users with review page images and the ability to read issues of the Reviews in their entirety, tagged review subjects and the power to create their own tagging profile, and a formula builder to manipulate NRD data for their own research.

Margaret Cochrane Corbin and the Papers of the War Department

Claude Joseph Sauthier, "A plan of the attack of Fort Washington, now Fort Knyphausen, and of the American lines on New-York Island by the King's troops, on the 16th of November 1776."  col. map, 48 x 27 cm.  Library of Congress Geography and Map Division Washington, D.C.

Claude Joseph Sauthier, “A plan of the attack of Fort Washington, now Fort Knyphausen, and of the American lines on New-York Island by the King’s troops, on the 16th of November 1776.” col. map, 48 x 27 cm. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division Washington, D.C.

Within the records of the early United States War Department, amidst the pay receipts and accounts of treaty negotiations with Native American tribes, there are glimpses into the life of relatively ordinary Americans, many illiterate, who served their country during the war for Independence.  Although the official copies of these records were destroyed in a fire in November, 1800, a project to approximate the papers of the early War Department in digital form reconstructs that resource by bringing together digital copies of letter books, sender and receiver copies from archives in the United States, France, and Great Britain.

Included in the papers of the War Department is a letter book kept by William Price, Commissary of Military Stores at West Point from 1784 to 1787.  In the early years of the 1780s, West Point was home to the Corps of Invalids, a regiment of permanently disabled Revolutionary War veterans that had been established in 1777.  Although the Corps was disbanded in 1783, at least one of its members remained in the Hudson Valley and appears in Price’s letter books:  Margaret Cochrane Corbin, also known as “Captain Molly.”

Corbin was born in south-central Pennsylvania in 1751, and she was raised by relatives after her parents were killed in a conflict with local Native Americans when she was only five years old.  She married John Corbin around 1771.  When John enlisted in the army during the American Revolution, Margaret accompanied him, joining the many women who provided necessary support services for the American army.  When John, an artilleryman, was killed during the British attack on Fort Washington in November 1776, Margaret took his place at the cannon for the remainder of the battle.  She received permanent wounds to her left arm and the left side of her chest and face.

In 1779, Congress awarded Margaret a monthly pension equal to half of a soldier’s pay to last “during her natural life, or the continuance of the said disability” (Journals of the Continental Congress, Tuesday, July 6, 1779), and she was the first woman to be awarded a military pension by Congress.  Margaret was also enrolled in the Corps of Invalids that same year, during which time the Corps was stationed in Pennsylvania.  She traveled with her regiment to West Point in 1781 but remained in the Hudson Valley after the unit was disbanded–likely lacking anywhere to go or at least sufficient means to travel, especially given her continued disability.  Because Congress guaranteed Corbin a lifelong pension, her welfare became the responsibility of Price, West Point’s Commissary.

According to Price, “Captain Molly” was “such an offensive Person that People are unwilling to take her in Charge” (William Price to Henry Knox, Jan 31, 1786).  She cursed, was rude, and was a generally unpleasant person with whom to live.  Nonetheless, Price took his responsibility to Captain Molly seriously.  His reports to the War Department describe the difficulty of finding someone willing to provide Corbin with room and board, but he was willing to remove her from a situation where she was “not so well treated as she ought to be” (William Price to Henry Knox, October 7, 1786).  It is unclear whether it was Corbin’s identity as a veteran or as a woman, or the combination, which guided Price’s sense of how she ought to have been treated.  He may have been simply trying to ensure that her treatment was equal to what she had received before the Corps of Invalids was disbanded.

Corbin was a woman from a farming family whose presence in the archives rests upon one extraordinary action.  While the Papers of the War Department collection contains many famous names—Judith Sargent MurrayHenry KnoxJames McHenry—it also holds the stories of many ordinary people who otherwise left little or no documentary records.  Although we do not have Corbin’s own hand to tell her story, Price’s letters and reports allow us to discover something of her life after the revolution, a period often overlooked by those recounting her history.  The Papers of the War Department digital collection allows anyone with an internet connection to access and explore the stories of Corbin, her fellow veterans, and others whose experiences were long presumed lost.

The Papers of the War Department is an online, open-source documentary edition of papers of the War Department in the last decades of the eighteenth century.  All are welcome to volunteer as transcribers and contribute to the scholarly project.

Interiority and Jane Porter’s Pocket Diary

Covers of Jane Porter's pocket diary.  Photograph by Sarah Werner.  Folger M.a.17

Cover of Jane Porter’s pocket diary. Photograph by Sarah Werner. Folger M.a.17

Julie Park, Assistant Professor of English at Vassar College, describes her fascinating recent research into the “written documents of daily life from real eighteenth-century lives” at the Folger Shakespeare Library:

It’s been a critical commonplace after Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel to view the novel as the first literary form to represent psychological individuality in the context of everyday life. My research, however, examines how the spaces and objects of daily life in eighteenth-century England worked as vehicles of interior experiences in their own right. Working from this angle might change our conceptions of the novel, not only its historical relationship to how selfhood is defined, but also its relationship to the material culture of the greater society around it.

By using my Folger long-term fellowship to look at written documents of daily life from real eighteenth-century lives, I thought I might complicate claims about the early novel’s method of representing interior or psychological experience through diurnal structures.1 One line of my exploration was how a form of portable interiority surfaced in the small books that were designed for carrying in one’s pocket. The novel itself, in its eighteenth-century print manifestation, was pocket-sized, conveying not only its affordability and portability, but also its ability to be held in the hand and worn against the body. Just as the novel conveyed its own interior worlds to readers, the experience of reading the physical book created an interior world between the novel and its reader, even when carried into exterior settings, from pleasure gardens to carriages for travel.2

Among the holdings of eighteenth-century pocket-sized books I found at the Folger is The Ladies Memorandum Book, for the Year 1796 (M.a.17), a green leather book with gold tooling around its edges. At 12×7.5 cm, it can easily be held in the palm of one’s hand. Its fore-edge is covered by a flap that extends from the front cover and is attached to the back by a gold clasp. Flipped to its back, with its diagonal seamed flap, the book resembles a modern day envelope. Yet its sides are left open, and there is a thickness to its body created by the stack of pages sewn into its spine. Further examination of the book will reveal it indeed functions as much of an envelope and a pocket as a book.

Read the rest of Julie Park’s account of this object at the Folger’s blog.

Sex and the Founding Fathers

Sex and the Founding Fathers by Thomas Foster

Sex and the Founding Fathers by Thomas A. Foster

Living as we do in an era in which public figures are subjected to extreme scrutiny in the form of media intrusions, we tend to think of our interest in reconciling public images with private sexual conduct as uniquely postmodern. In fact, Americans have long invested national heroes with superior moral status and at the same time probed into their private lives. If the Founding Fathers seem remote to us now, that distance persists despite the efforts of generations of biographers who attempt to take their measure as leaders and tell us what they were really like in their most intimate relationships. From the early years of the Republic till now, biographers have attempted to burnish the Founders’ images and satisfy public curiosity about their lives beyond public view. At the same time, gossips and politically motivated detractors, claiming to have the inside track on new information, have circulated scandalous or unpleasant stories to knock these exalted men off their pedestals. Looking back at the stories and assessments that have proliferated in the two and a half centuries since the Founders’ generation, we see the dual nature of these accounts and how they oscillate between the public and the private, between the idealized image and actions in the intimate realm. We see how each generation reshapes images of the Founders to fit that storyteller’s era.

On the one hand, the Founders appear desexualized. The images of the Founding Fathers that we regularly encounter—as heads on money, as reference points in discussions about political ideology, and as monuments at tourist sites—assert their status as virtuous American men. They typically appear either disembodied—as heads or busts—or in clothing that reminds us of their political or military position. Their flesh is covered from neck to wrists, with only hands and face exposed. Typically, the men are frozen in advanced age—generally gray-haired, if not topped off with wigs—further confirming their identities as desexualized elder statesman for generations of Americans who associate sexual activity with youth (1).

On the other side of the coin, curiosity about their “real” lives has continued seemingly unabated into our own time. In 1810, Mason Weems, originator of the cherry-tree myth, emphasized the importance of discussing George Washington’s personal life. Weems argues that “public character” is no “evidence of true greatness” and calls for a spotlight to be shined on his “private life.” Weems gives the compelling example of Benedict Arnold, who could “play you the great man” “yet in the private walks of life” reveal himself to be a “swindler”—including not only his political deception but his use of the “aid of loose women.” For Weems, the Founders’ intimate relationships should not be off limits for Americans: “It is not, then, in the glare of public, but in the shade of private life, that we are to look for the man. Private life is always real life.” To truly know them, their conduct in that realm is an important piece of the puzzle (2).

By tracing how intimacy has figured in popular memory of the Founders from their own lifetimes to the recent past, Sex and the Founding Fathers shows that sex has long been used to define their masculine character and political authority and has always figured in civic and national identity (3).  Each generation has asked different questions about the Founders and their private lives, but Americans have consistently imagined and reimagined the private lives of the Founders through the lens of contemporary society. As Michael Kammen and others have argued, countries “reconstruct their pasts rather than faithfully record them” and “do so with the needs of contemporary culture clearly in mind” (4).  Gore Vidal has referred to our selective national memory as “The United States of Amnesia” (5).  It is true that we tend to embrace the the national narratives that we desire and “forget” those that we prefer to hide away. Stories about the Founders’ lives have always been told in ways that make use of the norms and ideals of the time period.  Founders can never be embraced in their late-eighteenth-century context, for, as the saying goes, the past is a foreign country—and the Founders lose their cultural utility when viewed as foreigners. Americans want to see themselves in their images, because these men, the men who created America, are by their actions the embodiment of the nation and of our national identity.

The Founders lived in a world that fit neither the stereotyped image of a Puritanical past nor a more modern sexual culture that makes them “just like us.” The problem with using sex to make the Founders relatable is that sex is not transhistorical: It can’t be used in this manner any more than medical or racial understandings of the day can be used to connect readers from early America to today.  Remembering the intimate lives of the Founding Fathers with simple tropes, hyperbolic superficialities, and meaningless romanticized generalizations prevents us from meaningfully engaging with eighteenth-century sexual variance. Doing so also trivializes sex, perpetuating our own discomfort with the topic, a discomfort with a long history. Superficial glosses relegate the subject of sex to the status it held in previous generations—one of titillation, shame, and humor—all of which rely on a certain assertion of the transhistorical or human understanding of sexuality. But the ways in which Americans have ordered their sexual lives and their sexual identities have changed greatly over the centuries.  Viewing the Founders’ intimate lives and identities as somehow accessible to us through surface descriptions, such as “love at first sight” or “healthy sexual appetites,” prevents us from taking historical sexual identities and sexual expressiveness seriously. By focusing in a sustained way on the manner in which Americans have asked and answered their own questions about sexual intimacy and the Founders of the nation, we can examine how Americans have both broached and obscured sexual realities and the cultural connections between sex and nationalized masculinity in the public memory of these men.

Collectively, these stories show how gendered sexuality has long figured in our national identity via the public memory of the political leaders of the American Revolution. By tracing these histories of public memory, we are confronted with how blurred the line has long been between sex and politics in memories of the Founders and how sex has helped tie an ever-diversifying American public to a handful of staid, lite, white, eighteenth-century men.

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Notes

1.  Indeed, in recognition of this issue, several museums of Founding Fathers’ homes have launched efforts to circulate more youthful, vital images in an effort to connect to modern audiences. And recent biographies that strive to make the Founders more appealing (dubbed “Founders chic” by friend and foe alike) likewise frequently highlight the heights and musculature of the men in their youth in efforts to dispel the dusty old images held in most American’s minds. The term “Founders chic” comes from Evan Thomas (“Founders Chic: Live from Philadelphia,” Newsweek, July 9, 2001). But “Founders chic” “is really “‘Federalist chic,’” according to Jeffrey L. Pasley, who observes that the increased interest in Founders often focuses on conservatives who did not embrace democracy or the “expansion of individual rights,” such as Washington, Adams, and Hamilton. Pasley, “Federalist Chic,” Common-place.org, February 2002, http://www.common-place.org/publick/200202.shtml.

2.  Mason Weems, A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1927), 8.

3.  This book, therefore, builds on my earlier work on sex and masculinity and on the long history of sexual identities in America. See, for example, Thomas A. Foster, Sex and the Eighteenth-Century Man: Massachusetts and the History of Sexuality in America (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006); and Thomas A. Foster, ed., Long before Stonewall: Histories of Same-Sex Sexuality in Early America (New York: New York University Press, 2007). See also George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1995); and Regina G. Kunzel, Criminal Intimacy: Prison and the Uneven History of Modern American Sexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).

4. Michael Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (New York: Vintage, 1993), 3. See also Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, eds., The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992); David Glassberg, “Public History and the Study of Memory,” Public Historian 18, no. 2 (Spring 1996): 7–23; and Patrick Hutton, “Recent Scholarship on Memory and History,” History Teacher 33, no. 4 (Aug. 2000): 533–548.

5. Gore Vidal, Imperial America: Reflections on the United States of Amnesia (New York: Nation Books, 2004).

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Read more about Thomas A. Foster’s work on sex and the Founding Fathers:

George Washington’s Bodies

Intimate Lives on Display: Monticello and Mount Vernon

Fashionable Vice in 1790s England: Mary Robinson’s “Nobody”

The Graces of 1794. Issac Cruikshank. British Museum.

The Graces of 1794. Issac Cruikshank.  British Museum.

Picture this.  It is November 1794.  The French Revolution has taken a sharp turn for the worse, and Britain and France have been at war for well over a year and a half.  The English have recently witnessed the Treason Trials and the suspension of Habeas Corpus at home and the September Massacres, the Reign of Terror, the Glorious First of June, and the execution of Robespierre across the Channel.  Soldiers are dying, the British government is locking up radicals, and the nation is in a state of social and political unrest.

It is at this time, at the very height of this tension, that Mary Robinson—the former actress, fashion icon, celebrity sensation, and mistress of the Prince of Wales—debuted her two-act comedy Nobody at London’s Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.  The 29 November 1794 performance did not go well.  “On the drawing up of the curtain,” Robinson recounts in her Memoirs, “women of distinguished rank hissed through their fans.”  And while they were temporarily hushed, they soon resumed their vocalizations “with redoubled violence” (Memoirs 141).  Dorothy Jordan, one of the play’s comic leads, became so “agitated” by the audience’s “ill-humour” that she omitted lines from the Epilogue and botched it altogether (The Sun).  The Times reported that “the little effect intended, was utterly destroyed.”  In the course of only three performances, Drury Lane increasingly “presented a scene of confusion,” with the final staging culminating in a near riot (Memoirs 142).

For modern readers, Nobody may appear merely to offer a lighthearted gibe at voguish faux pas.  Fashionable life—comprised of narcissistic daily rituals, risible clothing choices, theatergoing, outings in carriages, and high-stakes gambling—proves, over the course of the drama, both farcical and foolhardy.  But what Nobody’s riotous reception makes clear is that Robinson’s spotlighting of fashionable excess was no laughing matter, particularly for some of the play’s aristocratic spectators.  Indeed, once the drama is placed within the timeframe of the French Revolution, it becomes clear that Robinson’s critique of fashion is, in fact, a political critique—one that links aristocratic behavior with the welfare of the nation, questions established social hierarchies, and advocates a more meritocratic form of leadership.  Even more surprising than its message is that Robinson managed to get the drama staged at all.  Produced during the time of the Licensing Act, Nobody reveals how playwrights found ways to circumvent censorship through allusive techniques—a fact that challenges the notion that licensed theater during this time was wholly apolitical.

Over the past twenty years, Robinson’s life and work have received fresh attention from scholars and biographers who have become fascinated, as her contemporaries once were, with her dazzling personality, social prowess, thespian skill, and literary artistry.  Despite this resurgence in interest, however, relatively little is known about what was one of her most striking productions: Nobody.  It is for this reason that I have recently recovered the play, the controversy surrounding it, and its socio-historical context by publishing an edition of it, along with explanatory notes, contemporary newspaper accounts, visual satire, and other relevant commentary on the academic website Romantic Circles.

A Gaming Table at Devonshire House. Thomas Rowlandson (1791). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1941.

A Gaming Table at Devonshire House. Thomas Rowlandson (1791). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1941.

Readers of the edition will notice that a central area of fashionable excess the comedy showcases is female gambling.  In fact, Nobody focuses attention on the Faro Ladies—a notorious group of high-society women who regularly held gaming parties.  Pre-show puffs for the play highlight this element of the comedy.  Two-and-a-half weeks before its premiere, The Morning Post, for instance, observes,

The scarcity of Ladies in the lower Side Boxes, may be attributed to the rage from Plays amongst our Dames of haut ton. Faro, and rouge et noir, have wholly banished a gout for rational amusements. This is indeed a serious, disgraceful evil; that “has encreased, is encreasing, and ought to be diminished.” (10 Nov. 1794)

And after mentioning, in a separate issue, that upcoming soirées are to be hosted by Mrs. Concannon, Lady Buckinghamshire, and Lady Archer, The Morning Post remarks,

The proud excesses of the Gay World this Winter will occasion no inconsiderable number of Bankrupts the next. Since the War, the Tradesmen’s Books are over-laded with Debts, and if one of them should press a Nobleman for his money, he is immediately denounced, ‘a Jaçobine!’ (12 Nov. 1794)

By linking aristocratic profligacy with the country’s wartime ills, these lines boldly assert that high-society socialites drain the nation’s coffers, and what’s worse, claim justification in doing so.

Just days before the curtain rose on Nobody, The Morning Post optimistically proposed that dramatic comedy could prove “beneficial to Society” when “the preposterous manners of high life and Fashionable Folly” are “checked by the pen of fair and unoffending satire” (13 Nov. 1794).  While Robinson certainly intended this outcome for her play, it was, perhaps, too lofty a goal.  In the weeks following its condemnation, The Morning Post contained the following entry: “If certain persons, in high life, are allowed to damn every piece that aims to correct their follies, the Stage will cease to be the mirror of the times, and vice will triumph over public opinion” (9 Dec. 1794).  While Nobody may not have achieved theatrical success, recovery of the drama reveals how it can yet serve as a “mirror of the times”—one in which domestic welfare contended with aristocratic vice.

Works Cited

For Further Reading

On Mary Robinson’s Nobody:

On Mary Robinson and Her Literature:

  • Brewer, William D., ed. The Works of Mary Robinson. 8 vols. Pickering & Chatto, 2009-2010.
  • Byrne, Paula. Perdita: The Literary, Theatrical, and Scandalous Life of Mary Robinson. New York: Random House, 2004.
  • Davenport, Hester. The Prince’s Mistress: Perdita, a Life of Mary Robinson. Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2004.
  • Gamer, Michael, and Terry F. Robinson. “Mary Robinson and the Dramatic Art of the Comeback.” Studies in Romanticism 48.2 (Summer 2009): 219-256.
  • Gristwood, Sarah. Perdita: Royal Mistress, Writer, Romantic. London: Bantam, 2005.
  • Ledoux, Ellen Malenas. “Florizel and Perdita Affair, 1779-80.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. 2 June 2013.
  • Pascoe, Judith. Mary Robinson: Selected Poems. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 1999.
  • Robinson, Daniel. The Poetry of Mary Robinson: Form and Fame. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

On the Faro Ladies:

  • Russell, Gillian. “‘Faro’s Daughters’: Female Gamesters, Politics, and the Discourse of Finance in 1790s Britain.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 33.4 (Summer 2000): 481-504.

350 Years of Dangerous Women

Louise, Duchess of Portsmouth.  By Paul van Somer, ca. 1576-1621, Flemish, active in Britain (from 1616); After: Peter Lely, 1618-1680, Dutch, active in Britain (from 1643).  Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

Louise, Duchess of Portsmouth. By Paul van Somer, ca. 1576-1621, Flemish, active in Britain (from 1616); After: Peter Lely, 1618-1680, Dutch, active in Britain (from 1643). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

By the end of the first decade of Charles II‘s reign, the King had acquired a reputation for his many mistresses; his patronage of the theater; and his interest in natural philosophy and the new sciences [1]. These pursuits and those of his most prominent court mistresses, Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland; Nell Gwyn; Louise de Kéroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth; and Hortense Mancini, Duchess of Mazarin shaped two movements in England, libertinism and sensibility. Writers’ frequent depictions of these women gave new prominence to a remarkable figure in literature, the female libertine, that remains with us.

Dangerous Women, Libertine Epicures, and the Rise of Sensibility, 1670-1730 (Ashgate 2011) rewrites the history of libertinism and sensibility and considers the female libertine in relation to cultural, philosophical, and literary contexts that contributed to her transformations from the late seventeenth to the early eighteenth centuries in England.  I argue that there are five representative types across a diverse group of texts, including “Lady Lucretius” in John Dryden’s Marriage A-la-Mode (1671); “Lady Sensibility” in Aphra Behn’s The Luckey Chance, or an Alderman’s Bargain (1686) and novella, The History of the Nun (1689); “The Humane Libertine” in Catharine Trotter’s epistolary narrative, Olinda’s Adventures (1693), and only comedy, Love at a Loss, or the Most Votes Carries It (1700); “The Natural Libertine” in Delariviere Manley’s The History of Rivella (1714); and “The Amazonian Libertine” in Daniel Defoe’s novel, Roxana (1724) [2]. These authors created female libertines that made lasting contributions to later depictions of the figure, partially inspired by Epicurean ideas found in Lucretius‘s On the Nature of the Universe, which experienced a revival in late Stuart England. Behn and other libertine writers found its destabilizing proposal that all matter, including humans, is composed of free-floating, constantly moving atoms attractive. Thomas Creech’s multiple English translations of Lucretius’s text created a relationship between atomism and the emotions that reflected seventeenth-century natural philosophers’ interest in the connections between the soul and body. Early writers of sensibility were likewise concerned with the physiological effects of heartache made evident through their characters’ weeping, fainting, illness, or even death. Sensibility converged with libertinism in its attention to the senses in the late seventeenth century.

LinkerCharles II’s French mistresses, Portsmouth and Mazarin, who held salons in London during the 1670s, helped to transmit French ideas and culture to England, including characteristics of sensibilité that influenced Behn’s creation of “Lady Sensibility.” The court mistresses became the most influential women in England during the 1660s, 70s, and early 80s. Literary figures modeled after them persisted long after their “reigns” at court were over.

There is a current spate of historical biographies and romances about Charles II’s mistresses in the literary marketplace [3]. Next year will mark seventy years since the publication of the first bestselling modern historical romance set during the first decade of the Restoration, Kathleen Winsor‘s Forever Amber (1944). Published during the Second World War, the novel was banned in Boston and several other cities when it first appeared, mainly for its questionable morality and highly suggestive scenes involving the heroine, Amber St. Clare, a female libertine modeled after several of the real-life and fictional women I examine in Dangerous Women. Current books about female libertines owe a debt to Forever Amber, as bestselling novelists Philippa Gregory and Barbara Taylor Bradford, among others, have admitted. Readers still consistently place Forever Amber at the top of their “Historical Romance” lists, and the novel was re-released in 2000.

In 2002, Elaine Showalter reviewed the 2000 edition of Forever Amber for The Guardian, confessing to having been, as a young girl, “awed by Amber’s courage, daring and strength. Rereading the novel now is no disappointment, and I am also impressed by Winsor’s subversive feminism and the scope and ambition of her historical imagination.” Most of the characters in the novel, including Amber, reflect Hobbesian tendencies, vying with each other to achieve precedence at Charles II’s court in the 1660s. The novel demonstrates Winsor’s command of the historical and literary figures she re-imagines from the Restoration. Her characters’ vanity, plotting, and cruelty resonate with historical records of figures Amber encounters at the Carolean court, Newgate prison, and Alsatia in Whitefriars, the London “sanctuary” for criminals. Winsor drew the characters from the hundreds of accounts, poems, plots, and textbooks she claimed to have read before writing the novel.

Amber’s many marriages and romantic relationships certainly read like an early amatory plot. Born on a dark and stormy night, Amber is the long-lost child of two ill-fated aristocrats separated by the English Civil Wars. Her parents die, and she is raised by villagers of Marygreen, where she is a misfit. Like French seventeenth-century romances by Madame de Scudéry, who influenced Behn and other early English novelists, the story relies on remarkable coincidences. The novel signals that Amber is of noble, not peasant, stock, evident also in her captivating looks, a quality she shares with early romance heroines. One of Amber’s most generous lovers, Captain Rex Morgan, describes her in language we find in Restoration comedy about heroines: “I see you have wit as well as beauty, madame. That makes you perfect” (181). Winsor blends qualities of female libertines in her depiction of Amber, who rises through every class position in the novel to achieve greater autonomy and power through varied performances.

A Journal of the Plague Year (1722).  © The British Library Board.

A Journal of the Plague Year (1722). © The British Library Board.

Part of Forever Amber‘s continuing appeal remains in its sweeping survey of 1660s London and the meticulous attention to historical detail. Winsor used Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) as a source for Amber’s experience of plague in London in 1665, and her novel blends elements of other plots by Restoration and early eighteenth-century writers. Like Defoe’s Moll Flanders, Amber makes an early career out of trickster-ism and thievery, landing in Newgate prison after her trial. As an actress in the Restoration theater and then a court mistress of Charles II, Amber resembles Nell Gwyn. Defoe’s Roxana, also modeled on Gwyn and Mazarin, is perhaps Amber’s closest literary antecedent. As Amber rises higher in her liaisons with powerful aristocrats, her one consistent relationship is with her maid, Nan, who gives her advice and rises with her, much as Amy counsels Roxana through relationships and crises about the discovery of her “real” identity. Both Roxana and Amber have husbands who desert them early in the narratives, leaving them penniless. Disgraced when she dances for the court in a sheer costume, Amber becomes the “Amazonian Libertine” at court, and the scene parallels Roxana’s dance in her exotic costume. Both women experience a vague punishment at the end, and there is no narrative closure in either text.

Amber experiences disillusionment from her lover, Lord Bruce Carlton. Their relationship echoes plots by Manley, Behn, and Trotter, whose heroines are mistreated or left by cruel and faithless lovers. Carlton sees Amber as a lower-class village girl, even when she becomes a wealthy Duchess. Midway through Winsor’s novel, Amber, now the mother of Carlton’s son, tearfully pleads with him to marry her, but he refuses, arguing that “love has nothing to do with it” (426), a concise description of upper class marital relations frequently examined in Restoration and eighteenth-century comedy and fiction.

Amber’s downfall results partly because of her class aspirations, mirrored by Winsor’s depiction of the Duchess of Cleveland, still Barbara Palmer when she first arrived to Charles II’s court as his mistress. On June 24 1667, Samuel Pepys complained of Cleveland’s influence (she was then called Lady Castlemaine) in his Diary because it produced “the horrid effeminacy of the King,” who “hath taken ten times more care and pains in making friends between my Lady Castlemayne and Mrs. Stewart, when they have fallen out, than ever he did to save his kingdom.”  Though powerful, Cleveland never received a true marriage proposal from the King. She fell from power after he lost patience with her tantrums and ambition. So too with Amber and Carlton.

Single-minded in her social-climbing, Amber seems unaware that she lives in an exciting decade of scientific discovery. She never engages philosophical debates about atomism or Descartes’s mechanical theories of the body, ongoing discussions that we find the most interesting female libertine figures examining in literature. Despite a brief liaison with a student early in the novel, Amber does not question him about his studies or read his books. She lacks associations with any leading thinkers at the Carolean court and does not debate the merits of Epicurean pleasure, the existence of animal spirits, or the theological assertions of “right reason” with theologians or members of the Royal Society she would certainly have met at Whitehall. Perhaps, had Winsor continued writing the sequel she originally planned, she would have featured a more complex female libertine and a more mature Amber, a figure styled after the Duchess of Mazarin, who developed  an intellectual life as interesting as her adventures [4].  But that is another story for another time.

Works Cited

Churchill, Winston. Marlborough, His Life and Times. 4 vols. London: George G. Harrop & Company, 1949. Print.

Winsor, Kathleen. Forever Amber. New York: Macmillan, 1944. Print.

Notes

[1] Charles II cultivated this image. Tim Harris’s excellent article, “Charles II: The Reality Behind the Merry Monarchy,” concisely summarizes historical scholarship on Charles’s reign and the man behind the throne.

[2] Manley was considered a “dangerous woman,” even in the twentieth century. Winston Churchill, descendent of the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, describes Manley, who satirized his ancestors, as “a woman of disreputable character paid by the Tories to take part in a detraction which in the intense political passion of the time, was organized against Marlborough” (2: 53-4).

[3] The list of popular novels or biographies continues to grow. Among others, they include Elizabeth C. Goldsmith’s The Kings’ Mistresses: The Liberated Lives of Marie Mancini, Princess Colonna, and Her Sister Hortense, Duchess Mazarin (2012); Penelope Sullivan’s Rose Scarlet (2011); and Susan Holloway Scott‘s Royal Harlot: A Novel of the Countess Castlemaine and King Charles II (2007),  The King’s Favorite: A Novel of Nell Gwyn and King Charles II (2008), and The French Mistress: A Novel of the Duchess of Portsmouth and King Charles II (2009).

18th-Century Feminism, Women’s Poetry, and an 18th-Century Library

Portrait of a Lady, Unknown artist (18th century), British. Yale Center for British Art, Gift of Dr. Ruth Ivor.

This week the Tumblr for Eighteenth-Century Fiction highlights a fascinating list of articles from the journal’s archive on feminism in eighteenth-century literature and culture, with links to articles on Burney, Wollstonecraft, Defoe, and more.

Readers of The 18th-Century Common should also check out The Aphra Behn Society’s ABO: Interactive Journal for Women in the Arts, 1640-1830ABO is an “online annual publication that serves as a forum for interactive scholarly discussion on all aspects of women in arts between 1640 and 1830, especially literature, visual arts, music, performance art, film criticism, and production arts. The journal features peer-reviewed articles encompassing subjects on a global range” and while it is “intended for scholars and students” we expect it will interest the nonacademic readers who frequent The 18th-Century Common.  We want especially to direct you to the first volume, Women’s Poetry.

The New York Society Library, founded in 1754 as a subscription library, recently cataloged a collection of late 18th- and early 19th-century books.  As their press release explains:

The New York Society Library has recently completed the online cataloging of its Hammond Collection:
1,152 novels, plays, poetry, and other works from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Originally
part of a New England lending library, these volumes date from 1720 to 1847 (bulk dates 1770-1820)
and reflect the popular reading interests of those years, including Gothic novels, romances, epistolary
fiction, musical comedies, and other genres. A number of these books are quite scarce; in a few cases,
the NYSL holds the only known extant copy.

To browse these books as a group in the Library’s catalog: http://library.nysoclib.org/,
search by author for “James Hammond’s Circulating Library.”

While you’ll have to go to New York to actually read the books, we recommend browsing the catalog, wherever you are.