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).

Life Mask by Emma Donoghue: The Lawrence Portrait of Eliza Farren

life maskLife Mask by Emma Donoghue (Harcourt, 2004) takes its title from the artistic technique that allows a sculptor to make a cast of a living person’s face in preparation for creating a sculpture. In the novel, Donoghue defines it as “An image made by taking a plaster mould of the face of a living human subject” (156). But the term has a secondary meaning in her work, as the epigraph reveals: “How tired I am of keeping a mask on my countenance. How tight it sticks–it makes me sore. There’s metaphor for you” (quoting from William Beckford’s Lisbon Diary, 27 May 1787). It refers to the double lives of many of the characters, who hide self-doubt, love affairs, fears, and unspoken sexual identities behind the faces they present to society.

Using the historical record as the ground for her art, Donoghue depicts the social world where the masks are worn, especially the Devonshire House set and the group centered at Strawberry Hill and its owner, Horace Walpole. At the same time, she investigates the interior selves behind the masks.

Anne Damer, the central character, was a distinguished sculptor in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries who faced many obstacles in her life: the suicide of her husband, the social attitude that considered female sculptors to be unfeminine because their art required hard physical labor, and persistent rumors that she was lesbian. Donoghue uses these and other contemporary events, people, and artifacts to create a world that encompasses both the complicated social structures of England on one hand and Damer’s inner life on the other.

Her lesbianism has never been definitively established. Andrew Elfenbein declares that “[f]or recent historians of lesbianism, Damer has been a pivotal figure, in some cases appearing as virtually the first modern lesbian” [1].  The Dictionary of National Biography is less assertive; it documents the “passionate and lasting friendship with Mary Berry,” whom she met in 1789, and notes the public remarks during her marriage about her “Sapphic nature,” rising from close friendships with women. But apparently her contemporaries considered her “reticent;” for example, she ordered that her private papers be destroyed after she died [2].  It is this very reticence that allows Donoghue’s speculation on her life, although it requires the utmost delicacy.

In writing a biographical novel, Donoghue must negotiate between the novelist’s license to invent and biography’s commitment to the historical record. Thus, she does not turn Damer into “the first modern lesbian”; she does not even allow her to admit her own orientation publicly. Both scenarios are false, to history and to the general mores and values of the period. On the other hand, had she left the question as vague as the information contained in the limited number of surviving documents, the novel would be unsatisfying. Instead, Donoghue, as historical novelist, fills in the gaps; the result is the portrait of a woman coming to terms with her own sexuality in a society that considers it disgusting and ludicrous.

Donoghue portrays the relationship between Anne and Eliza as an intense friendship that is destroyed by the publication of a piece of anonymous doggerel that claims that the connection is sexual [3]. This squib is deeply hurtful to Anne, but is perilous for Eliza. As an actress, a profession not held in high regard in the period, Eliza must be much more protective of her reputation than the aristocratic people who form Anne’s circle. Not surprisingly in a novel filled with artists and their subjects, a portrait plays a critical part in illuminating the friendship and its rupture [4]. Donoghue enhances the background to the creation and presentation of Thomas Lawrence’s portrait of Farren to reveal the conflicts that class and sexuality cause.

The portrait was exhibited at the Royal Academy Exhibition in 1790 and made Lawrence’s reputation as a painter. Before the 1790 Exhibition, he had been better known for his works in pastel, but he “seemed to arrive fully formed as a painter in oils” at that event [5]. In the episodes in which Lawrence paints the portrait, Donoghue speculates on how he might have achieved the expression on Farren’s face. According to A. Cassandra Albinson, visitors to the studio felt that “Miss Farren’s look met you as you entered” [6]. Lucy Peltz notes the “complicity between artist and sitter” in the “playful glance Farren shoots across her shoulder to her appreciative viewer” [7].

Donoghue explains the gaze as a mixture of flirtation and annoyance. The pose emerges from Eliza’s arrival in a rush at the studio: “She pulled off her muff to hand to her mother; she tugged off one glove and reached to unclasp her fur-lined pelisse. Lawrence raised one finger. ‘Don’t do that’” (251). She does what he says, but she is “smil[ing] through her irritation.” She thinks he is young, arrogant, and callow; he doesn’t seem to care, which makes it worse. What is more, she is puzzled by his method;  as an actress and thus a public person, she expects to pose as some kind of allegorical figure, or a famous woman in history, and not as Eliza Farren, a private woman (253). When she sees the finished portrait, she realizes he has produced an entirely unexpected image: “This wasn’t Miss Farren of Drury Lane, this was a private person, rushing across a summer landscape in winter clothes. How had Tom Lawrence seen such a tentativeness in Eliza’s eyes as she posed for him in his studio with a worldly confidence? How had he glimpsed the fears that she carried around like tiny pebbles in her mouth?” (262).

When she points out to the painter that she still looks very thin–she had asked him to add “a pound of flesh”–he refuses: “‘You couldn’t be more beautiful,’ he said and she didn’t know whether he meant her or the Eliza in the picture” (262). But she is frightened by the idea that there are two Elizas, the private self and the public object of desire that appears on the stage. The need to protect the private self from being tainted has caused her to break with Anne and the suggestion that she could be equally objectified by the portrait increases her insecurity. These are the fears that Tom has revealed.

In dealing with the controversy over the naming of the picture, Donoghue takes a position that is more determined than the historical record. It was originally to be titled Portrait of a Lady, an anonymous, class-registering designation, but was hung at the Exhibition as Portrait of an Actress, a title, as Peltz comments, “that without any honorific qualification was synonymous with ill repute.” In what is described as a “long and obsequious letter” to Farren, who was furious and dismayed, Lawrence blamed the Academy for the change [8]. Peltz does not give any independent confirmation for Lawrence’s version of events, but Donoghue accepts it, producing a dramatic scene in which Anne views the painting for the first time and questions the title.

Anne’s reaction to the painting tells us how much it resembles the sitter: “The pose was startlingly spontaneous: there stood Eliza Farren with one glove off, as if interrupted in the middle of a rapid journey. She was as thin as a silver birch sapling; Lawrence had caught all her serpentine grace” (265). It also reveals the resonances of its title.  Donoghue’s shaping of history is revealed when Anne demands an explanation and the Academy official tells her that the decision was made by the Academy (because it is impossible for an actress to be a lady) and that Lawrence made a terrible fuss about it. Anne responds, “How dare they?…Portrait of an Actress sounds as if she’s no better than any other strumpet who ever walked the stage. They might at least have added an adjective: Distinguished, or Celebrated” (265-266). As an aristocratic woman, Anne understands the nuances of class and realizes how much more serious it is for Eliza than for a woman of her own status, who would never actually be in that situation. Her comment also suggests her own attitude towards actresses: “any other strumpet who ever walked the stage.”

The angry confrontation the two women have at the gallery, immediately after Anne has defended her, emphasizes the tragedy of their distance; they clearly still respect each other but Eliza is afraid to be seen with her and Anne is too deeply hurt to be polite. In this scene, Donoghue comments on the complexity of human sexuality and its effect on friendship, employing the portrait to ground her narrative in history.

Notes

[1] Andrew Elfenbein, Lesbian Aestheticism on the Eighteenth-Century Stage, Eighteenth-Century Life 25.1 (Winter 2001): 2. Project Muse. http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/ecl/summary/v025/25.elfenbein.html

[2] Alison Yarrington, “Damer, Anne Seymour (1749-1828),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. Online edition, January 2008. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/7084.

[3] See the online readers’ guide to Life Mask, which contains specimens of the attacks on Anne Damer, including the libel about her friendship with Farren: “Companion Guide to Life Mask by Emma Donoghue,” rebeccarriverslitblog, http://rebeccariverslitblog.wordpress.com/. Accessed 13 May 13, 2013.

[4]  In this discussion, I am using “Anne” and “Eliza” to refer to the characters in the novel and “Damer” and “Farren” to refer to the historical record.

[5] A. Cassandra Albinson, “The Construction of Desire: Lawrence’s Portraits of Women,” Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance, ed. A. Cassandra Albinson, Peter Funnell, and Lucy Peltz, Yale Center for British Art and the National Portrait Gallery, London. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 34.

[6] Ibid., 34.

[7] Lucy Peltz, “Elizabeth Farren, Later Countess of Derby, c.1759/62-1829, Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance, ed. A. Cassandra Albinson, Peter Funnell, and Lucy Peltz, Yale Center for British Art and the National Portrait Gallery, London. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 98.

[8] Ibid., 99-100.