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A typical Grecian statue

A typical Grecian statue

In Regency times, the prevailing fashion was for a Grecian look, and contemporary ideas on Grecian fashions were largely formed by examining Greek and Roman statues and other historical pictures. This meant that long, columnar, flowing dresses, with a short waist and a relatively natural bust were the principal fashion ideologies of the day. In order to aid the bust in its ‘natural form’, it was supported by stays which were designed to lift and separate the breasts, rather than compress them.

Changes from eighteenth century fashion to this new form of dress occurred as early as the 1790’s, even though the Regency period in English history did not strictly start until 1811. These changes in fashion were somewhat influenced by the French Revolution but also by the more widespread revolution of ideas (called the ‘Enlightenment’) that was sweeping Europe at the time. These ideas concerned notions of freedom, human rights, and equality, which were associated with the ancient ideals of Greece and Rome.

Of course, any changes in fashions (particularly extreme changes) were always accompanied by comments and caricatures in the press.

In the 1790’s, the Morning Herald published a rather severe critique on the ‘new’ position of the breast!

The bosom, which Nature planted at the bottom of her chest, is pushed up by means of wadding and whalebone to a station so near her chin that in a very full subject that feature is sometimes lost between the invading mounds. The stays – or coat of mail – must be laced as tight as strength can draw the cord, Not only is the shape thrust out of its proper place but the blood is thrown forcibly into the face, neck and arms … and were it not for the fine apparel of our ladies we should be at a loss at the first glance to decide, by their redundancy and universal redness, whether they were nurses or cooks. Over this strangely manufactured figure a scanty petticoat and as scanty a gown are put. The latter resembles a bolster-slip rather than a garment.

(quoted in Corsets and Crinolines, by Norah Waugh)

Caricature by James Gillray (1791)

Caricature by James Gillray (1791)

In 1791, James Gillray published a caricature of Mrs Fitzherbert, who had been secretly married to the future Prince Regent (George IV) in 1785. Their marriage was declared invalid, as it did not receive the prior approval of the King, and the Prince ended up marrying Caroline of Brunswick in 1795.

The caricature was entitled, Patent Bolsters;- Le moyen d’etre en-bon-point. The translation of “Le moyen d’etre embonpoint” is “The way to be overweight”. It depicts Mrs Fitzherbert standing at her dressing table, about to tie a pad on her breasts to make her very buxom figure even more plump! Her stays seem to be the transitional sort, with tabs at the bottom but pushing the bust upwards to form the characteristic “shelf”, where the chin is sometimes hidden between the “invading mounds”!

As an interesting aside, the picture frame on the wall depicts the Prince of Wales (George IV), and both the crown on the frame and the tiara on Mrs Fitzherbert’s head are inscribed with “Ich dien” or “I serve”.

By 1811, the bust was still very “shelf-ish”, as a lady of distinction writes in the book, The Mirror of the Graces.

The bosom, which nature formed with exquisite symmetry in itself, and admirable adaptation to the parts of the figure to which it is united, has been transformed into a shape, and transplanted to a place, which deprives it of its original beauty and harmony with the rest of the person. This hideous metamorphose has been effected by means of newly invented stays or corsets which, by an extraordinary construction and force of material, force the figure of the wearer into whatever form the artist pleases. […] In consequence we see, in eight women out of ten, the hips squeezed into a circumference little more than the waist; and the bosom shoved up to the chin, making a short of fleshy shelf, disgusting to the beholders, and certainly most incommodious to the bearer.

(quoted in Corsets and Crinolines, by Norah Waugh)

I am sure there are myriads of references to this particular extreme of fashion – the bust shelf. But I suppose with every aspect of fashion, someone will always take it to an extreme! As I write, I have mental pictures of today’s young men who currently wear their jeans around their thighs – below their bottom! This might be a modern example of the fall of the male waistline! (And I don’t think that has ever happened in history before!)

Related Posts

Fashion Advice from the Pulpit – extremes of fashion in the 1400’s

The Rococo: The Extremities of Hoops in the 1740’s – extremes of fashion in the 1700’s

My Regency Journey: Corset Construction – making a pair of long Regency stays

Sources and Relevant Links

Caricature Image Source: from The British Museum

Corsets and Crinolines, by Norah Waugh – buy on Amazon

The Mirror of the Graces; or, the English Lady’s Costume, by A Lady of Distinction (1830 edition) – read online

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John Roque was a cartographer in the early eighteenth century, publishing an extensive map of the City of London in 1747. He had immigrated to England from France with his parents in 1709 and his other works included a map of Dublin, Ireland, and a map of all the counties of England and Wales.

Part of Roque's map of London, showing the Thames River in centre of the city (1747)

This close up of the map shows what would probably be called central London, and part of the Thames River can be seen at the bottom of the picture. Bridewell can be seen to the left, next to the Fleet Ditch, and in the top of the picture is Fleet Prison. This part of the map covers part of the parishes of St Bride, Fleet Street, and St Andrew, Holborn, and these two churches can also be seen in this picture.

Bridewell, which used to be a residence of King Henry VIII, was both a prison and a hospital in 1747. The role of the prison was to punish and correct, so prisoners were often whipped or put to hard labour. The prisoners were guilty of a variety of offences, ranging from petty theft to prostitution, however because this prison also housed a hospital, it was considered a much more healthy place to be than other prisons in London. The word bridewell came to describe any place of detention, police station or court for the dealing with criminals.

The Fleet Prison, towards the top of this picture, was a prison for people who were bankrupt or in debt. Here prisoners had to pay for their food and lodging, and were often forced to beg passersby for money through the grille in the wall onto Farringdon Street (not named in this picture, but situated on either side of Fleet Ditch). The more money a prisoner had to pay the keeper, the more freedom could be obtained, ranging from the removal of irons to even taking lodgings outside the prison.

The Fleet Ditch, which you can see running vertically down next to Bridewell, used to be a free-flowing river or stream before London was very populated. The City of London had continual problems with silt clogging the river and reducing its flow. It seemed to be doomed to be a natural sewer of London, and several poets have described the filth that floated down it. Pope, in his Dunciad mentions the “large tribute of dead dogs” that roll in the muddy swells down to the Thames. Swift writes about the “sweepings from butchers’ stalls, dung, guts and blood, drown’d puppies, stinking sprats, all drench’d in mud, dead cats and turnip-tops, come tumbling down the flood”, as just some of the filth that the Fleet Ditch was filled with. Several people had even fallen in and drowned in the mud.

I was quite surprised to see that London, by this time in 1747, was larger than I expected, home to about 700,000 people.

Old maps are my cup of tea!

Sources and Relevant Links

John Roque’s Map of London – online

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William Hogarth (1697-1764) was a prolific artist in the mid-eighteenth century, often depicting scenes of everyday life in London and its surrounds.

In 1743 he began painting a series of six prints called Marriage A-la Mode, in which he depicted the dangers of arranged marriages made merely for financial reasons. Arranged marriages were popular with the upper classes in England during the eighteenth century, as they were often used to form alliances between families to secure wealth and ensure good breeding for the family name.

The Marriage Settlement

Marriage A-la Mode: 1. The Marriage Settlement (1745)

In the first picture Hogarth depicts the marriage settlement between the son of an Earl and the daughter of a rich merchant, with the Earl’s lavish house as the setting. From left to right, the characters in this painting are Viscount Squanderfield (the groom-to-be), the bride-to-be, the lawyer Silvertongue, the Alderman (the bride’s father), the creditor standing at the table, the architect looking out the window, and Lord Squanderfield (the groom’s father).

The Alderman wants to elevate his family’s social status and is prepared to pay the necessary money to do so through a marriage. He is examining the marriage contracts and has just handed over a pile of gold and bank notes which lie on the table in front of the Earl.

The Earl is heavily in debt due to his lavish lifestyle and is keen to have the Alderman’s money to help finish his new house which stands half-completed outside. The Earl’s architect stands examining the plans and the new building, which is an embarrassment to tasteful architecture. The Earl’s creditor takes some bank notes with one hand to pay for a mortgaged property, and he returns the mortgage documents to the Earl with his other hand. The Earl’s leg is bandaged with gout, which is the result of a rich and excessive lifestyle. The excesses of his vanity and self-importance are indicated by the canopy under which he sits and the paper showing his family tree, which can be traced back to William the Conqueror.

The affianced couple show little interest in each other, and the bride is instead being wooed by the lawyer. The groom is examining himself in the mirror on the wall, and the black mark on his neck is a sign he already has syphilis, which is a sexually transmitted disease. The chained dogs on the floor indicate that the union will be a mismatched mistake.

Hogarth even used the paintings on the wall to communicate the disastrous nature of this marriage, with them all depicting horrible historical or mythical events.

The Tete-a-Tete

Marriage A-la Mode: 2. The Tete a tete (1745)

The setting of the second painting is in the new couple’s apartments. The Viscount and Viscountess sit reclined in two chairs, and the only other people in the picture are two servants, one walking out of the room and one in the background. The clock on the right puts the time at 1.20, probably in the afternoon, yet the couple are looking tired from their busy night. The candles in the candelabra look as if they have only just been snuffed out, indicating a very wasteful lifestyle.

The Viscount has been out all night and looks tired and dejected. The dog ferrets out a lady’s cap in his pocket, so it is presumed he has been to visit a brothel or a mistress. His broken sword on the floor indicates his impotence, and the black mark on his neck shows he has contracted syphilis, which he already had before his marriage.

The Viscountess looks quite satisfied with herself as she sits back in her chair in a very unladylike position with her legs apart. She appears to have held a wild card party at her house, indicated by the cards on the floor, the book “Hoyle on Whist” at her feet, and the dishevelled appearance of the room. Her hair has fallen down by her temples and the stays of her bodice are undone, which were both considered quite loose behaviour at the time. She appears to be signalling someone with the mirror in her hand as she looks out of the corner of her eye, so she may have been having an affaire. The overturned chair in the foreground with a book of music and an instrument may indicate she had been suddenly interrupted.

The servant exiting the scene is showing his disgust by throwing his hand in the air. The book in his pocket indicates that he is Methodist, and he carries a household ledger under his arm. In his hand are a sheaf of unpaid bills, and the spike that hangs from his finger holds only one paid receipt, indicating the spendthrift habits of the household.

The mantlepiece is filled with a mish-mash of ornaments in a variety of designs, such as the Roman bust in a Palladian style, and the Asian-syle figurine of Buddha. The clock to the right of the picture is a mixture of the Rococo influence and a Chinese imitation of art. The mismatched collection of items proclaims the owners to be without taste and thoughtless in their design and furnishing choices.

The Inspection

Marriage A-la Mode: 3. The Inspection (1745)

In the third painting, the Viscount visits a surgeon with a pillbox in his hand. Surgeons in this era did not have the good reputation that they developed later on in the century, and this is indicated by the appearance of the room. To further polarise the practice of the surgeon, there is a book on the right outlining the procedure for setting a dislocated shoulder and the drawing of corks, which is declared to be approved by the Royal Academy of France, however Hogarth believed that the French knew little about medicine. The skull on the desk behind the surgeon would not instil a large amount of confidence in his patients either.

The Viscount is passing a bottle of mercurial pills to the surgeon, and this was the common treatment for venereal disease in the eighteenth century, and he is unhappy that these are not working. The surgeon’s female assistant also has the characteristic black syphilitic spots on her face.

The young girl next to the Viscount appears to be his child mistress or prostitute, and she is dabbing at a sore on her mouth, which could be an early sign of syphilis.

Liza Picard writes that Hogarth meant the surgeon to depict Dr Misaubin, who had already been dead for several years in 1745. After his death, his wife – shown in the middle of the picture – continued his “medical practice”, advertising her premises in St Martin’s Lane as the place where tablets for venereal disease could be purchased.

The Toilette

Marriage A-la Mode: 4. The Toilette (1745)

It is evident in the fourth painting, from the appearance of various coronets around the room, that the old Earl of Squanderfield has died, making the Viscount and his wife the new Earl and Countess.

This picture is set in the Countess’s bedroom and depicts the popular pastime of the upper classes of women who hold a reception in their rooms while they attended to their toilette. This involved first a private washing and dressing, and then the more public dressing and setting of hair and applying make-up. The man behind the Countess is her hairdresser and is testing the heat of his hair curlers.

The lawyer, Silvertongue, lies reclined on a sofa talking to the Countess. He appears very comfortable in his environment, and has even taken his shoes off. He holds out some papers to her and points behind him to a picture of a masquerade, inviting her to one. At these balls the attendees all wore masks, enabling their identity to be unknown while they behaved as indecently they pleased. The insinuation here is that they could go together and not be discovered. We know they must be – in some way – involved together, as the Countess has a picture of Silvertongue on her wall.

The other characters in the picture are an opera singer, a flutist, several other upper class “friends”, a black servant, and a black page boy in the foreground. The little boy holds a statue with horns, which is a symbol of cuckoldry or a husband with an unfaithful wife.

The Bagnio

Marriage A-la Mode: 5. The Bagnio (1745)

In the fifth painting, the Countess and Silvertongue have gone to the Turk’s Head Bagnio in Bow Street, Convent Garden, signified by the bill on the floor. This place actually existed at the time of Hogarth and, whilst it was initially a coffee house that also offered Turkish baths, it was also known as a place where you could hire a room with no questions asked.

Their masks and fancy dress costumes can be seen discarded on the floor, and the bed, at the left of the picture, is clearly unmade. It is therefore presumed that the adulterous couple were discovered in bed together by the Earl.

A duel ensues and the Earl is mortally wounded, while the lawyer escapes out of the window in his nightgown, leaving his bloodstained sword on the floor. The Countess falls to one knee on the floor, begging her husband’s forgiveness.

At the door, the proprietor of the Bagnio appear with a member of the Watch.

The Lady’s Death

Marriage A-la Mode: 6. The Lady's Death

In the final painting we see the Countess has been reading the paper and has learned that her lover, Silvertongue, has been hung at Tyburn for his crime. She has obtained some poison, labelled Laudanum, and the empty bottle lies at her feet. Laudanum was used widely in Hogarth’s time, and it is a liquid opiate mixed with alcohol which was sometimes flavoured with other ingredients. It was considered a cure for almost all diseases in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, largely due to its sedative properties and usefulness in reducing pain. However, an overdose of only a few teaspoons could be fatal in a person not used to opiate consumption.

Her father, the Alderman, takes her wedding ring from her finger, as in eighteenth century law the possessions of a person who committed suicide were forfeited to the state. This means that the Alderman would also lose the dowry he paid to the Old Earl (that would have passed on to the Viscount upon the Earl’s death), which would usually revert back to him upon the death of all inheritors.

The Countess’s crippled child clings to her dead body, while a distressed maid tries to pull her away. The child shows the black spot of syphilis, which could have been contracted from the mother during pregnancy or from the father. It was a common belief that having sex with a virgin would cleanse a person from venereal disease, and eighteenth century sufferers took this maxim to new levels by using small children and even babies. Unfortunately, such a practice only served to spread sexually transmitted diseases further.

An apothecary scolds a young servant for procuring the bottle of poison for Lady Squanderfield. The pictures on the wall are Dutch paintings and show that the Alderman has fairly poor taste in art.

The view from the window shows that the house is in the City with an outlook to the Thames River and Old London Bridge. The furnishings show that the house is miserly; there is no carpet on the floor, they are having a pig’s head for a meal, the curtains are plain and simple – all of which offer a sharp contrast to the lavish furnishings of an apartment in the fashionable West End of London.

Real Examples in Eighteenth Century Life

Marriages between members of the upper and middle class (as in the case of the Squanderfields) could not be considered common in the eighteenth century, but two famous examples are the Irish sisters, Maria and Elizabeth Gunning, who made their debut in Dublin society in 1748. By the time they were introduced to King George II in London in 1750, they were virtually household names.

Elizabeth Gunning met the Duke of Hamilton at a masquerade ball early in 1752, and when they met again a month later they were hastily married at Mayfair Chapel. Despite his reputation as a gambler and ramshackle fellow, their marriage seemed to be relatively happy until his early death six years later. Elizabeth went on to marry the Marquis of Lorne who later became the Duke of Argyll.

Maria Gunning married the Earl of Coventry only a month after her sister was married, but soon after their honeymoon the Earl had already taken a mistress. This caused Maria much unhappiness. She died only eight years later – at the age of 27 -, possibly due to lead poisoning from her over-use of the lead-based cosmetics that were often used at the time.

Whilst these two sisters did marry extremely well, they had virtually no fortune, and it was instead their famous beauty that enabled them to achieved such an elevation of their social status.

Hogarth is my cup of tea (my favourite historical artist) mainly because he communicated so much in the details of his artwork. Who is your favourite artist?

Related Posts

Hogarth: Gin Lane and Beer Street

Sources and Relevant Links

The works of Hogarth

Dr Johnson’s London: Everyday Life in London, by Liza Picard (2000)

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The poke bonnet was fashionable at the beginning of the 19th century, and consisted of a small crown and wide brim to shade the face. From 1830 through to the 1840s, the shape of the brim became more tubular in shape and increased in size until the wearers face was only visible from directly in front.

A French satire print on the poke bonnet in the 1810's; "Les Invisibles en Tete-a-Tete". The bonnets were called "invisibles" in France because the face of the wearer was virtually concealed except from the front.

The Gentleman’s Magazine proposed (tongue-in-cheek) the formation of a Female Convocation or Parliament in order “to regulate dress in all its changes and varieties” (1807). The author drew several comparisons between the all-male Parliament and its female counterpart, with particular mention of the poke-bonnet.

Men may act very perversely in questions of peace or war, but there would be little room for animosity in discussing the height of a turban, or the colour of a shawl; men may be warm on extending the militia, or increasing the army, but there would be more liberality in puckering a handkerchief, or gathering up a petticoat; in enacting a poke-bonnet, or proposing an amendment in the straw-hat bill; I have no doubt, indeed, that all the members would be so duly impressed with a sense of the importance of their office, as to discuss with most becoming temper, the dimensions of the square bust, the curvature of ringlets, the necessity of indispensibles, the side over which the veil is to fall, and the manner in which the dress should be broached on the shoulder, with every other circumstance of equal importance to captivate and conquer.

The Gentleman’s Magazine, Volume 100, January, 1807.

My Poke Bonnet

The materials you will need are: 

  • A straw hat (from a craft shop or second-hand shop)
  • Material for the crown
  • Material for the lining (chiffon, fine netting, silk or lace)
  • Ribbon or bias binding, to bind the edges of the hat
  • A small amount of cheap, thin craft ribbon
  • Ribbon, lace, or feathers, to trim or decorate bonnet
  • Thread, scissors, needle, pins, safety pin, sewing machine.

Step One

Begin by bending the straw hat in half to decide on the shape you want for your bonnet, and then cut the hat in half. My straw hat was quite small, only 25 cms in diameter.

Step Two

Bind the edges of the hat with bias binding or ribbon, using a needle and thread.

Step Three

Gather the lining material about 1cm from the selvedge edge. I used a thin voile, similar to chiffon, with a selvedge edge that was 1 metre long. Measure the width of the brim, from the brim edge to the base of the crown, and do a second line of gathering stitch that same distance from your first line of gathering stitch. You can see from the photo below that my two lines of gathering are approximately the width of the brim.

Step Four

Hand stitch the first line of gathering stitch to the binding on the inner edge of the brim, using a simple running stitch.

The second line of gathering stitching should rest along the base of the crown of the hat. Pull the gathering threads tighter to fit. You can attach this line of gathering to the base of the crown with a hot glue gun or some hand stitches, but I left it loose.

Step Five

The lining will now have a lot of fullness inside the hat. Trim it level with the bottom edge of the straw hat, and then bind the raw edge by hand sewing another piece of bias binding or ribbon along it to prevent fraying.

Step Six

For the crown of the hat, fold your piece of material (mine measured 45 cms x 60cms) lengthwise to form a rectangle. If you would like a more gathered crown, make your rectangle longer; alternatively, make it shorter if you would like an ungathered crown. In order to have a decently gathered crown, the length of your folded rectangle would need to be at least 2 times the circumference of the base of the crown of the hat.

Sew the short ends of the rectangle together to form a tube, leaving a small section (0.5 cms) unstitched closest to the folded edge. This will enable it to be gathered with ribbon in the next step.

Step Seven

Using a safety pin, thread a thin piece of craft ribbon inside the folded edges of the seam, so it comes out the other side. (It’s kind of like threading elastic in a waistband, except there is no casing for the ribbon. Not having a casing enables you to tightly close the crown.)

Then you can pull it tight and knot it so it forms the top of the bonnet.

Step Eight

If your crown is very loose on the straw hat, it will need to be gathered to fit. In order to hide the raw edge, you can either turn it under and sew it (as I did), or bind the edges with bias binding, ribbon or a long strip of fabric.

Step Nine

Sew two lines of gathering stitches and adjust the gathers to fit the base of the crown.

Pull it down over the base of the brim (where the nape of the neck would be) so it holds the hat in a bonnet shape. (Try it on at this stage, just to make sure it will fit your head!) Then, using a basic running stitch to attach the crown, hand sew through all layers.

Step Ten

Decorate the bonnet with ribbon, lace, feathers or other trims as you wish.

I used a craft straw hat that was 25 cms in diameter (designed for a doll, I imagine), so it was not large enough for me! The Intended Recipient, my youngest daughter, was duly impressed!

A poke bonnet, with pleated green taffeta

Tips:

  • Buy a thimble!! I bled all over my bonnet several times!
  • Use a foam head, as it will help you decide how best to shape your bonnet.
  • Melt the ends of any ribbon with a match or cigarette lighter, which will stop them fraying everywhere. (Don’t set your bonnet alight though!)
  • The more “invisible” your hand stitching, the better the result.
  • Have fun creating!

    Bonnet detail, with a ribbon flower

I made these bonnets by following a tutorial given by The Oregon Regency Society. The author also gives alternative ways to construct a bonnet for those who are not sewers, and has another tutorial on making a Regency stovepipe bonnet.

I love historical fashions! They are my cup of tea!

Related Posts

How to use Ribbon to make Decorative Trim

An 18th Century Reproduction of a Sacque-back dress

Dress-ups for a Baby

Sources and Relevant Links

How to make a Regency Poke Bonnet, by The Oregon Regency Society

From the Neck Up: An Illustrated Guide to Hatmaking, By Denise Dreher – This is a great book on the different techniques required for successful millinery, and also includes a basic pattern guide to the various fashions in hats through history.

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I love fans! They are so pretty. I think what initially made me so excited about them was that I could not find any to buy in shops. There were cheap paper ones in an Asian style, but that was all I could find.

One day, when looking through the window of an antique shop, I discovered a fan that took my breath away. I thought it was beautiful! I went into the store and promptly bought it for $80! I was shocked at myself, as it seemed a bit expensive, but just couldn’t walk by without having it.

A painted fan, made by Casa De Diego. The sticks are "mother of pearl" plastic, painted with a gold floral design. The picture is hand (?) painted on fabric with gold edging.

Since my first fan “acquisition”, I have managed to find a wealth of them available and have become a bit of a collector. I have also become rather interested in the history of fans, and their use in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

From Daniel Shafer's Secrets of Life Unveiled (1877)

There have been many modern day references to “the language of the fan” in history, and it has been suggested that women used to communicate secretly to their love interests through the fluttering of these instruments. The first “manual” published to this effect was by Duvelleroy, a fan maker in Paris in 1827, who distributed the booklet with the fans he sold. Daniel Shafer also printed a version of this fan language in his book, Secrets of Life Unveiled (1877). Whilst this demonstrates published evidence of a “language of the fan” in circulation, it is unclear how much it was followed in everyday life, as it is not mentioned in much of the contemporary literature of the time.

Whilst Duvelleroy may have only used his booklet as a marketing ploy, there were some earlier authors who made reference to the power of a fan in a Lady’s hand, which suggests that ladies certainly welded their fans with a purpose.

The Spectator issued a famous satirical article in 1711, regarding the beginning of a new “Academy for the training up of young Women in the Exercise of the Fan“.

…Woman are armed with Fans as Men with Swords, and sometimes do more Execution with them. …

…There is an infinite Variety of Motions to be made use of in the Flutter of a Fan. There is the angry Flutter, the modest Flutter, the timorous Flutter, the confused Flutter, the merry Flutter, and the amorous Flutter. Not to be tedious, there is scarce any Emotion in the Mind that does not produce a suitable Agitation in the Fan; insomuch, that if I only see the Fan of a disciplin’d Lady, I know very well whether she laughs, frowns, or blushes. I have seen a Fan so very angry, that it would have been dangerous for the absent Lover who provoked it to have come within the Wind of it; and at other times so very languishing, that I have been glad for the Lady’s sake that the Lover was at a sufficient Distance from it. …

An excerpt from The Spectator, No. 102, 1711.

Whilst Addison wrote with a satirical purpose, certainly exaggerating women’s use of a fan, it is evident from Madame Stael’s comment below, that women certainly used their fans to create an atmosphere around themselves.

What graces does not a fan place at a woman’s disposal if she only knows how to use it properly! It waves, it flutters, it closes, it expands, it is raised or lowered according to circumstances. Oh! I will wager that in all the paraphernalia of the loveliest and best-dressed women in the world, there is no ornament with which she can produce so great an effect.

Madame Stael (1766-1817), quoted in Every Woman’s Encyclopaedia (1910)

Fan Detail

In Disraeli’s example of Spanish women below, the fan plays an important role in communicating the emotion or mood of a lady through its gestures, in much the same way as an Italian man “talks with his hands”.

A Spanish lady with her fan might shame the tactics of a troop horse. Now she unfurls it with the slow pomp and conscious elegance of the bird Juno, now she flutters it with all the languor of listless beauty, now with all the liveliness of a vivacious one. Now in the midst of a very tornado she closes it with a whirr, which makes you start. Pop! In the midst of your confusion, Dolores taps you on the elbow; you turn round to listen, and Catalina pokes you in your side. Magical instrument! In this land it speaks a particular language, and gallantry requires no other mode to express its most subtle conceits or its most unreasonable demands than this delicate machine.

“Contarini Fleming” by Benjamin Disraeli (1846)

Even though there is published evidence of a “language of the fan”, it may be better to think of the fan as an extension of the hand, and in this way its movements mirror and convey the lady’s mood and emotion, rather than it being involved in a secret language.

To finish, a poem!

    Now let the Muse my lovely Charge remind,
Lest they, forgetful, leave their Fanns behind.
Oh! lay not, Nymphs, the pretty Toy aside,
A Toy at once display’d for Use and Pride;
A wondrous Engine, that by Magick Charms
Cools your own Breasts, and er’ry others warms!
    What daring Bard shall e’er attempt to tell
The Pow’rs that in this little Engine dwell?
What Verse can e’er explain its various Parts,
Its num’rous Uses, Motions, Charms, and Arts?
Its painted Folds that oft, extended wide,
Th’ afflicted Fair-ones blubber’d Beauties hide;
When secret Sorrows her sad Bosom fill,
When Strephon is unkind, or Shock is ill:
Its Sticks, on which her Eyes dejected pore,
And pointing Fingers number o’er and o’er;
When the kind Virgin burns with secret Shame,
Dies to consent, yet fears to own her Flame;
Its Shake triumphant, its victorious Clap,
Its angry Flutter, and its wanton Tap.

Excerpt from The Art of Dancing, by Soame Jenyn (1729)

Fans are my cup of tea! Do you own a fan?

Sources and Relevant Links

Image Source from Daniel Shafer’s “Secrets of Life Unveiled” (1877)

The Art of Dancing, A Poem in Three Cantos, by Soame Jenyn (1729)

Contarini Fleming: A Psychological Romance, by Benjamin Disraeli (1846)

Every Woman’s Encyclopaedia, Vol 7, 1910

The Spectator, Vol 102, 1711

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Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert (1857), is a haunting tale of a young woman who, obsessed with her own happiness, eventually causes her family’s ruin.

The story opens with a young man, Charles Bovary, beginning his career as a country doctor. He meets a young girl, Emma, and falls madly in love with her and they marry. The book is principally about his new wife, and her misguided views of life.

Emma has always fantasized about all things romantic, and soon becomes disillusioned with her bourgeois life as the wife of a country doctor. She dislikes the monotony and dreams about having the “finer” things of life: wondrous passion, giddy romance, inordinate wealth, fantastic possessions, and delicious idleness.

…She could not think that the calm in which she lived was the happiness she had dreamed.

Initially, she keeps these desires inside her heart, under a thin layer of virtue, and appears to do the normal things – sewing, looking after servants, sending letters of account to patients, and keeping her house – but all the while she is feeding her dissatisfaction with ladies journals, by buying unnecessary trinkets, dreaming over books, and reminiscing of the ball she attended.

She confused in her desire the sensualities of luxury with the delights of the heart…

Eventually, after suffering an irritation of her nerves (really a result of the thwarting of her unrealistic desires), her husband leaves his blossoming practice to begin again in a new country town, so that the change may alleviate her suffering. Whilst this seems to address the problem, it merely avoids it.

Emma and Charles Bovary, an illustration for the book, by Alfred Richemont (1906).

In her new home, Emma tries keeping her irritations buried beneath her occupation as a wife and mother, always seesawing between her desires for pleasure and her “virtuous” – but proud and resentful – sacrifice to her duties. She oscillates between merely being annoyed with her boorish husband, to overtly despising him, from wanting to be a devoted mother, to outbursts of anger towards her child.

As the story moves on, she stops attempting to hide her feelings of dissatisfaction, and becomes overtly selfish. Emma searches for a way to quench the thirst of her romantic desires, first embroiling herself in one affair, and then another, while spending money far beyond her means. She takes money without her husband’s knowledge, and gets into large amounts of debt for non-essential items, without any concern for the welfare of her family. Emma progressively sinks, eventually having no regard for her reputation, for the happiness of her child, or for the love of the man she married. She believes that her happiness can only come by spending more money and having more passion; yet, the more she seeks this, the emptier it becomes. Then, to complete the cycle, she pines for the past, falsely believing that she used to be happy.

She was not happy – she never had been. Whence came this insufficiency in life – this instantaneous turning to decay of everything on which she lent?

The Death Bed of Madame Bovary, by Albert-Auguste Fourie.

Her debts build to a dramatic point, where foreclosures are issued for her household items. In this miserable state, she begs several men for money, prostituting herself, but is refused. Not being able to raise any money, and being desperate to hide the truth from her husband, she takes arsenic and dies.

Charles, having loved her to the last, is left heartbroken, and eventually dies of heartache. The book closes with the fate of her daughter, Berthe, now an orphan. She first lives briefly with her grandmother – until she dies – and then resides with a distant aunt, who sends her to work in a cotton mill.

This sad story was, in the beginning, quite fascinating, but in the end, quite melancholy. Emma’s selfishness, while initially not having a huge effect on her life, ends up destroying her. She steadily loses her battle with self-control, beginning with her daily daydreams and fantasies, then progressing on to the way she treats others, and the desires she chooses to satisfy without thinking of the people around her.

The part that I find the most distressing is that she fails to see that the ingredients for her happiness are right before her: her husband who loves her immensely despite her faults, a lovely healthy daughter, and the relatively successful doctors practice they could have.

I must admit I do not enjoy tragedy. At least in Romeo and Juliet, their families learnt from their mistakes after the couple’s tragic death! In Madame Bovary, the tragedy is limitless, touching everyone, even their innocent daughter. There is no bittersweet ending, only anguish. In fact, the only people who prosper in this story are those who use the Bovary’s, maliciously or otherwise, to get what they want!

In terms of literature, it is quite a masterpiece. Flaubert excels in providing minute detail about the setting of his characters, piling metaphors and similes in his writing, which gives the reader a very sensory and poetic experience of life in country France. He makes the reader swing from hating the characters, to being sympathetically understanding of them, to loving them, and then all the way back again.

Gustave Flaubert said “Madame Bovary, c’est moi” [Madame Bovary, it is me], and I am sure we could all agree. What person does not have a selfish, vain, proud side to them? Whilst we may feel like this at times, what makes a difference in our lives is what we choose to do with this feeling. Emma cosseted it and fed it, and so it grew until it was an unsatiated, vicious, rampant desire that controlled her.

Happiness, to me, is primarily a decision. It is not our situation that defines it, it is about how we choose to respond to our situation that really determines our happiness.

Do you like stories with happy endings? Or do you prefer tragedies?

Sources and Relevant Links

Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert – read online

Movie adaptation of Madame Bovary (1991)

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The poem, “The Lady of Shalott”, was written by Alfred Lord Tennyson in 1833, and was based on Elaine of Astolat, from the times of King Arthur.

In the 13th century, a group of works (commonly called the Vulgate Cycle) were written about the legend of King Arthur, Sir Lancelot and Merlin, and it is from this group of literature that we first learn of Elaine. The story is told about a young lady that falls in love with Lancelot. After he sustains an injury in a jousting fight, she nurses him back to health, but he leaves her house without returning her love. She then dies of a broken heart, and – on her instructions – her family put her body in a barge and float her down the river to Camelot.

Whilst there have been many adaptations of the story, there have also been many visual portrayals of Elaine, painted by many artists. One of these artists was John William Waterhouse, who painted several versions in 1888, 1894, and 1916. Each of these portrayals correspond to a different section of Tennyson’s poem.

Part One
On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the world and meet the sky;
And thro’ the field the road runs by
    To many-tower’d Camelot;
And up and down the people go, 
Gazing where the lilies blow
Round an island there below,
    The island of Shalott.
 
Willows whiten, aspens quiver,
Little breezes dusk and shiver
Thro’ the wave that runs for ever
By the island in the river
    Flowing down to Camelot.
Four grey walls, and four grey towers,
Overlook a space of flowers,
And the silent isle imbowers
    The Lady of Shalott.
 
By the margin, willow-veil’d,
Slide the heavy barges trail’d
By slow horses; and unhail’d
The shallop flitteth silken sail’d
    Skimming down to Camelot:
But who hath seen her wave her hand?
Or at the casement seen her stand?
Or is she known in all the land
    The Lady of Shalott?
 
Only reapers, reaping early
In among the bearded barley,
Hear a song that echoes cheerly
From the river winding clearly,
   Down to tower’d Camelot:
And by the moon the reaper weary,
Piling sheaves in uplands airy,
Listening, whispers, “Tis the fairy
    Lady of Shalott.” 
 
Part Two
There she weaves by night and day
A magic web with colours gay.
She has heard a whisper say,
A curse is on her if she stay
    To look down to Camelot.
She knows not what the curse may be,
And so she weaveth steadily,
And little other care has she,
    The Lady of Shalott.
 
And moving thro’ a mirror clear
That hangs before her all the year
Shadows of the world appear.
There she sees the highway near
    Winding down to Camelot:
There the river eddy whirls
And there the surly village-churls,
And the red cloaks of market girls
   Pass onward from Shalott.
 

"I am half sick of shadows," said the Lady of Shalott.

Sometimes a troop of damsels glad,
An abbot on an ambling pad,
Sometimes a curly shepherd-lad,
Or a long-hair’d page in crimson clad,
    Goes by to tower’d Camelot;
And sometimes thro’ the mirror blue
The knights come riding two and two:
She hath no loyal knight and true,
    The Lady of Shalott.
 
But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror’s magic sights,
For often thro’ the silent nights
A funeral, with plumes and lights,
    And music, went to Camelot:
Or when the moon was overhead,
Came two young lovers lately wed.
“I am half sick of shadows,” said 
    The Lady of Shalott.
 
Part Three
A bow shot from her bower-eaves,
He rode between the barley-sheaves,
The sun came dazzling thro’ the leaves
And flamed upon the brazen greaves
    Of bold Sir Lancelot.
A red-cross knight for ever kneel’d
To a lady in his shield
That sparkled on the yellow field,
    Beside remote Shalott.
 
The gemmy bridle glitter’d free,
Like to some branch of stars we see
Hung in the golden Galaxy.
The bridle bells rang merrily
    As he rode down to Camelot:
And from his blazon’d baldric slung
A mighty silver bugle hung,
And as he rode his armour rung,
    Beside remote Shalott.
 
All in the blue unclouded weather
Thick-jewell’d shone the saddle-leather,
The helmet and the helmet-feather
Burn’d like one burning flame together,
    As he rode down to Camelot.
As often thro’ the purple night,
Below the starry clusters bright,
Some bearded meteor, trailing light,
    Moves over still Shalott.

She left the web, she left the loom, she made three paces thro' the room

His broad clear brow in sunlight glow’d;
On burnish’d hooves his war-horse trode;
From underneath his helmet flow’d
His coal-black curls as on he rode
    As he rode down to Camelot.
From the bank and from the river
He flash’d into the crystal mirror,
“Tirra lirra,” by the river
    Sang Sir Lancelot.
 
She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces thro’ the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
    She look’d down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror cracked from side to side;
“The curse is come upon me,” cried
    The Lady of Shalott.
 
Part Four
In the stormy east-wind straining,
The pale yellow woods were waning,
The broad stream in his banks complaining,
Heavily the low sky raining
    Over tower’d Camelot;
Down she came and found a boat
Beneath a willow left afloat,
And round about the prow she wrote
    “The Lady of Shalott.” 

She loosed the chain, and down she lay

And down the river’s dim expanse –
Like some bold seer in a trance,
Seeing all his own mischance –
With a glassy countenance
    Did she look to Camelot.
And at the closing of the day
She loosed the chain, and down she lay;
The broad stream bore her far away,
    The Lady of Shalott.
 
Lying robed in snowy white
That loosely flew to left and right –
The leaves upon her falling light – 
Thro’ the noises of the night
    She floated down to Camelot:
And as the boat-heat wound along
The willowy hills and fields among,
They heard her singing her last song,
    The Lady of Shalott.
 
Heard a carol, mournful, holy
Chanted loudly, chanted lowly,
Till her blood was frozen slowly,
And her eyes were darken’d wholly,
    Turn’d to tower’d Camelot.
For ere she reach’d upon the tide
The first house by the water-side,
Singing in her song she died,
    The Lady of Shalott.
 
Under tower and balcony,
By garden-wall and gallery,
A gleaming shape she floated by,
Dead-pale between the houses high,
    Silent into Camelot.
Out upon the wharfs they came,
Knight and burgher, lord and dame,
And round the prow they read her name,
    “The Lady of Shalott”.
 
Who is this? and what is here?
And in the lighted palace near
Died the sound of royal cheer;
And they cross’d themselves for fear,
    All the knights at Camelot:
But Lancelot mused a little space;
He said, ” She has a lovely face;
God in his mercy lend her grace,
    The Lady of Shalott.”

Related Posts

What If?: The Road Not Taken, a poem by Robert Frost

Relevant Links

The works of Tennyson

The works of Waterhouse

 

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