Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Prince Regent and Crew: Room 17 of the National Portrait Gallery, London

George IV doesn't get a lot of credit. Quite frankly, he's not very deserving of it. However, he did set the tone for the final years in which Austen lived, and though she spent most of her life under his father's rule, it is the Regency period with which we associate her. His best legacy is his patronage of the arts, and as an early admirer of Austen "suggested" she dedicate Emma to him. George IV might have been a ghastly leader, but he and his times maintain a hold on the collective imagination, and while I was exploring the National Portrait Gallery in London earlier this month I took particular interest in portraits of him, his contemporaries, and his associates. Here is a quick tour of Room 17 of the gallery, dedicated to George IV's regency and reign (1811-1830).

by Richard Cosway
watercolor on ivory
by Richard Cosway
watercolor on ivory
circa 1780-1782
There are no less than four portraits of George IV in this room. I think that might be the most I saw of anyone in the entire museum. The two oldest are miniatures on display in a special case and date from the late 18th century. The first image portrays a younger, carefree prince, bright with promise of future mischief. He is about 20 years old, and it has been speculated that the miniature was commissioned for then-mistress Perdita Robinson. The second, in which he wears masquerade garb, was painted ten years later and is definitely a love token, as it is set in a locket with a a plait of hair on the back. The recipient might have been Maria Fitzherbert, the woman he illegally married in 1785, or another mistress. He officially parted with Mrs. Fitzherbert two years later (though they would later reconcile), that he might marry his cousin, Caroline of Brunswick, the following year. Desperately in debt, his father promised to bail him out if he went through with the marriage to a woman whom he had never met and came to despise.

Maria Anne Fitzherbert
by Sir Joshua Reynolds
oil on canvass, circa 1788

Caroline Amelia Elizabeth of Brunswick
by Sir Thomas Lawrence
oil on canvas, 1804
George IV and his legitimate wife had one child, Charlotte Augusta of Wales, within a year of their marriage before separating. Princess Charlotte, unlike her parents, had the sympathy of the people, and when she died after days of agonizing childbirth at the age of 21 a massive public mourning was observed.

Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales
by George Dawe, oil on canvas, 1817

by Sir Thomas Lawrenceoil on canvas, circa 1814
This flattering but unfinished portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence was originally intended for use on a medal that was never struck. Lawrence was forced to defend this unbelievable likeness. Three years into his regency at the time it was painted, George IV had already reached his famously large proportions, years of decadence taking their toll. Still, it's a gorgeous painting. I have a thing for unfinished portraits.

after Sir Thomas Lawrence, oil on canvas, 1815

Above find a work completed by Lawrence the following year. Again, it's very flattering (the Regent was well into his 50s), but I suppose that's what you have to do as portraitist to a monarch. I think this is how we often imagine George IV, in his elaborate military regalia. The Regency years saw Napoleons final defeat, but not because George IV was some sort of an awesome military leader, as portrayed in this portrait. He did, however, have a highly capable general and politician in Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington.

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington
by William Salter, 
oil on canvas, 1839
George III died in 1820, and the following year his son was finally coronated. Before he would ascend the throw, George IV attempted in vain to have his marriage to Queen Caroline annulled. Having been abroad for years, she hurriedly returned to England after George III's death and was greeted by exultant crowds. The matter was debated in the House of Lords, the painting below depicting the sixth day of the proceedings. When she was acquitted of adultery (of which she was most certainly guilty), George IV banned her from the coronation, on which day she fell ill. She died a few weeks later, claiming to have been poisoned.

The Trial of Queen Caroline 1820 by Sir George Hayter, oil on canvas, 1820-1823
Also displayed in Room 17 are portraits of George IV's brothers, busts of artists and politicians of the day, and a portrait of Horatio Nelson, whom I will address another day. I conclude with thoughts on why a tumultuous time period such as the Regency should have such romantic appeal to modern audiences. How much did George IV reflect and sculpt the times in which he lived? Is it the very chaos of his era that enthralls us? I could dwell on such questions forever, and this room of the gallery is the perfect place for such contemplations.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Jane Austen's Portrait

I'm home! I had a fabulous time with family in Scotland then on my own in Bath at the Jane Austen Festival. I learned so much, and my current intention is to reinvigorate my blog by sharing my adventure with you. What better place to start than with the lady who made it all happen?

by Cassandra Austen, pencil and watercolor, circa 1810

I flew into London the day before the festival began and spent the night there, so I might have time to visit the National Portrait Gallery. I had missed this museum on my two previous visits because no one else in my traveling party was particularly interested. Other sights always took priority. As it turns out, it was a very good thing for me to go alone, because it allowed me to get lost in the collection for three, undisrupted hours. It was fabulous! Unsurprisingly, I was particularly excited by the many portraits of writers whose works have shaped my life and mind. I am putting together a virtual "scribblers tour" of the gallery for my next Austen Authors post (I'll crosspost here), but I want to use this forum to take a more in depth look at Jane alone.

by James Andrews, watercolor, 1869
published by Richard Bentley, stipple engraving, 1870

Let's be clear up front: the portrait of Jane Austen by Cassandra Austen is easily the most unsatisfying likenesses displayed in the entire gallery. It's really awful, and that is precisely what makes it so intriguing. As the plaque inserted beneath the glass box which contains the portrait so accurately states: "Few English novelists have commanded such popular affection and critical respect as Jane Austen." And this is the best we can do for her portrait? For over a century, artists have used this sketch as the premise for more "satisfying" renditions of Austen. It is this legacy which helps authenticate the portrait: James Edward Austen-Leigh used it as the basis for the watercolor he commissioned in 1869 for use as the frontispiece to his biography, A Memoir of Jane Austen. Painted by James Andrews, it is his watercolor from which the varied engravings of her image are derived. However, there is still dispute over the portraits authenticity. As Claudia Johnson notes in Jane Austen's Cults and Cultures, there is no recorded mention of Cassandra's portrait prior to 1869. The NPG's website states:
This frank sketch by her sister and closest confidante Cassandra is the only reasonably certain portrait from life. Even so, Jane's relatives were not entirely convinced by it: 'there is a look which I recognise as hers', her niece wrote, 'though the general resemblance is not strong, yet as it represents a pleasing countenance it is so far a truth.'
So is this Jane? If so, she appears almost surly in it, as if she can little spare the patience to sit for her sister. Austen-Leigh's biography, which he wrote was conceived "in a spirit of censorship as well as communication," clearly tried to remold his literary aunt into something acceptable to the family's Victorian sensibilities. He gave the public an image of a demure spinster, which does not mesh well with the acerbic nature of the novelist's voice. For this reason I much prefer Cassandra's drawing, even with all its deficiencies, than the prettied up version. I can more easily imagine Jane as an unwilling sitter than a wallflower.  

by Ozias Humphry, oil on canvas, 1788 

There is another portrait: one that fulfills all the expectations that Cassandra sketch so sadly disappoints. The Rice Portrait is the subject of hot debate. I admit: I am biased in its favor, and not just because it would be absolutely glorious were it her! First there is the fact the National Portrait Gallery, in its early days, attempted to acquire the portrait, at the time describing it as a portrait of Austen. It was only after the purchase fell through that the gallery cast dispersions on its authenticity. Next is the fact that while the portrait was long believed to be the work of Johan Zoffany, high definition images of the portrait have recently revealed the signature of Ozias Humphry (who had a history of painting portraits of the Austen family) as well as a date: 1788. The date is important for a variety of reasons but primarily because scholars had previously argued that the portrait, based on the clothing, had to have been painted in the early 19th century, when Jane would have been too old to be the sitter. Elite art historians and scholars are still reluctant to validate the portrait, maybe because it would place such a priceless object in private hands? I watch the debate eagerly for resolution, but there seems to be none in near sight. For more information, please visit

by Cassandra Austen, watercolor, 1804

The only image we have of Austen that is positively, indisputably her is only of her back. As beautiful as Cassandra's other portrait is homely, it is perhaps my favorite of them all. How appropriate that we cannot see her disputed face! The author remains enigmatic, which is just as it should be. After all, every reader of Jane Austen has their own Jane. We hear her narrative voice. She speaks to us with an intimacy few other writers capture. We each have our own vision of who she is, from proper gentlewoman to devilish wit. Perhaps if we were certain what she looked like, our imaginations would not be so free to view her in the guise we choose. 

(Note: I have not discussed the "Byrne Portrait" in this post as I have yet to hear anyone but Paula Byrne insist on it's authenticity. Still, it offer another interesting possibility. I suggest this article for the full details:

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Marriage, Over the Anvil

It's been a long time! Too long. I am now a year into to my expat life in Switzerland. My daughter has started kindergarten, and suddenly I can find time to blog once more! Yeah! I'm not sure what my frequency will be for a time - I'm trying to finish writing all the books I abandoned a year and a half ago - but I have to start somewhere.

That somewhere is Scotland. I'm off to Edinburgh tomorrow to reunite with dear family and have an all around excellent time. I haven't been there since I was fourteen, an age at which I did not yet see Austen associations everywhere, but my adult self feels the need to mark my journey with a discussion of the infamous Gretna Green marriages over the anvil, which three of Austen's novels utilize as a plot device.
"We were within a few hours of eloping together for Scotland. The treachery, or the folly, of my cousin's maid betrayed us. I was banished to the house of a relation far distant, and she was allowed no liberty, no society, no amusement, till my father's point was gained." - Colonel Brandon, Sense & Sensibility 
"I am going to Gretna Green, and if you cannot guess with who, I shall think you a simpleton, for there is but one man in the world I love, and he is an angel." - Lydia Bennet, Pride & Prejudice
Why Gretna? Anywhere in Scotland might do, and several other border towns were well known for performing runaway marriages. The Marriage Act of 1753, aimed at curtailing underage marriages and those without parental consent, declared that the banns (an official wedding announcement) be read on three Sundays during Sunday services in the home parishes of both bride and groom. This gave anyone objecting to the marriage an opportunity to stop it. Faster marriages could take place by special license, but if the bride or groom were under twenty-one they required parental consent. So what's your Regency Era Romeo and Juliet supposed to do? Make a run for the border, of course.
"You may not have heard of the last blow--Julia's elopement; she is gone to Scotland with Yates." Lady Bertram, Mansfield Park
It was called marriage over the anvil because Scottish wedding ceremonies did not have to be performed by a clergyman, and often the first person available to perform a ceremony would be the blacksmith, stationed in proximity to the coaching inn. Only two witnesses were required to make the marriage legal. The practice continued unabated until 1856, when Scottish law was changed to require a twenty-one day residency before a ceremony could take place.

Gretna remains a popular wedding destination, and tourists flock to the old smithy to touch the historic anvil, which is supposed to convey luck in love. I won't make it there this trip, but it would be delightful to visit someday, perhaps renew some marriage vows. An elopement to Scotland sounds romantic, but as countless Regency heroines have learned the hard way, it really wasn't all it was cracked up to be. Still, the aura of romance persists, and I feel the lure.
"... Sophia and I experienced the satisfaction of seeing them depart for Gretna-Green, which they chose for the celebration of their Nuptials, in preference to any other place although it was at a considerable distance from Macdonald-Hall." - Laura, Love and Friendship

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Catwalk - An Amazing Fashion Exhibit at the Rijksmuseum

Here are some pictures from my latest post at Austen Authors. Read the complete post:

I was fortunate to be in Amsterdam this week and see Catwalka glorious exhibit of clothing from the 17th through mid-19th centuries at the Rijksmuseum. Oh my goodness! It was the most impressive display of clothing of any sort, let alone historical pieces, I have ever seen. Take away the clothes and the display and mannequins are themselves works of art. Add the clothing ... I have no words. I cried. Yes, beautiful clothing apparently has the power to turn me into a watering pot.
I cannot do a comprehensive review of the entire exhibit, but I want to share a few gowns of interest from Jane Austen's era. Keep in mind, these are from The Netherlands and France, not England. Forgive my photography. I did as best I could while being overwhelmed and teary eyed. Descriptions are copied from the exhibit.


Dress (Mantua) with Train, c. 1759
"On her wedding day in 1759 Helena Slicher wore this gown with a skirt no less than two-meters wide! The skirt is supported by large panniers, side hoops around the hips. Unusually, this dress combines two different types of court dress. The bodice with a 'tail' follows the English court dress. a mantua, while the loose train was popular primarily on the Continent."
Note that the wallpaper in the room where this gown is displayed mimics the embroidery pattern of the gown.

Redingote or Great-Coat Dress, c. 1786-1789
"The origin of the redingote lies in long men's coats with a cutaway front, the riding coat.It is a striking example of the influence men's fashion exerted on women's fashion. A redingote for ladies consisted of an overcoat or gown, and a loose skirt in a contrasting colour, which enhanced the coat-like effect. Olive green and pale pink were a popular combination at the end of the 18th century."

Gown, c. 1790-1810
"At the end of the 18th century the wide skirts became narrower, and the waistline was raised to under the bosom. The narrow sleeved were so long that they extended to the middle of the hand. They were set in far at the back to a typical lozenge-shaped panel, the shape of which is emphasized by ornamental stitching in a colour that contrasts with the red silk of the dress."

FullEveningDressBackFullEveningDressTrainDetailFull Evening Dress with Train, c. 1808-1812
"Cornelia Johanna van Nellesteyn-Steengracht may have worn this evening dress to a reception given by King Louis Napoleon at the Palace on Amsterdam Square. The embroidery pattern of the skirt makes on think of gowns worn at the court of Napoleon I. This dress, however, is not embroidered with gold, but rather gilt-brass thread - which would have been looked down upon in France."


Wedding Gown with Train and Rosettes, 1812
"Margaretha Johanna Weddik Wendel wore this gown when she married Baron Hieronymus Nicolaas van Slingelandt on 25 November 1812. It follows the early 19th-century fashion of full evening and court gowns, which usually had a tulle ruffle at the neckline and sleeves, and a decorated hem. The decoration consists of a satin border, pleated ribbon, roses, and loose petals."

    Ball Dress of Blonde Lace, c. 1815-1820
"Lace had been out of fashion since the French revolution. However, it regained its popularity when Napoleon decreed it should be worn at court in 1804. This dress is made of hand-made silk bobbin lace known as 'blonde'. The name is derived from the often light colour of the silk from which it was often made. The material is very fragile, and dresses made of it are exceedingly rare."


Wadded Coat (douillette), c. 1820
"In French douillette means soft, smooth, and comfortable. These wadded coats became fashionable in the Netherlands from the 1820s. This one had a matching ornamented belt at the back. The origins of the puffed sleeves, filled and gathered by means of vertical bands, is found in the 16th century."

Riding Habit, c. 1826
"The tailoring of the wide skirt of this riding habit takes account of the fact that women rode side-saddle. The skirt was extra long because the legs, naturally, had to stay covered while riding. Sewn along the inside hem are fabric loops, with which the skirt could be pulled up to facilitate walking. The tight-fitting jacket offered little freedom of movement."

Thursday, November 5, 2015

I'm Here!

My poor neglected blog!

I seem to have written those words far too often. Sigh.

Big changes in my life. I now live in Switzerland. That's my prime excuse for the terribly long silence.

I'm supposed to be writing a blog post for Austen Authors right now. It goes live tomorrow! But I have been beset by terrible writing blockage. All my stated goals for the year fell apart in face of The Move. Being Mrs. Bennet still has no ending, The Prodigal Husband is in limbo, I offered you, dear readers, no Twisted Austen this Halloween, and NaNoWriMo is a no go this year. I really hoped I would get inspired and at least write something, even if not the full 50,000 words, but between my in-laws arriving next Wednesday and a trip to London for Thanksgiving, my heart just isn't in it, let alone my head.

Anyway, maybe resurrecting my blog from near death will inspire me with a fabulous post notion for AA. If nothing else, I've been meaning to check in, offer my apologies, and pledge to come back to my writing soon. Fingers crossed!

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Bride and Prejudice (2004)

Emergency review! I was so certain I had already written a review for Bride & Prejudice, until I started looking for the darn thing to use in my next Austen Authors post, due out in less than 12 hours. What else to do but hurry up and rewatch this delightful take of Austen's most beloved novel? I think this is the forth time I have seen it, and I like better each time. It really is a well done adaptation. That being said, it's not a great Bollywood film, and I do love my Bollywood. Maybe that's because it isn't really a proper Bollywood film but a Hollywood take on one, packed with some of the most recognizable Indian faces for a western audience. It is ironic (or perhaps self-aware) that the film puts a post-imperialist message at it's core, providing the barriers to romance that socio-economics play in the novel.

Lalita: You said yourself you are used to the best. I'm sure you think India is beneath you.

Darcy: If I really thought that, then why would I be thinking of buying this place.

Lalita: You think this is India? (indicates her surroundings, a luxury hotel swimming pool)

Darcy: Don't you want to see more investment? More jobs?

Lalita: Yes, but who does it really benefit? You want people to come to India without having to deal with Indians.

Darcy: Oh, that's good. Remind me to add that to the tourism brochure.

Lalita: Isn't that what all tourists want here? Five star comfort with a bit of culture thrown in? Well I don't want you turning India into a theme park. I thought we got rid of Imperialists like you.

Darcy: I'm not British. I'm American.

Lalita: Exactly.

The choice of Aishwarya Rai to play Austen heroines continues to astound me. This is, after all, one of the most beautiful women on the planet, let alone Bollywood royalty. Yet you forget that she is far too pretty to be an Austen heroine as she makes each role entirely her own, proving her acting ability well surpasses even her startling beauty. Let's think about this from a western perspective: how do you cast Angelina Jolie to play anyone's less attractive younger sister? Crazy, right? But Aishwarya is awesome as both Lalita Bakshi (and let's face, who else has such fine eyes?) and as the Marianne Dashwood character, Meenakshi, in 2000's Kondukondain Kondukondain (read my review here), Meenakshi.

The film is mostly really well cast. Anupam Kher has made a career out of portraying fathers, and his Mr. Bennet/Chaman Bakshi is thoroughly lovable (sorry, but I can't mention him without noting he played Shah Ruck Kahn's father in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenga, one of the most beloved Bollywood films ever and a personal favorite). More in keeping with Austen's original characters is Nadira Babbar as Mrs. Bennet, or Manorama Bakshi. Maybe one of my favorite characterization, however, is Caroline Bingley, or Kiran, played by Indira Varma (who might be more immediately recognizable to readers as Ellaria Sand in Game of Thrones). Kiran is a much gentler Miss. Bingley. As she does not suffer the same social insecurity as the original, she is not desperate to trap Darcy in marriage. Jealousy for Lalita does not dominate (or even define) her character. Rather she comes off as a extremely spoiled party girl. Yes, she's an ice queen, but she is actually rather fun at a party. I enjoyed this less catty interpretation, despite the departure from canon.

There are only four Bakshi sisters (poor Kitty was once again overlooked). One of the funniest scenes is the Mary figure's performance of "the cobra dance" (played by Meghna Kothari), and one of the most uncomfortable scenes is a song and dance number performed by the sisters called No Life Without Wife, a weird cross between a 60's dance fad and Matchmaker Matchmaker Make me a Match. It is the worst of many bad songs in the film, but it immediately precedes a fun dream sequence that helps Lalita begin to understand her feelings for Darcy.

Now let's speak about William Darcy, an american hotel tycoon, played by Martin Henderson. I have heard other Janeites proclaim him their very favorite Darcy (even better than Mr. Firth!), but I am afraid I do not quite buy it. First of all, he is blond. A blond Darcy. It just doesn't work for me. Further, his portrayal comes off as pretty passive. The Wickham figure is actually staying in Lalita's house, and he doesn't have the gumption to warn her about him. He finally cuts the cord from his overbearing mummy and does the right thing, but it isn't enough for me. I want to like him better in the role, but I just can't. It's too awkward.

One more word on the music. I listen to a lot of Indian music, both from films and also kirtan music, and while I love it all, I have found it much more enjoyable when I do not know the translation. Perhaps it is then not unexpected that the English lyrics to the score of Bride and Prejudice are embarrassingly insipid. The numbers in Hindi are far more enjoyable, letting the audience get lost in the massive choreography and fabulous costumes, but oh! the pain of the English songs! So very, very bad.

All and all, Bride and Prejudice has a lot to offer the Janeite but maybe not so much for the Bollywood fan. A fun and silly adaptation. Take it for what it is and enjoy the absence of subtitles.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Neglecting the blog

Sigh. So much for my strong blogging start to the year. I don't know how three weeks went by since my last, laughably short post. Wait - yes I do! I'm moving to Switzerland! Yeah, thats right! And I can think of almost nothing else. The first few months of the year are always sluggish for me in the best of circumstances, but now I'm finding it nearly impossible to keep my mind on the things I am supposed to be accomplishing. Fortunately, there are some kind souls out there looking out for me, even as I lag. First off, I need to extend great thanks and appreciation to any and all those who voted Mr. Darcy's Christmas Present, the best finished story on A Happy Assembly in December. Three months in a row I made the top 5 at! No hope for forth, as the Swiss thing totally killed any hope I had of finishing Being Mrs. Bennet last month. There is little hope for this month. Sigh again.

I also received a wonderful review of The Madness of Mr. Darcy from Jody at A Spoonful of Happy Endings last weekend. Please do check it out. She has a lovely blog.

There are reviews to write and stories to complete. Hopefully, one or two of the former will shortly be making their appearance here. I also need to prepare my second Austen Authors post for the end of the month. Thinking about doing it on Arrack punch, of Vauxhall fame.