Monday, May 31, 2021

Emma (2020)

This post contains spoilers and possibly controversial opinions. Proceed at your own risk.

I finally watched the 2020 Emma. Obviously, I’ve been wanting to watch it all year, but lacking buy in from the family (I kind of burned them out on streamed Austen musicals early in the pandemic), it took this long to follow through. My patience did save me five franks, as the cost of the film has reduced since its digital release, but I had to scramble all year to not read about it, that my impressions might remain untainted. 

For the most part, I loved it. It's funny, which I very much appreciate. It's also perfectly gorgeous. I could go on about the clothing for ages. That great coat Knightley wears at the very beginning ... wow! And those scenes where they show the characters dressing: no, they’re not canon, but they are manna for costume geeks. I could write an entire post about the clothing, but Karolina Ć»ebrowska pretty much echoes all my thoughts, while providing a wonderful tutorial on the function of costumes in film:

I thought the cast was extremely strong, though few performances were enough to topple my previous preferences (find them here). Some were reminiscent of previous versions of the characters. Mr. Woodhouse (Bill Nighy) was portrayed with a nervous energy I found very interesting and highly akin to my favorite Mr. Woodhouse, Donald Eccles, from the 1972 version. Similarly, this Miss Bates (Miranda Hart) invoked strong memories of Sophie Thompson in 1996. The Eltons (Josh O'Conner and Tanya Reynolds) were perfectly abominable, as they should be.

Anya Taylor-Joy is a phenomenal actress and definitely makes the character of Emma Woodhouse her own. I personally prefer a more sympathetic portrayal, but that's probably because I take criticism of Miss Woodhouse rather personally, finding her as relatable as I do. I reserve the right to be partial and prejudiced on such subjects.

My prejudices were set against Johnny Flynn as Mr. Knightley, but he soon toppled them. I think his performance is probably my new favorite depiction of the character. Mia Goth also stood out as Harriet Smith (the only better I have seen is Dani Marcus in the streaming musical version, my review for which was sadly lost in the AA purge).

But even when I enjoy an adaptation, it is the things that I don’t like which tend to weigh on my mind. I suppose it is the curse of the Janeite. For example, am I the only one left wondering what happened to poor Mrs. Hughes, and when/how Mr. Knighltey stole Mrs. Reynolds away from Pemberley?

I really disliked the portrayal of John and Isabella Knightley (Oliver Chris and Chloe Pirrie) as so incredibly quarrelsome and unhappy. That is not how I read their relationship in the book, and the fact that none of their closest relatives seem at all concerned by their obvious distress is heartless, reflecting poorly on all of them. As indicated above, I think Emma is mostly portrayed pretty harshly until the very end of the film, when some quick work is done to redeem her. Prior to that, we only see only fleeting glimpses of her humanity. I don’t think this was necessary or appropriate. I need to back up a bit to explain why.

Knightley’s realization that he loves Emma the night of the ball at the Crown is amply supported by the text. I even rather enjoyed his romantic struggle being more developed, but I strongly feel Emma needs to remain oblivious to her own feelings for a while longer. If she already knows she loves him and has even that vaguest reason to suspect that Mr. Knightley returns that love, then she is in the position of once again manipulating Harriet. She is supposed to have already learned this lesson. Under such circumstances, Harriet’s anger upon discovering the "mixup" is justified, but it's out of keeping with the behavior the character. This assertive transformation feels more like Tai (Britney Murphy) from Clueless than either the cannon Harriet or the one portrayed thus far in the film. More importantly, her accusations rob Emma of the opportunity for the self-realization so detrimental to her development. Instead, our heroine is sent to pay penance to Mr. Martin (playing matchmaker still!) in order to redeem herself. Why bother with all of this? As said above, it feels unnecessary. The only explanation seems to be hatred for the character. Just because Austen predicted that most people wouldn't like Emma Woodhouse, that does not justify this endless butchering of her character. Austen herself very much liked Miss Woodhouse. I wish fans would make more of an attempt to see her virtues.

And while we're altering the storyline anyway, how about updating Austen's one blatantly racist scene? We don't often dwell in the Janeite community on how offensive her portrayal of a menacing Romani presence in the neighbourhood is, but considering the current atmosphere, oughtn't we? I believe the scene could be portrayed on film quite in keeping with cannon, without whitewashing Austen's legacy, and yet free from incessant repetitions of a discriminatory word (they use it more frequently in the film than in the novel) and the perpetuation of uncontextualized racism. I think it's important to call the filmmakers out on this point. Badly done!

Back on lighter ground, I think Johnny Flynn delivered the “I cannot make speeches” speech to perfection. That he then, instead of a reply, got a nosebleed was a bit bewildering. I burst out laughing. Yes, it was cinematically beautiful, and yes, I have now read a bevy of explanations for both the planned and spontaneous aspects of the moment, but it kind of ruined what should have been an amazingly romantic moment for me. First of all, it was jarring, but it also strikes me as strange that Mr. Knightley, the one who claims to not be able to summon the correct words, has complete agency over the entire love declaration while Emma is left wordless on the subject, her blood sufficient confirmation of her feelings. Oy. It's not exactly a liberating portrayal. When a film is written and directed by women, one hopes that the resulting product will be free from such stuff. Instead, this adaptation has in it a current of female v female vindictiveness running through it, a force which always undermines our struggle. One imagines the writer saw her school bully in the heroine. The resemblance might be striking, but I still don't think Austen would approve. It strikes me as a transgression of "the duty of woman by woman" (Emma, Ch. 27).

Like all Austen adaptations, I will watch this one many times, my feelings about it will develop and grow, and the experience will add a new layer to my reading of the novel. This is why all the adaptations are worthwhile watching, even those that make me have a tantrum (looking at you, MP ‘99). Gotta relish comparative literature! It’s always broadening. I'm aching with anticipation for not one but TWO upcoming Persuasion adaptations. Surely one will finally get it right? I won't hold my breath, but still, there is hope!

Monday, May 24, 2021

A Poem by and an Interview with My Daughter

Today is one of the many Catholic holidays that are national celebrations here in Switzerland yet totally off my radar. That's why it came as a surprise to me that no one has school or work today. So instead of finishing my post in progress, I'm going to incorporate my daughter into today's offering, leveraging blogging into a bonding activity. We'll soon learn if I'm brilliant or just desperate. This post will take the form of an interview, the subject being what it is like to grow up with a raging Jane Austen fan for a mother. She frequently composes poems, usually fast expressions of her feelings. This is what she jotted down when I asked her about Austen. It is entitled "I Don't Know."

I don't understand.

My thoughts just can't land.

I don't know.

My brain wobbles to and fro.

When I don't think,

My thoughts can't link,

And I do not understand.

Anne Hathaway in Becoming Jane, 2007.

Uh ... it's hard not to take this poem as a reflection on my own failures, but let's go to the source and learn more.

You're my daughter? 

    Um hm.

What is that like?

    Uh ... very interesting.

How so?

    Because you are very nuts?


    Yes. You're weird, wacky, and wonky, which is a good thing.

Does any of that craziness have anything to do with Jane Austen? Or am I crazy either way?

    You're crazy either way.

Have you read Jane Austen? 

    Jane Austen board books, when I was a baby.

Did you like them?

    When I was a baby.

Have you seen any of the film versions?

    You've made me watch them my whole life.

Tell me one you remember.

    Bride and Prejudice. That was hilarious

Do you remember any period adaptations?


Does that mean we should sit down and start watching them all again?  

    NOOOOOOOOO! They're very boring.

You know those words are like daggers in my heart, right?

    But they are. 

Do you think Jane Austen holds any interest for almost ten year olds?

    Maybe try again when I'm 13.

Why not?

    Because ten year olds are busy reading cool stuff, like Harry Potter and stuff.

What does your poem mean to you?

    It means I do not understand any of this. You just blab about it, and I do not understand any little bit of it.

Do you think that if you had read the books or watched the movies you would understand?

    Not very likely.

Do you think your mother has done a bad job of introducing you to Austen?

    Most likely.


    Because you like it. Everything is boring if you like it.

Maggie Smith in Becoming Jane, 2007

I like Harry Potter.

    Thanks a lot. You ruined it for me.

Are you a cantankerous child?

    Absolutely not.

Tell me one thing that you know about Jane Austen.

    She wrote in the early 19th century.

Good job. I guess I'm not a total failure. Can you tell me something interesting about the early 19th century?

    The clothes were interesting.


The clothes were very different than those from before or afterwards, which were big and look uncomfortable, but Empire dresses look comfortable. It makes me think of the clothing in the 1920s, because they were so different than the times before and after. I think that's cool.

Anything else you want to say to my readers?

    I prefer fantasy.

But you love to read, right?


And that's the most important thing, right?


So I'm not a complete a screw up, right?

    No. Because you're my mommy. 

Aw. Anything else?


Bye, Eliza.

It's been an interesting experiment. Until next week, thanks for reading.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

"Henry and Eliza" in honor of Eliza Doolittle Day

Forgive me if I take this occasion to celebrate a few different Elizas than just Miss Bennet, for Thursday is Eliza Doolittle Day.

For those unfamiliar with this often overlooked holiday, it is a reference to the musical My Fair Lady, based on George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, which in turn is based on a beautiful myth recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Pygmalion is a sculptor who falls in love with his own creation. After praying to Venus to help him find a real woman as perfect as the statue, it comes to life, and they basically live happily ever after. Shaw’s version is tad bit more complex. Professor Henry Higgins, played by Rex Harrison in the movie, is a massive phonetics geek. There’s really no better way to put it. For fun he records accents, and it is when eavesdropping one rainy night outside of Covent Gardens that he meets Eliza Doolittle, a cockney flower girl. Eliza is played by Audrey Hepburn in the film, magnificently, I believe, but it is not her voice during the songs – that’s a rather sad tale for both Audrey, Marni Nixon, who sang the numbers, and Julie Andrews, who originated the role on Broadway opposite Harrison. Anyway, Higgins makes a wager with his buddy that with six months of lessons, he can pass Eliza, “this guttersnipe,” off as “a duchess at an embassy ball.” I do not want to reveal the entire story just in case, dear reader, you have perchance never seen this remarkable film. If not, please do so! It’s far too good to miss. In the meantime, here’s the scene in which the 20th of May is codified for all time as ‘Liza Doolittle Day by an imaginary King Edward VII. It takes place early in Eliza’s lessons, and she has spent the last several days strapped to a machine that monitors her breathing while pronouncing the letter A over and over and over again, so she’s feeling rebellious. If you are using Chrome on a cellphone, be aware the video link might not appear. Try switching to the web version. Enjoy:

 And now back to Austen.

Have you ever read Henry and Eliza: a short, wildly farcical story she wrote sometime between the ages of 12 and 15? I discussed it in detail a few years back (you can read the post here), so I will not offer additional commentary at this time. Instead, for your delectation and in honor of the holiday, I will transcribe it here, spelling idiosyncrasies and all, from my well-loved Oxford World’s Classics edition of Catherine and Other Writings. For those unfamiliar with Austen’s juvenilia, be warned: young Jane had a keen sense of the absurd. She was also wickedly funny. The names Henry and Eliza are taken from her brother and cousin, who would someday marry. As you will see, the story is really Eliza’s. Henry’s part in it is rather short-lived.

Henry and Eliza

a novel

Is humbly dedicated to Miss Cooper by her obedient Humble Servant

The Author


As Sir George and Lady Harcourt were superintending the Labours of their Haymakers, rewarding the industry of some by smiles of approbation, and punishing the idleness of others, by a cudgel, they perceived lying closely concealed beneath the thick foliage of a Haycock, a beautifull little Girl not more than 3 months old.

Touched with the enchanting Graces of her face and delighted with the infantine tho’ sprightly answers she returned to their many questions, they resolved to take her home and, having no Children of their own, to educate her with care and cost.

Being good People themselves, their first and principal Care was to incite in her a Love of Virtue and a Hatred of Vice, in which they so well succeeded (Eliza having a natural turn that way herself) that when she grew up, she was the delight of all who knew her.

Beloved by Lady Harcourt, adored by Sir George and admired by all the World, she lived in a continued course of uninterrupted Happiness, till she had attained her eighteenth year, when happening one day to be detected in stealing a banknote of 50£, she was turned out of doors by her inhuman Benefactors. Such a transition to one who did not possess so noble and exalted a mind as Eliza, would have been Death, but she, happy in the conscious knowledge of her own Excellence, amused herself, as she sate beneath a tree with making and singing the following Lines.




Though misfortunes my footsteps may ever attend
I hope I shall never have need of a Freind
as an innocent Heart I will ever preserve
and will never from Virtue’s dear boundaries swerve.


Having amused herself some hours, with this song and her own pleasing reflections, she arose and took the road to M., a small market town, of which place her most intimate freind kept the Red Lion.

To this freind she immediately went, to whom having recounted her late misfortune, she communicated her wish of getting into some family in the capacity of Humble Companion.

Mrs Wilson, who was the most amiable creature on earth, was no sooner acquainted with her Desire, than she sat down in the Bar and wrote the following Letter to the Dutchess of F., the woman whom of all others, she most Esteemed.


‘To the Dutchess of F.’


Receive into your Family, at my request a young woman of unexceptionable Character, who is so good as to choose your Society in preference to going to Service. Hasten, and take her from the arms of your

Sarah Wilson

The Dutchess, whose freindship for Mrs Wilson would have carried her any lengths, was overjoyed at such an opportunity of obliging her and accordingly sate out immediately on the receipt of her letter for the red Lion, which she reached the same Evening. The Dutchess of F. was about 45 and a half; Her passions were strong, her freindships firm and her Enmities, unconquerable. She was a widow and had only one Daughter who was on the point of marriage with a young Man of considerable fortune.

The Dutchess no sooner beheld our Heroine than throwing her arms around her neck, she declared herself so much pleased with her, that she was resolved they never more should part. Eliza was delighted with such a protestation of freindship, and after taking a most affecting leave of her dear Mrs Wilson, accompanied her grace the next morning to her seat in Surry.

With every expression of regard did the Dutchess introduce her to Lady Harriet, who was so much pleased with her appearance that she besought her, to consider her as her Sister, which Eliza with the greatest Condescension promised to do.

Mr Cecil, the Lover of Lady Harriet, being often with the family was often with Eliza. A mutual Love took place and Cecil having declared his first, prevailed on Eliza to consent to a private union, which was easy to be effected, as the Dutchess’s chaplain being very much in love with Eliza himself, would they were certain do anything to oblige her.

The Dutchess and Lady Harriet being engaged one evening to an assembly, they took the opportunity of their absence and were united by the enamoured Chaplain.

When the Ladies returned, their amazement was great at finding instead of Eliza the following Note.


We are married and gone.

Henry & Eliza Cecil.’

Her Grace as soon as she had read the letter, which sufficiently explained the whole affair, flew into the most violent passion and after having spent an agreable half hour, in calling them by all the shocking Names her rage could suggest to her, sent out after them 300 armed Men, with orders not to return without their Bodies, dead or alive; intending that if they should be brought to her in the latter condition to have them put to Death in some torturelike manner, after a few years Confinement.

In the mean time Cecil and Eliza continued their flight to the Continent, which they judged to be more secure than their native Land, from the dreadfull effects of the Dutchess’s vengeance, which they had so much reason to apprehend.

In France they remained 3 years, during which time they became the parents of two Boys, and at the end of it Eliza became a widow without any thing to support either her or her Children. They had lived since their Marriage at the rate of 18,000£ a year, of which Mr Cecil’s estate being rather less than the twentieth part, they had been able to save but a trifle, having lived to the utmost extent of their Income.

Eliza, being perfectly conscious of the derangement in their affairs, immediately on her Husband’s death set sail for England, in a man of War of 55 Guns, which they had built in their more prosperous Days. But no sooner had she stepped on Shore at Dover, with a Child in each hand, than she was seized by the officers of the Dutchess, and conducted by them to a snug little Newgate of their Lady’s which she had erected for the reception of her own private Prisoners.

No sooner had Eliza entered her Dungeon than the first thought which occurred to her, was how to get out of it again.

She went to the Door; but it was locked. She looked at the Window; but it was barred with iron; disappointed in both her expectations, she dispaired of effecting her Escape, when she fortunately perceived in a Corner of her Cell, a small saw and Ladder of ropes. With the saw she instantly went to work and in a few weeks had displaced every Bar but one to which she fastened the Ladder.

A difficulty then occurred which for some time, she knew not how to obviate. Her Children were too small to get down the Ladder by themselves, nor would it be possible for her to take them in her arms, when she did. At last she determined to fling down all her Cloathes, of which she had a large Quantity, and then having given them strict Charge not to hurt themselves, threw her Children after them. She herself with ease discended by the Ladder, at the bottom of which she had the pleasure of finding her little boys in perfect Health and fast asleep.

Her wardrobe she now saw a fatal necessity of selling, both for the preservation of her Children and herself. With tears in her eyes, she parted with these last reliques of her former Glory, and with the money she got for them, bought others more usefull, some playthings for Her Boys and a gold Watch for herself.

But scarcely was she provided with the above-mentioned necessaries, than she began to find herself rather hungry, and had reason to think, by their biting off two of her fingers, that her Children were much in the same situation.

To remedy these unavoidable misfortunes, she determined to return to her old freinds, Sir George and Lady Harcourt, whose generosity she had so often experienced and hoped to experience as often again.

She had about 40 miles to travel before she could reach their hospitable Mansion, of which having walked 30 without stopping, she found herself at the Entrance of a Town, where often in happier times, she had accompanied Sir George and Lady Harcourt to regale themselves with a cold collation at one of the Inns.

The reflections that her adventures since the last time she had partaken of these happy Junketings, afforded her, occupied her mind, for some time, as she sate on the steps at the door of a Gentleman’s house. As soon as these reflections were ended, she arose and determined to take her station at the very inn, she remembered with so much delight, from the Company of which, as they went in and out, she hoped to receive some Charitable Gratuity.

She had but just taken her post at the Innyard before a Carriage drove out of it, and on turning the Corner at which she was stationed, stopped to give the Postilion an opportunity of admiring the beauty of the prospect. Eliza then advanced to the carriage and was going to request their Charity, when on fixing her Eyes on the Lady, within it, she exclaimed,

‘Lady Harcourt!’

To which the lady replied,


‘Yes Madam it is the wretched Eliza herself.’

Sir George, who was also in the Carriage, but too much amazed to speek, was proceeding to demand an explanation from Eliza of the Situation she was then in, when Lady Harcourt in transports of Joy, exclaimed.

‘Sir George, Sir George, she is not only Eliza our adopted Daughter, but our real Child.’

‘Our real Child! What, Lady Harcourt, do you mean? You know you never even was with child. Explain yourself, I beseech you.’

‘You must remember Sir George, that when you sailed for America, you left me breeding.’

‘I do, I do, go on, dear Polly.’

‘Four months after you were gone, I was delivered of this Girl, but dreading your just resentment at her not proving the Boy you wished, I took her to a Haycock and laid her down. A few weeks afterwards, you returned, and fortunately for me, made no enquiries on the subject. Satisfied within myself of the wellfare of my Child, I soon forgot I had one, insomuch that when, we shortly after found her in the very Haycock, I had placed her, I had no more idea of her being my own, than you had, and nothing I will venture to say would have recalled the circumstance to my remembrance, but my thus accidentally hearing her voice, which now strikes me as being the very counterpart of my own Child’s.’

‘The rational and convincing Account you have given of the whole affair,’ said Sir George, ‘leaves no doubt of her being our Daughter and as such I freely forgive the robbery she was guilty of.’

A mutual Reconciliation then took place, and Eliza, ascending the Carriage with her two Children returned to that home from which she had been absent nearly four years.

No sooner was she reinstated in her accustomed power at Harcourt Hall, than she raised an Army, with which she entirely demolished the Dutchess’s Newgate, snug as it was, and by that act, gained the Blessings of thousands, and the Applause of her own Heart.




Did you enjoy the story, or are you horrified? Both reactions are valid. I think it’s hilarious. It has long been one of my favorites from Austen’s juvenilia, my strong love for which I elaborated upon a few years back for Pride and Possibilities. Do check it out, and have a very happy Eliza Doolittle Day! It is a particularly special day in my house: do you know why? Try to guess my daughter’s name 😉. She doesn't get to do absolutely nothing on her namesake's day, but we do try to make a point of her doing little. It's great fun.

Monday, May 10, 2021

The Seduction of the Waltz

More recycled content, but still a favorite post of mine. I wrote the following in January 2017, hence the recent travel references. Enjoy.

Illustration by Thomas Rowlandson, 1806.

"What a charming amusement for young people this is, Mr. Darcy! -- There is nothing like dancing after all. -- I consider it as one of the first refinements of polished societies." 
"Certainly, Sir; -- and it has the advantage also of being in vogue amongst the less polished societies of the world. -- Every savage can dance."
Mr. Darcy's snide retort to the oblivious Sir William Lucas might have had a different resonance with Austen's contemporaries than it does with modern readers. I always read it in the past with racial overtones, and I think a lot of modern scholars put a post-colonial interpretation on it. The word "savage" undeniably has its colonial implications, yet it is possible Mr. Darcy refers not to the indigenous people of distant continents, but rather to Europe's very own German and Austrian peasantry, spinning about scandalously wrapped in each other's arms. You see, when Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813, Regency society was just being hit with the dance revolution called the waltz. This infiltration from the continent was considered just as libidinous in its time as the pelvic thrusts of Elvis Presley were in his, maybe even more so. Society seems to have had three main objections to the waltz: it required very little training (always dangerously egalitarian), the "closed hold" brought the bodies of dancers together into a heretofore unheard of degree of intimacy, and it eliminated the passing of one's partner to another, keeping a couple anti-socially focused on only each other throughout a set. Jane Austen herself probably never danced a true waltz, being thirty-six and a confirmed spinster when the dance finally made its official debut at Almacks in 1812. Nevertheless, many Austenesque fiction writers can't resist the urge to portray our heroes and heroines engaged in a waltz. We're in good company, as neither can Disney. Admittedly, one can't quite float on air through the steps of a country line dance (nor maintain a solid conversation), but I'm not sure that's enough to explain the unique grasp the waltz has on our imaginations. It takes a very special dance to hold humanity entranced for hundreds of years, and it's ubiquity shows no signs of abating.

I was so fortunate as to spend New Year's Day at the stunningly beautiful Schloss Schönbrunn, the former summer residence of the Hapsburg imperial family. It is hard to visit without having your thoughts turned to the waltz. Walking through the Great Gallery one can vividly imagine the dancers at countless balls across the centuries, twirling about in fabulous gowns and frock coats (they do not allow photography at the Schloss, but you can enjoy an excellent virtual tour of all the rooms open to the public at the Schönbrunn website). This is where the waltz as we know it was born, amidst the dazzling splendor of 18th century Vienna, but its ancestry is far more humble. The Waltzer, a dance for two persons, first developed around the mid-18th century amongst the alpine peasantry in Germany and Austria. At the same, time the LÀndler, another couples dance, became popular with peasants across the Alps, from Switzerland to Slovenia (see it performed in The Sound of Music above). Aristocrats, for generations constrained to performing intricate and controlled dances like the minuet and allemande, seem to have developed something like envy for the freedom allowed their underlings, and the gentleman are said to have snuck off to the parties of their servants in order to indulge in the new fad. Eventually a new form of allemande developed in Vienna, backed by the likes of Mozart, melding the traditional court dance with that of the peasantry. The dance had always been characterized by intricate arm formations and hand grasps with one's partner. Now the close hold was introduced. A few more refinements from the dance masters - less stamping, more gliding - and the waltz was well on its way to arguably being the biggest dance craze of all time. By the beginning of the 19th century, everyone in Europe was waltzing except the Brits.

The Napoleonic Wars are certainly much to blame for delaying the waltz's arrival in London, but society in England was also more conservative than that on the Continent. Dances such as the Duke of Kent's Waltz (see it performed above) were popular at the turn of the century, but these received their names from the act of spinning with one's partner in a tight circle and did not incorporate the closed hold. It wasn't until after the Regency officially began that the waltz had its shocking debut. That first waltz at Almack's was still very different from the forms codified a few decades later, possibly resembling the new form of allemande more than anything else. A version of this survives as a traditional folk dance and can provide some notion of what it might have looked like. Compare the video of it below to that of a baroque allemande to get an idea of how the peasant's Waltzer and lÀndler influenced the dances of the European royal courts.

Whatever it looked like (we will probably never know for certain), the scandal was very real. Even the infamous Lord Byron, no prude by any means, was appalled by the dance and wrote a poem expressing his horror entitled The Waltz in 1813, the same year the world was introduced to Lizzy and Darcy. Here is an excerpt just to give you an idea of how overtly sexual Byron considered the dance:
But ye—who never felt a single thought
For what our morals are to be, or ought; Who wisely wish the charms you view to reap,
Say—would you make those beauties quite so cheap?
Hot from the hands promiscuously applied,
Round the slight waist, or down the glowing side,
Where were the rapture then to clasp the form
From this lewd grasp and lawless contact warm?
At once love’s most endearing thought resign,
To press the hand so press’d by none but thine;
To gaze upon that eye which never met
Another’s ardent look without regret;
Approach the lip which all, without restraint,
Come near enough—if not to touch—to taint;
If such thou lovest—love her then no more,
Or give—like her—caresses to a score;
Her mind with these is gone, and with it go
The little left behind it to bestow.
1815 print by Henry Meyer after G. Williams,
courtesy of The British Museum.

The sanctity of feminine virtue aside, the waltz was in England to stay. The politicos and socialites who flocked to the Congress of Vienna in 1814 and 1815 came home fully enrapt. The danced received the highest sanction in July of 1816, to great uproar. First came the announcement on the 11th of the publication of dance master Thomas Wilson's A Description of the Correct Method of Waltzing, the Truly Fashionable Species of Dancing (which you can view in its entirety here). This codification of the dance for polite society must have been all the Regent was waiting for, as a mere three days later he held a ball at which the waltz was said to be danced for the first time by the royal court (The London Times, 16 July, 1816). Below see an instructional video for the version of the dance as described by Wilson (skip to the very end to watch the steps danced in succession).

For decades to come, the waltz would continue to be condemned for its crudeness and sexuality. Even Queen Victoria's firm advocacy would not completely silence detractors. Would we like the waltz so much if it had? For we cannot deny, even from our jaded, modern perspectives, that the waltz is sexy. It always has been and always will be, even in a world where twerking is de rigueur. Maybe especially in a world with twerking. What would Mr. Darcy say?

Let's end with one last video, this one filmed at Schönbrunn, both in front of the palace and in the Great Gallery. It's a beautiful demonstration of the art and elegance with which this once rustic dance was eventually imbued. The music is the Kaiser Waltz by the waltz master himself, Johann Strauss, and features a ballet interpretation of the music as well as Viennese waltzers. The lead ballerinas are in the guises of Emperor Franz Joseph I and Empress Elisabeth (better known as Sisi), who ruled the Austrian Empire for most of the 19th century.

For more information on the history of the waltz in England, please read Cheryl A. Wilson's excellent essay, The Arrival of the Waltz in England, 1812, to which this piece owes a great debt. I also relied on this post which provides a broader overview of the history of the waltz.

Monday, May 3, 2021

"Epistle from Mrs. Yonge to Her Husband" by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

Portrait of Lady Mary Pierrepont
by Godfrey Kneller
Lately, I've been thinking a lot about Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (nĂ©e Pierrepont - 1689-1762), the rebellious protofeminist that pioneered smallpox inoculation in England. Though largely known for her Turkish Embassy Letters (published posthumously and without her family's consent - like Austen, Lady Mary was also the victim of familial censorship, both through burned letters and image cultivation), written while her husband was ambassador to Constantinople, she also wrote a great deal of poetry. Her audience was her social circle, but some of these made it into print. In lieu of a proper post, I thought I'd share one of her poems with you, remarkably modern in its notions of gender, but be warned: modern audiences making a study of her will be confronted with a great deal of racism in her prose, as really ought to be expected from any 18th century Englishman traveling almost anywhere outside of their home country. Such content will not be reproduced by me here, though I feel obligated to call it out. 

The following poem teases my Janeite head, causing plot bunnies to explode. It is inspired by a scandalous court case from 1724, when Sir William Yonge filed for divorce from his wife, Mary, on grounds of adultery. He discovered that she had taken a lover, one Colonel Norton (who he also successfully sued for damages), and though they were already separated, and despite his many well-documented affairs, he used it as grounds for divorce. In accordance with the laws of the time, the courts found in his favor, bestowing Mary's dowery and the bulk of her fortune upon him in compensation. What happened to Mary Yonge (nĂ©e Heathcote) after being deprived of her social status and wealth? Maybe she decided to disguise her name and set herself up in one of the few professions accessible to ladies at the time, and become a companion to some wealthier lady in need? I know the idea that Mr. Darcy could possibly have hired an infamous divorcee as a companion to his beloved sister is pretty farfetched (and history records that she remarried immediately after the divorce), but my brain keeps toying with the idea, nonetheless. Regardless, it is very possible Austen knew of the court case, and maybe the name did have some nefarious connections for her when she chose it. What it much more certain is that Austen would not have read the following verse, written from Mary Yonge's perspective, as it wasn't published until 1972. I'm not going to provide a lot of context, except that both the "patron" and "the man you fear" are probably Sir Robert Walpole, and that the blanked out names in the last line are Churchill (General John Churchill) and Lowther (Anthony Lowther), both rumoured to have had affairs (the former with Lady Walpole). 

Epistle from Mrs. Yonge to Her Husband (1724)

Think not this paper comes with vain pretense
To move your pity, or to mourn th’ offense.
Too well I know that hard obdurate heart;
No softening mercy there will take my part,
Nor can a woman’s arguments prevail,
When even your patron’s wise example fails.
But this last privilege I still retain;
Th’ oppressed and injured always may complain.
    Too, too severely laws of honor bind
The weak submissive sex of womankind.
If sighs have gained or force compelled our hand,
Deceived by art, or urged by stern command,
Whatever motive binds the fatal tie,
The judging world expects our constancy.
    Just heaven! (for sure in heaven does justice reign,
Though tricks below that sacred name profane)
To you appealing I submit my cause.
Nor fear a judgment from impartial laws.
All bargains but conditional are made;
The purchase void, the creditor unpaid;
Defrauded servants are from service free;
A wounded slave regains his liberty.
For wives ill used no remedy remains,
To daily racks condemned, and to eternal chains.
    From whence is this unjust distinction grown?
Are we not formed with passions like your own?
Nature with equal fire our souls endued,
Our minds as haughty, and as warm our blood;
O’er the wide world your pleasures you pursue,
The change is justified by something new;
But we must sigh in silence—and be true.
Our sex’s weakness you expose and blame
(Of every prattling fop the common theme),
Yet from this weakness you suppose is due
Sublimer virtue than your Cato knew.
Had heaven designed us trials so severe,
It would have formed our tempers then to bear.
    And I have borne (oh what have I not borne!)
The pang of jealousy, the insults of scorn.
Wearied at length, I from your sight remove,
And place my future hopes in secret love.
In the gay bloom of glowing youth retired,
I quit the woman’s joy to be admired,
With that small pension your hard heart allows,
Renounce your fortune, and release your vows.
To custom (though unjust) so much is due;
I hide my frailty from the public view.
My conscience clear, yet sensible of shame,
My life I hazard, to preserve my fame.
And I prefer this low inglorious state
To vile dependence on the thing I hate—
But you pursue me to this last retreat.
Dragged into light, my tender crime is shown
And every circumstance of fondness known.
Beneath the shelter of the law you stand,
And urge my ruin with a cruel hand,
While to my fault thus rigidly severe,
Tamely submissive to the man you fear.
    This wretched outcast, this abandoned wife,
Has yet this joy to sweeten shameful life:
By your mean conduct, infamously loose,
You are at once my accuser and excuse.
Let me be damned by the censorious prude
(Stupidly dull, or spiritually lewd),
My hapless case will surely pity find
From every just and reasonable mind.
When to the final sentence I submit,
The lips condemn me, but their souls aquit.
    No more my husband, to your pleasures go,
The sweets of your recovered freedom know.
Go: court the brittle friendship of the great,
Smile at his board, or at his levee wait;
And when dismissed, to madam’s toilet fly,
More than her chambermaids, or glasses, lie,
Tell her how young she looks, how heavenly fair,
Admire the lilies and the roses there.
Your high ambition may be gratified,
Some cousin of her own be made your bride,
And you the father of a glorious race
Endowed with Ch——l’s strength and Low——r’s face.