Wednesday 26 July 2023

Film Review: The Duchess

 Hi all,

This may be the first time I have posted late in a few years. As an excuse, I did forget today was Wednesday. I've been pecking at a review of a book about rakes, highwaymen and pirates all day, it was a tough book to dry and wrestle down - and then I accidentally deleted it all.

The other thing I did today was make a little video about the adaptation of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire into the film, The Duchess. So I'll post that here now (which makes sense, as the last post was about the book anyway). 

Now I'll start again on the rakes & co book.

It's summer holiday now! Enjoy the rain.

 - Weirdly, this video has kicked off for me, giving me new subscribers and being watched 500 times in two days, it even got 13 likes... this never happens to my videos. It's weird, because I made it pretty hurriedly without the levels of thought, research and editing I usually use for these film/book comparisons. I wonder what's worked about it?

Wednesday 19 July 2023

Review: Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman


Amanda Foreman’s Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire, is the biography of an extraordinary woman, both constrained and liberated by her social position as the leader of London fashion who navigated treacherous political waters and forged a life for herself. It could almost be read as a dark inverse of Cinderella, a woman who snares her Prince Charming, finds a place in high society and finds that beginning of her woes.

It’s a long book and Foreman goes into the psychologies of those involved. I know some people don’t like psychology in their historical biographies, how can a modern person know how someone long dead thought just by their letters and reports of them? I like it myself, because it provides a viewpoint to the book and enlivens it. There have been books where I didn’t agree with the psychology presented, but that disagreement enlivens the book also, and is far better than flat reportage.

As Foreman describes it, Georgiana was brought up to be anxious to please. Her education full of niceties and surfaces, and her inherent wish to be well-liked used to enforce ‘good’ behaviour. Foreman also suggests that most of her problems would stem from this same need; her depressions from an inability of finding internal success, and her desire to please making her easy to manipulate and weak against peer pressure - or should that be Peer pressure?

She married William Cavendish, the Duke of Devonshire, a quiet man who was most expressive with his dogs. He later received the nickname Canis, and is referred in letters as ‘Can’ or ‘C’. Oddly Georgiana received the nickname Rat. William was very aware of his role as Duke, especially the expectation to carry on the family name. He also held up his duty of support for the Whig party, even though politics bored him.

Georgiana started well, steering her way through the astonishingly bitchy world of the ton. She became a leader in fashion, favouring extravagant headpieces, towering ostrich feathers and hair piled high on her head. Devonshire House became a headquarters for Whig politicians and a must-go destination for everyone of fashion. She even gave birth to children but, as the newspapers reported, “The happiness of this occasion is impinged by the sex of the infant”.

It was not a great time for the Whigs politically and they desperately a victory for Charles James Fox (nicknamed by Georgiana ‘The Eyebrow’) in Westminster. Women had long supported their husbands in politics, but Georgiana rustled up a posse of titled ladies to walk the streets of Westminster campaigning. They wore fox-tales on their clothes and would go up to punters on the street and argue politics. Of course, the anti-Whig newspapers were very shabby about the whole thing, making lewd comments about Georgiana caressing her ‘favourite member’ or ‘grasping the Fox’s tail’. I don’t think they’d be any less shabby now.

At home, things got complicated. She’d always had close female friends, getting on very well with Marie Antoinette in France. She met Lady Elizabeth Foster in Bath and had taken to her, inviting her to stay. She generally became Georgiana’s companion and then the lover of Georgiana’s husband. While a terrible shock at first, what emerged was a very strange relationship. Bess and Georgiana’s friendship only got stronger, and they found themselves a bargaining team against William when needed. What’s more, Georgiana and William were freer to relate to each other as people once Bess had entered the role of his lover. While I’m sure it was not an easy relationship, as Foreman portrays it, it really does work well most of the time, with each of the three drawing strength off each other. It certainly seems a healthier thrupple than the one in the previous book read for the Dr Johnson Reading Circle, about William Hamilton/Emma Hamilton and Nelson.

The real thorn in Georgiana’s side seems to be her debts. She run up huge gambling debts early on in her ‘career’ as Duchess and never really got them under control. Being a winning and likeable person she merely found more and more people to borrow from, taking from one to pay another. She also never really comprehended quite how much she owed to how many people, and she kept them a secret from everybody, tangling herself up in the process. The real crisis of Georgiana and William’s relationship was when her debts forced her to go into exile. She hugely missed her children but did gain an interest in geology.

Later in life, Georgiana’s complicated relationships grew more complicated, with a web of legitimate children and bastards between the three. Her money worries also never simplified and she also had an illness in her eye which she had to have extremely painful surgery. While not as public as before, she carried on her politics, forging alliances and becoming more powerful behind then scenes than she had before. She sounds like an 18th Century Malcolm Tucker, creating the media spin and shepherding the unruly politicians.

Halfway through reading the book, I watched the film adaptation The Duchess. Watching that made me realise what a remarkable book this is. The film is dour, bleak and mostly humourless, whereas Georgiana’s life in the book seems a thrilling succession of lows and highs. Yes, she was unfairly hampered by her sex, forced to accept situations that demeaned her, unable to claim all her children - but she also seemed to weave and dodge, making the most of what she could. She could be melancholy, even self-hating, but she was also loving, had a strong relationship with the children she could be near (and tried very hard with the ones she couldn’t). She was open to life and it’s experiences, flexing her creative, intellectual and social muscles and making impacts on the world she lived in. She just seems a bit mopey and pouty in the film.

Amanda Foreman presents a complex woman in a complicated situation, but presents her in the fall range of emotions. It’s very good (though a tad long).

Wednesday 12 July 2023

Visit: Style & Society: Dressing the Georgians at The Queen's Gallery

 Saturday, the day after my birthday and my initial plan to spend it all in the park reading children’s books has hit a couple of snags. The first is some confusion about my shift at Dr Johnson’s House, which meant that I found myself going in (no bother, there were lots of people to natter about Johnson to). The second is that there are frequent and very heavy rain showers. So I make alternative arrangements.

I hop on the tube and wiggle my way to Green Park, across the front of Buckingham Palace and past all the tourists, to The Queen’s Gallery. I went a few years back for a retrospective of the Georgian era and it was very good. This one, Style & Society: Dressing the Georgians, is all about clothes. Though I’m no clothes horse myself, I am interested in what people wore because clothes are literally part of the texture of life. 

The exhibition opens with a painting that featured in The First Georgians, a picture of people milling around St James’s Park. There’s Frederick, Prince of Wales, there are soldiers and fashionable women, there’s even a milk bar. It’s a reminder of how much different classes rubbed up against each other in London and, in the the context of the exhibition, how clothes distinguished people. 

There are a few items which popped up in both exhibitions; the picture of Garrick and his Wife, Reynolds, some Hogarths and, of course, portraits of royals. Catherine, wife of George III was most represented by picture. Probably because her portraits show the changes in fashion, especially the heightening of hair - but I’m sure the latest Bridgerton take on her life has increased name recognition.

It was interesting seeing these pictures in a different context though. The focus on the Garrick picture was not the twinkly-eyed man himself but Eva-Maria Veigel’ and her outfit. The yellow (as well as being a nice contrast with his blue) was a particularly fashionable shade, possibly inspired by Chinoiserie and the yellows of mandarins. The lace on her cuffs would have taken a skilled lace-worker a years worth of 15 hour days for one. Clothes were expensive, even when they weren’t threading actual silver into the material and represented a higher drain on income than rent or food.

Even the royals made do and mended, with one of Catherine’s lace gowns repurposed into covering for books and an example of the earliest royal wedding dress which was altered for other occasions. The exhibition included examples of royal underwear - one of George III’s plain, white undershirts, which would be gathered under instead of pants or boxers. There was a pair of stays, structured with baleen, not bone and apparently as comfortable as a bra. 

The exhibition was in different sections. One showed the development of trousers and included a cartoon of a fat man struggling to get into some new-fangled elasticated breeches - the skinny jean of their day. There was a (presumably small) selection of George IV’s bills, including one for a bar of striped lilac pantaloons. Though he wasn’t outright mocked, my impression of Prinny as a bit of a tit was not lessened. As well as his stocked dressing-up box including a skeleton outfit, there was a book of regimental uniforms he pored over, a hussar uniform he used to swan about in and a huge portrait of him in a completely made up uniform. He often invented uniforms for himself.

To be expected from a royal exhibition, the darker/less majestic sides of the family were played down. It wasn’t mentioned that George III’s shirt was one worn by him as he swanned around bearded and blind in Windsor Castle. In the section on children’s clothes, there was a painting of Prince Octavius in a ‘skeleton suit’, a sort of proto-romper. It was not mentioned that Prince Octavius died and his father, George III took to treating a pillow like his son.

For £18, the trip was certainly on the pricey side, a couple more than a British Library exhibition, but the tickets can be converted to yearly passes just as they can at the Royal Pavilion. This means I can go again if I fancy and, if I’ve timed it right, maybe see the next exhibition there. The audio guide was free and had some really informative extra information about selected items. My only gripe would be that the exhibition didn’t seem to tell a full story. There wasn’t a thesis put forward about how the clothes reflected new changes in modes of life, or reflected separation between court and town or mingling of the classes. It was more like a Dorling Kindersley picture book on Georgian fashion brought to life, and that was interesting enough for me. Especially in a country which rather neglects its eighteenth century history, it was nice to go to something specifically about the era that most fascinates me. I read a children’s book later.

Wednesday 5 July 2023

Review: The Secret Books of Paradys by Tanith Lee

 I was given The Secret Books of Paradys as a present. An eight-year-old girl gave it to me as an end of year present. I unwrapped it and saw a book boasting of ‘a high quality mixing of eroticism, horror and aestheticism’ and ‘top notch demonology…an exquisite and appalling mix of lust and horror, sexual pleasure and loathing, yearning and revulsion’. It seemed a strange choice. I asked the girl what had made her choose this book for me, her reply;

“It was the biggest one in the shop.”

I’ve read a lot of gothic novels on this blog, tracing them from The Castle of Otranto, through the Radcliffe years and to Dracula. All the books seem to be in response to Walpole’s original challenge, to mix the interiority and groundedness of a novel with the imagination and flair of older stories. I still think the genre peaked early with Matthew Lewis’s The Monk, but later gothic novels still had interesting results, such as The Manuscript Found in Saragossa. One of the interesting things about The Secret Books of Paradys is its relationship with the gothic, because these books are less gothic and more goth-ish, or even, simply goth. It’s a book that owes more to The Cure and late The Damned then it does Anne Radcliffe. It’s eyeliner and leather trench coat gothic, Byron via pantomime.

Interestingly, all the chapters are headed by quotes from poems, with Shelley, Blake and Coleridge being used. The most used poet though is Swinburne, signalling a greater fondness for the Decadent school. Aubrey Beardsley would have had a lot of fun illustrating these stories. The decadence is also fitting with the setting, Paradys, an alternate reality Paris with the decadence turned up to eleven, which we meet in various points of its history. 

The Secret Books of Paradys are actually made of four books, the first being The Book of the Damned. This is a collection of four novellas, featuring characters being pulled inexorably into some horror of other. 

The first, Stained with Crimson is essentially a vampire story. A man is given a broach and wishes to give it back to a noble lady. She is not interested in him but his friend, and his friend quickly succumbs to an obvious case of being sucked to death by vampire. However, when the protagonist sleeps and shares blood with her, she is quickly reported dead. A duel follows with her brother in which the protagonist is killed, and then wakes up as a woman. Realising that the brother vampire is his love having changed sex, he hunts him down and they have sex again, changing the vampire back into a woman. When vampire woman kills our protagonist, she wakes up again as a man - the implication is that they will now spend eternity hunting each other, having sex, swapping sex and killing each other.

What drove me crazy, was the mechanic that meant his friend died after the vampirism but he forced the vampire to change sex and later did himself. There seemed to be no reason for this to happen and I racked my brains over it without result. The aim to create a heightened, poetic discourse also made the book easy to parody. When we are told that a woman has a ‘cowl of hair and coals of eyes’, or that ‘timelessly, time advanced’, the lush-o-meter entered into the silly territory.

The second novella in the first book, Malice in Saffron, is more straightforward but nastier. A young woman is raped by her father and escapes into town to get help from her brother. When he doesn’t, she finds herself in a convent by day as a well-behaved nun, but sneaks out at night as the sadistic male leader of a gang of thieves. There first job is to rape and beat up her brother and she uses her position to get revenge as well as score good prizes. Her male side develops into an independent figure, embodying all the evil she sees in men.

Weirdly, the convent may be worshipping Lucifer as a beautiful angel - it’s never made clear if this is happening, and if it is, whether the nuns know it or not. There’s also a suggestion that the window they worship to was put in by her brother’s boss, who is sneaking all sorts of satanic iconography into churches. 

When a plague hits, she becomes a selfless nurse as her female self, leaving the male self behind. She even finds her poor injured brother and nurses him to health by chopping off her arm and feeding it to him when he is weak. Then she goes and prays to the window is taken.. somewhere, presumably by Lucifer.

It’s funny, because the religious elements in this story raise questions about how different Paradys is to our world. There are far more murders and rapes (I hope) and a thinner line between a world of beasties and eldritch horror than ours, but they have Christianity (albeit in churches with names that sound strange to us). Later on, it’s revealed they also have a similar history, including Egyptians and Romans - though Haiti has a different name. I think in the similarity of Paradys and our world, especially religiously, there’s the influence of the gothic. Those works (such as The Monk) are so reliant on Catholicism and older forms of Christianity, that they can’t be completely laid aside in this world.

The last novella in the first book is Empires of Azure. It styles itself as a 1920s noir mystery and is all about a possibly haunted house and its strange occupant. This occupant is a drag show performer who is remarkable for being more than just an imitation of womanhood but to embody it when on stage. This performer is most likely gender-fluid and that fluidity has made them the perfect vessel for the ghost of a hermaphrodite Egyptian priest/ess. It was the most directly written and probably my favourite of the three.

What makes the three novellas notable, is the way each story features an element of sex or/and gender switching. From the sex-swap vampires, to the shadow male persona to the gender-fluid performer, the character’s sexual permeability either draw an eldritch beast to them, or are a result of contact with an eldritch beast. The other three books are concerned with sex and gender but those interests aren’t as explicit in them. They raise questions about how much we fear finding out that gender is more porous and less contained than we realise - in a world where the demon world is also less sealed off than it is here.

The second book, The Book of a Beast is more like a novel, though it’s probably better described as two nesting novellas. 

The first is about a student from the countryside who stays in a dilapidated manor in the city. There’s no one there but two aged servants and a possible ghost. One day he goes to a brothel and mentions to the prostitute where he’s staying, her response is to kill herself with an acidic douche - something is up. He pursues the ghost, who is actually alive, a young woman married into the family years before. She tells him about how her husband turned into a harpy-beast when they had sex (something he was trying to avoid, but she drugged him). She then drugs the student and, as they having sex, she ages and putrefies. He now has the harpy-beast in him and must avoid sex.

The middle is all about a member of the Roman garrison of Paradys when it was first founded. He makes a deal and unleashes the harpy-curse into his bloodline. Then we return to the student and his attempts at exorcism.

This novel had the first hint of humour in this world. The beginning, when the student explores the obviously haunted house, Lee is having a lot of fun with the tropes of haunted houses. It then veers away from that gothic beginning, settling more into the Decadent elements to be expected in Paradys. It also has a lengthy Roman section, which weirdly reminded me a little of Naomi Mitchison’s Behold the Man, a story about Jesus’s crucifixion. There was a similar attitude from the soldiers about following different Gods for practical purposes, as a result of the Roman’s Pax Deorum. 

The third book, The Book of the Dead is a collection of short stories. It again has a more playful tone than the previous books, taking the form of a tour through a graveyard. It’s a little like one of those anthology horror films and the crypt keeper is less formal than previous narrative voices. It’s also a nice conceit that each story happens at a later date than the last, taking us through the City’s history. 

Being short, the stories often have a little twist or punch at the end, often ending on an irony. This book has vagina dentata, a cursed room and a woman with a little homunculus that kills people. There was a voodoo story told in a fictional Haiti called Ha1issa - which raised more questions about what places were the same and which were not.

A particular favourite story was Lost in the World, a pastiche of Arthur Conan-Doyle’s tale, in which a Professor Challenger figure is laughed out of academia for believing in a lost world ruled by a giant. He sets off alone and finds it, but sees no giant. As he is picked up by a huge flying beast to be murdered and fed to chicks, he realises the marble buildings in the distance were the bones of a massive, dead giant. He smiles as he goes to meet his doom.

Though the stories seem slight compared to the previous books, I connected much better to this book as Lee is having more fun with her creation. The best gothic works are those that acknowledge and enjoy the silliness as much as they revel in the drama - it’s that which makes The Monk so good. I had felt that the straight goth-face was too plastered on to crack a smile and it was great to see it.

While I’d enjoyed the previous books of Paradys well enough, it was the fourth one, The Book of the Mad I really enjoyed. 

It takes place in the Paradys the reader has got to know and two alternative versions, Paradise and Paradis. Both these versions seem to be in the future of Paradys, which is portrayed in the late nineteenth century. Paradise is a hell-hole, drinking the river gets you drunk and society seems to have absolutely collapsed. Paradise seems a much nice place, with clean air, helpful technology and a functional society. The book takes a chapter in each place in turn, telling a story that comes together in a very strange way.

In Paradys, a fifteen-year-old girl has been cosseted her whole life, being saved for the marriage market. She is called a baby, still plays with dollies and is constantly reminded how she looks nine or ten. On a visit to the theatre she falls in lust with an actor and when she goes to visit him, he thinks she’s a prostitute and rapes her (biggest problem with all these books, the constant rape). He is himself later sodomised to death with a beer bottle.

The trauma of this event drives the girl mad and she is put in an asylum. It’s the very worst kind of asylum as can be imagined in any gothic or sensation novel, with sadistic keepers and beastly conditions. One of the ‘treatments’ is actually something they used in Bedlam. The recipient was put in a large swing and spun until sick - the idea was that the vomit would settle the humours of the patient, and patients were often a lot more compliant after it.

The patients find a bottle of Penguin Gin, which the keepers are always swilling. They create a mythical land called Penguinia, where everyone is happy and the snow is warm. Then one day, the asylum floods with a tidal wave of gin, which kills all the keepers, and a giant kaiju penguin ushers them into this magical world where they are healed and happy.

This unlikely event is created by the action in the other two worlds. In Paradis, the nice future, the reader meets Leocadia. She’s a pampered, rich artist who feels superior to those around her. She’s the opposite of the main character in Paradys, she’s independent and powerful, and not very nice really.

Her cousin is after her inheritance and trying to stir up stories about how mad she is. One day, after being rude and snotty in a restaurant, Leocadia comes home to find her lover murdered. Then she does snap and is taken to a mental hospital. This hospital is next to the old asylum, where a tide mark still shows a mysterious flood which destroyed the place. The mental hospital is comfortable and she’s given all the comforts from home, even her chilled vodka breakfast. As the reader sees it through her eyes, everything about the place seems menacing and the doctors inscrutable and dangerous. 

One day, her canvases have been taken away so she decides to paint a huge mural based on the bottle of gin she found whilst exploring the ruined asylum. It’s her painting that creates a magic spell that unleashes the giant penguin that saves the people in the old asylum. It also helps her recovery and within six months she is ready to go home and live a happy life.

In Paradise, the hell-hole world, a brother and sister are distinguished by the fact they are not in an incestuous relationship. For some reason, never really established, they have to kill someone every few days. Their uncle has left them his house, which includes a giant ice maze that gives them access to Paradis. They are the ones who hid Leocadia’s paintings and killed her lover, thus putting her into the position to paint a giant penguin and unleash one in the past. They are then crushed by a giant penguin ice sculpture.

The penguin itself is one of the many eldritch beings in the worlds of these stories and is concerned with healing. All the events in the worlds have happened to heal the mental patients in the most peculiar and elaborate plan ever.

I really liked this book, it fulfilled everything the Paradys books had potential to be. It used the hints of actual gothic literature, the Lovecraftian beasties - even the intentional shock elements found in the other stories and made something fun and even quite moving. I’m not much inclined to visit the goth/fantasy genre very often, and I wouldn’t read the first three books of Paradys again but I’d happily re-read this one. I wondered a few times whilst reading these books if the effort was really worth it but I was very happy to find myself at a giant mind-healing penguin.

Not Tanith Lee, it's that one from Shakespeare's Sister, but it's how I picture Tanith Lee.