Wednesday 29 April 2020

Review: 'Charlotte' by Kathryn Shevelow

In 1717 a four year old girl woke up and got out bed. She went downstairs where she found her father’s coat and sword but most importantly, his luscious, bouffant periwig. She walked out the house and went into a ditch, where she marched up and down, doing impressions of her father in as gruff a voice as her young larynx would allow. People stopped to look at the strange vision, a miniature version of one of the most famous actors of the day. Her father was Colley Cibber, the little girl was Charlotte.

Charlotte and I have met a number of times. She’s popped up in original cast lists of Fielding plays, she’s appeared lurking around in various Hogarth prints, she took part in Christopher Smart’s Mother Midnight transvestite review. 

However, I first met her in the book Midnight Mirage by Karen Harper. I’d picked up that book at a bus stop for its garish cover but find inside a well researched and fascinating story taking characters from history, including Charlotte Cibber, who I’d described as ‘a liberated crossdresser who was much fun’.

I’ve had this biography sitting on my shelves for a number of years and I am so upset I hadn’t picked it up sooner, as it is a well told story about an engaging person living in a fascinating world. In some ways it would be much better to talk about Charlotte and define her separate from the men in her life but it’s not possible, the fact that she was daughter to a leading actor, that her older brother, Theophilus viewed the Drury Lane Theatre as his birthright; that she’d grown up into (what could have become) an acting dynasty, that she so identified life with theatre that she would always use a theatrical reference to explain it (like nerds and their media) and that she spent a large part of her career performing parodies of her male relatives, mean that she is inextricably linked to them. 

I really took to her as described in this book, much as I did in the novel. She seems to be such a resolute, playful individual. When her family disowned her, she simply worked for a rival theatre company. When the new licensing laws shut that down, she had elaborate puppets made and put on plays. When she got sick and had to sell the puppets (at a loss) she starts selling oil, then sausages, then becomes a strolling actor, then an author - she simply doesn’t give up. 

For a while she ran her own theatre company called the ‘Mad Company’. They performed The Beggar’s Opera in Roman dress and planned on a revival of Samuel ‘Magotty’ Johnson’s Hurlothrumbo with Charlotte as a cross-dressed Lord Flame (though whether is stilts, it wasn’t said). 

This was about the time Charlotte started dressing as a man off stage as well as on. Why, exactly she did it can only be speculated on, it probably fulfilled many different needs at different points in her life. It’s certain that she spent a period of her life as ‘Mr Brown’ with a woman known as ‘Mrs Brown’ but the extent of that relationship isn’t clear. Nor is it clear how much her crossdressing were factors in her family disowning her, but there is something fascinating about a woman who lived boldly as herself (whatever that self actually was).

I have Colley Cibber’s memoirs, I’d love a copy of Charlotte’s - though this biography gives us more just a life, it’s a really good summary of the politics and the precarious lives of actors. We also meet people like Theophilus, in the novel I described him as, “a selfish, vindictive, tosser who spends his wife’s money on gambling and has no theatrical knowhow.’ This book agrees that he was a difficult man but not that he was untalented. I was fascinated to learn that he was born during the Great Storm and saw that a metaphor for his life and relationships, finally he would die in a little storm in a boat travelling to Ireland. For all of his excesses (and it’s hard not to see him as a villain when it comes to Susannah Arne - the topic of the novel), I felt sorry for him. He was a man who could never quite become the person he thought he should, and he stuck with Charlotte when no one else did.

He deserved better, as did Charlotte - I’m beginning to think Colly deserved less. Thankfully though, Charlotte has received fair, even glowing treatment in this utterly readable and very interesting biography.

Wednesday 22 April 2020

Popular Fiction by Women 1660-1730 (Title Page)

Having worked through this anthology systematically, it seemed sensible to have a page where each review can be linked to with maybe a small summary review of each piece.

This is that page.
The History of a Nun by Aphra Behn
A constant surprise and delight with a great ending.

The Secret History of Queen Zarah by Delrivier Manley (but not actually)
A little flat, not particularly sparkling characters but interesting to read after watching the film ‘The Favourite’.

Love Intrigues by Jane Barker
A well told story of miscommunicated love with a slightly disappointing ending.

The Adventures of the Count de Vinevil by Penelope Aubin
Racist, islamaphobic, all together icky and generally unpleasant which made in engaging in an anti-likeable way.

The British Recluse by Eliza Haywood
Well told brace of ‘rake’ stories which are good examples of their genre and don’t go on forever and have an empowering ending, unlike some (*cough* Clarissa *cough*).

Fantomina by Eliza Haywood
Utterly nutty and daft with a wonderfully batty story seen through to the bitter end. Best story here.

The Reformed Coquette by Mary Davys
Also wonderfully over the top, especially in terms of all the cartoony-sneaky rakes who want to abduct our heroine. Second best book here. 

Extracts from Friendship in Death by Elizabeth Singer Rowe
Perhaps this makes sense in full better than as extracts, but letters from dead people to living, telling them all the secrets they’ve learned since they died, it’s rather strange.

Sunday 19 April 2020

Journal of the Plague Year 2020 (Entry Eight: The Easter Walk)

Entry Eight: An Easter Walk

Easter Sunday, I went for a stroll
Through empty streets to Gladstone Park
I wandered freely without a goal
Needing to leave behind home’s dark

Instead of left, I dared turn right
Where daisies smiled, glad to be seen
Their petals were so brilliant white
A star map spread out on the green

A dandelion yellow with its crown
Corona shining bright and gay
Another was decked in fleecy down
I blew the fairy seeds away

Off they flew like wishes or warning
Droplets in the air that morning

Entry One: A Cough in a Box (22.2.20 - 28.2.20)
(Coronavirus is a rumble among other stories but silly stories start early.)

Entry Two: Eat More Garlic (29.2.20 - 6.3.20) 
(A song and a wash, rising paranoia.)

Entry Three: A Guilty Sigh (7.3.20-13.3.20) 

(Confusion at school, a new variation on 'it' and a new chat up line.)

Entry Four: A Week as Schrödinger's cat (14.3.20-20.3.20) 

(A week at school where it's open, closed then repurposed as something else.)

Entry Five: Lego and Ice-cream (21.3.20-27.3.20)

(In which much of what we called life goes online.)

Entry Six: A Reverse Joker  (28.3.20-3.4.20)
(A trip to the supermarket in this new era.)

Entry Seven: Fine Dining (4.4.20 - 10.4.20)
(A posh dinner - ish.)

Wednesday 15 April 2020

Review: Friendship in Death by Elizabeth Singer Rowe

The last part of this anthology consists of only a selection from the text, which is a pity because if any text in this anthology deserves the chance to speak fully for itself it’s ‘Friendship in Death’ by Elizabeth Singer Rowe. The notion is not completely original, there’s a late classical model, but there’s something very strange about the central notion, dead people writing to the living.

The selection is such: The first is a letter to an atheist Lord from a friend declaring that atheism might not be the way forward; the second is the two year old son of a countess asking why she mourns his death when he’s having a great time with the cherubim, the third is a woman now glad she died before running off with a young lover, the fourth is a very confusing story about mislaid babies which may mean he is the recipient’s dead lover and brother and the fifth is a dead brother telling his sister how great it is to be dead.

It strikes me that this book points to the morbid and sentimental excesses of the Victorian Era in all of it’s cloying unpleasantness. Or it’s yet another innovative way to tell the same four stories about rakes, shepherds and such. I’m not sure. Perhaps it makes better sense as a whole.

Whichever it is, these extracts are such an unsettling and destabilising way of ending the anthology, I have to applaud them.

Sunday 12 April 2020

Journal of the Plague Year 2020 (Entry Seven: Fine Dining)

Entry Seven: Fine Dining

On Saturday and Sunday I became gripped with an insatiable urge to clean everything. Each book was taken off the shelf and individually dusted, each bookcase washed down, all my trinkets and knick-knacks polished. I even pulled my bed out to the other side of the room to tackle the dust down there. This urge was abetted by my landlord’s installation of a washing machine in the unrented flat next door to use as a laundry room during this whole corona period. All day and deep into the night I was washing and drying all the various sheets and bits and bobs I’ve had laying around. 

For a break, I took my clothe’s horse down to the front of the house along with a chair and a book. There I sat, slightly jutting out on the path, enjoying some of the first good sun this year, a year mostly defined by rain and storm. Normally I wouldn’t consider sitting out on the street like that but all normality be hanged.

Politically, this was the week that the Queen gave a very measured speech and PM Boris Johnson was moved into intensive care but whereas I had found myself raking through twitter and reading all the news possible, I began to feel that a cursory glance is enough. Certainly, headlines about mass graves do not foster an attitude of ‘resilient good humour’.

On Thursday I took my official government mandated walk™ through Gladstone Park. The sun was shining and the sky was blue, everything was glorious and wonderful. I was naughty, sat on the grass a long way away from anyone else and just sat. After a while sitting became laying and after a while laying became snoozing. Suddenly, this almighty roar woke me and I sat straight up. What was that terrible racket? It was a plane. I grew up next to Gatwick Airport, I should not be surprised by a plane but there was something so violent about the noise, so strange seeing it lumber through the sky after only a few weeks not seeing one.

My nap interrupted, I started walking back home, half skipping through the grass, picking up white dandelions to blow on and let fly. As I was gambolling around, I felt a deep and wonderful peace with the world, then I slipped on a dogshit and fell over. Luckily I didn’t fall into it and I only had one shoe to clean but it ended my reverie for the moment. I plodded home, trying to scrape my shoes and watched a jogger run past me in a rainbow unicorn onesie and snowboots.

On Thursday night, I had something a little special planned. People at school were having a video formal dinner, the idea being to have something to dress up for and feel like there was something to look forward to. There was even a proper invite.

I tried to cook something sort of posh, more than my usual stews and curries.

I also dressed in my velvet jacket and bow tie, even lit a candle.

For most of the first bottle of wine, things were genteel. Then they deteriorated. Somewhere before the half bottle of Drambuie I danced with a chair. There were chats about body part names, a woman from South Africa who said that corona was saving lives because the murder rate was brought down, something about pom bear porn - porn bears? There was also a chat about people spending less time washing after the loo because they were so washed the other times, and a comment that the weekly clap for the NHS was the wildest thing happening in High Wickham these days.

After that, I’m not totally sure. I managed to get home to my bed from my table but I’m not completely sure how.

We plan to do it again next week.

Entry One: A Cough in a Box (22.2.20 - 28.2.20)
(Coronavirus is a rumble among other stories but silly stories start early.)

Entry Two: Eat More Garlic (29.2.20 - 6.3.20) 
(A song and a wash, rising paranoia.)

Entry Three: A Guilty Sigh (7.3.20-13.3.20) 

(Confusion at school, a new variation on 'it' and a new chat up line.)

Entry Four: A Week as Schrödinger's cat (14.3.20-20.3.20) 

(A week at school where it's open, closed then repurposed as something else.)

Entry Five: Lego and Ice-cream (21.3.20-27.3.20)

(In which much of what we called life goes online.)

Entry Six: A Reverse Joker  (28.3.20-3.4.20)
(A trip to the supermarket in this new era.)

Entry Seven: Fine Dining (4.4.20 - 10.4.20)

(A posh dinner - ish.)

Wednesday 8 April 2020

Review: The Reformed Coquette by Mary Davys

The Reformed Coquette by Mary Davys is definitely my second favourite in this anthology. It’s another wonderfully over the top story that used elements from theatre but also elements which may look absurd in theatre and are, if anything, cartoon gags brought to the page.

Our latest woman with an improbable and unmemorable name is Amoranda and I hope it’s no surprise that she is exceedingly attractive and witty. From a very early age she is told of her beauty and she quickly believes it. She spurns her dollies and all childish amusements and works on practicing her languid looks and seductive poses. The mother and father, having her late in their lives, and she be the only surviving child, encourage this behaviour and very quickly snuff it, leaving her with everything and only a distant uncle as protector.

We know where this book is going, there’s a man called Lord Lofty who has nice legs and a winning way but it’s not as straightforward as that. Amoranda is not a pure innocent who shall be won over by the first tight-bunned bowing gentleman because she was a “Heart like a Great Inn, which finds room for all that come” and there are more people with designs on her. 

There are two other men, Froth and Callid - one being all affectation and the other dourness (guess which is which) and they are fed up of being played around by Amoranda, for there’s another thing about her, she may be a little too open and a little too keen on flattery but she’s no idiot. She also has a sense of humour. Amoranda enjoys playing them off with each other and the two of them off of Lord Lofty. 

She’s also one of the very few women characters I’ve read in eighteenth century literature who are described as witty and actually gets a chance to show it. When walking with Lord Lofty, she sees the other two men fishing and says to him, “Let’s go fish.” He, not happy with being blown off again declares, “hang the fish,” to which she replies, “I suppose we should, for they’ll not drown.” It’s not a great joke - but it is an actual joke and a far cry from Charlotte Lennox’s Sophia where we were told again and again of her wit and never saw it.

Back to Froth and Callid though, who plan to abduct Amoranda, one to rape her and the two to share their fortune. Luckily she find out about this plan but doesn’t know what to do about it. Again she’s in luck though as an agéd and bearded representative of her uncle turns up with a plan. He and a young manservant plan to dress as Amoranda and her maid, wait to be abducted and then beat the rapscallions up with cudgels. 
This plan works better than expected, the two cads hurt everywhere but their tongues and are quickly sent packing. They also blame each other for the plan going wrong and run each other through in a duel. This leaves only Lofty to dispatch of.

Again, just by chance, a young woman called Altimira passes by. She has a sob-story about the Lord Lofty. He was playing the typical rake game like Lysander before and had his wicked way with her, winning her over with a promise to marry which suspiciously disappeared - and which he’d accidentally dropped in Amoranda’s garden, getting ready to play the same trick again. This mean Amoranda (with the help of her uncle’s agéd friend) can force Lofty to marry Altimira, which is apparently a happy result.

And this should be where the book ends but it isn’t. It’s where things get truly weird.

On her way back from celebrating Lord Lofty and Altimira’s wedding, her coach is overtaken and overturned as armed men try and steal her away but are driven off by a group of men led by her uncle’s agéd friend. 

A little later a friend of Amoranda’s turns up with a friend of her own. Uncle’s agéd F is sure that the second woman is a man in disguise, but Amoranda thinks that a ridiculous premise. She admits, she finds it strange that the new woman doesn’t want to share a bed with her, but she must only be shy. It’s on a lovely boating trip for the three women into the impenetrable woods that Amoranda discovers it’s not so ridiculous after all. The enfrocked man and his evil, female accomplice drag her off, luckily she is rescued by a mysterious hot man she sort of recognises. There’s a fight and man-in-dress dies quite horribly, it also turns out he was the coach attacker earlier.

Now is the mystery, who was hot man and does it matter because uncle’s choice of husband is coming soon. Well, it’s all fine as uncle’s agéd bearded friend was none other than hot man, who is also uncle’s choice of husband. Amoranda did wonder why his beard never seemed to grow and was always so neat. 

They marry, happy endings all round - and it’s pretty obvious what a peculiarly cartoony piece of work it is, with it’s tidy sticky-on beard and men dressed as women who are mostly convincing. Not to mention people doing away with each other in duels and toffs leaving important secret boxes about. It’s not quite a parody of the genre, but it has enormous fun with the ridiculous nature of this kind of novel and I had fun with it.

Sunday 5 April 2020

Journal of the Plague Year 2020 (Entry Six: A Reverse Joker)

Entry Six: A Reverse Joker

Another week’s gone. Another week. It barely feels like it, one day and another have rather merged. I have a routine now, I wake up, drink tea and log on my computer and ‘work from home’. I have a notion of what this is now, I set work, mark some but largely find myself as tech support for children writing in that they, ‘don no wat to do’. They knew how to write last month.

I’ve got them into geo-guesser, that’s an achievement of sorts.

Yet again, I panicked about food, I thought I would have to do something disgusting like buy a tin of baked beans, as they say desperate Heinz call for desperate measures.

Actually, I do have a bit of a story.

I originally wanted to go to the supermarket Thursday afternoon thinking that it might be a good time but was convinced by everybody that I should go early on Friday, so I did. I didn’t go unfairly early, I left the time for the NHS workers and the older people but got there pretty much as early as I could. The queue stretched out into the carpark but that was as much a result of everyone being meters apart than anything else.

As I went around, I looked at what was there, the selection was pretty decent. I bought a ham bigger than my face, reasoning that I could turn it into pea and ham soup, some stock as well as generally having ham sandwiches and ham with veg.

I definitely did put bread in my basket.

When I got to the checkout, they’ve installed these huge screens to protect the people working there. I started to load the conveyor belt and it started to move. To catch up with it, I moved up to add my things but was promptly told off.

It was about then I think I left my bread to one side.

I paid and packed and it was all smiles and then I went home. When I arrived, I found I’d somehow not bought bread. I also discovered that I’d done my whole trip with a massive smear of toothpaste round my mouth, not a small dab but a full on lipstick of white, a reverse Joker. I wish there had been someone to tell me.

Also, we tried to play wink murder on googlechat, it doesn’t work. The problem is not that the detective catches the murderer too easily, it's that everyone thinks that the wink is for them and dies. Wink A-Bomb.

Entry One: A Cough in a Box (22.2.20 - 28.2.20)
(Coronavirus is a rumble among other stories but silly stories start early.)

Entry Two: Eat More Garlic (29.2.20 - 6.3.20) 
(A song and a wash, rising paranoia.)

Entry Three: A Guilty Sigh (7.3.20-13.3.20) 

(Confusion at school, a new variation on 'it' and a new chat up line.)

Entry Four: A Week as Schrödinger's cat (14.3.20-20.3.20) 

(A week at school where it's open, closed then repurposed as something else.)

Entry Five: Lego and Ice-cream (21.3.20-27.3.20)
(In which much of what we called life goes online.)

Wednesday 1 April 2020

Review: Fantomina by Eliza Haywood

Fantomina is the only book from this collection that I had already read and was a big reason I wanted to read it, because Fantomina is the most wonderfully crazy concoction. A balls-to-the-wall pantomime of the most wonderful sort.

A young woman of “unaccountable whimsey“ and “wild unaccountable desires” sees a man she fancies at the theatre. She is all too respectable to go up and speak to this dreamboat but she notices all the masked prostitutes who flirt with the man freely so she decides to call herself Fantomina and do just that. Things go better than she could ever hope, not only is she flirting with this handsome young man but he wants more. The narrator reflects that if this man knew the class of woman he is putting the moves on, he would have backed down but he doesn’t know and the two have a wonderful time. 

This goes on for a number of months but he starts to get tired of his masked madam so he goes off to Bath to seek new pleasures. She secretly follows, dressed as a halloween costume sexy countrywoman outfit. The man doesn’t realise this is the woman he’s been with for the last few months, falls in love with her again and they have a wonderful time.

However, after a month he again begins to tire of her and goes back to town. This time she dresses up as a sexy widow. The man doesn’t force his attentions or come out forthright this time, he woos the widow gently and carefully and our heroine realises that the game is as much part of the fun as anything else. However, once the game is done and the two are again shagging, he gets bored of the widow quicker than he had Fantomina and the country wench.

So our heroine dons another mask and sends teasing letters as Incognita. This starts to work but our heroine realises that she is pregnant and it’s getting harder to hide. Worse, her mother spots it, quickly gets the truth about which man has done this to her daughter and uses the Incognita ruse to get him to meet them. The man is shocked and utterly bewildered when a pregnant woman on a couch explains how his last four lovers were all her in various disguises and the mother is so ashamed of her daughter she sends her to a nunnery.

I love this story. I love the fact there is an element of power fantasy. The unnamed woman has the power to be anybody, to try out all sorts of social roles in order to trap the man she fancies. He is obviously an idiot and she is a scheming fantasist but there is something gleefully vivacious and larger than life about Fantomina’s plotting and the whole book in general.

Best one in the collection, highly recommended.