Month: February 2015

Life Mask

Elizabeth Farren
Elizabeth Farren

It’s time for another Georgian book review! I’ve been reading a lot lately, so I thought I would share with you my thoughts about Emma Donoghue’s Life Mask.

I was drawn to the book, not only but its eighteenth/nineteenth century setting, but the fact that one of the heroines was Elizabeth Farren. I grew interested in Elizabeth after seeing her spectacular portrait at a Thomas Lawrence exhibition. The catalogue explained that she was a famous actress who went on to become a Duchess. How could such a fairy-tale fail to capture my imagination? I was also interested to learn that Elizabeth was a great comic actress, a rival to Dora Jordan. Jordan’s long-term relationship with the Duke of Clarence, late William IV, has ensured her prolonged fame, but Elizabeth Farren has disappeared into some obscurity.

In Life Mask, Emma Donoghue brings Elizabeth to life as determined and proud character. We learn that her life was far from easy as she forged a path for herself from a poor background. Through all her trials, she is shown as guarding her hard-won reputation with jealousy. She keeps the Duke she will eventually marry at arm’s-length until he is single, defying the contemporary stereotype of actresses with loose-morals. Through Elizabeth, we get to explore the world of the eighteenth-century theater in all its bawdy glory, braving rowdy audiences and meeting some of the leading lights of the age. Donoghue shows that Elizabeth could be ruthless and was prepared to sacrifice friendships for the sake of her career. But in spite of, or perhaps because of that, I rather liked her.

Life Mask is not written entirely from Elizabeth Farren’s point of view. One of the narrators is the Duke of Derby, her future husband. His part of the story provides a fascinating insight into Georgian life and politics, especially the expectations on the Georgian man. Although Derby was caricatured for being short and ugly, his wealth and status ensured him a good position in society. He is represented as a man of his time, taking us into the bloody world of cock fights and the fast-paced arena of horse-racing. What appealed to me most about Donoghue’s portrayal of Derby was his state of flux – at once a reformer and an aristocrat, he often finds himself in a difficult position. Doggedly loyal to the Whig Charles James Fox, he is nonetheless jealous of his ancestral rights. It was interesting, from my perspective, to see the inner workings of the Whig party. After spending my time studying Pitt and George III, I got the chance to sit in the other side of the camp, where they were referred to as ‘the Eunuch’ and ‘Old Satan’. I have to say, I came to understand Fox and his party much better. Derby’s political sympathies appeal to the reader and his devotion to Elizabeth is touching. While he is shown as being somewhat harsh to his first wife and indifferent to his children, this romantic worship of an actress rather wins us to his side.

Elizabeth Farren by Anne Seymour Damer
Elizabeth Farren by Anne Seymour Damer

The star of this show, however, has to be the sculptress Anne Seymour Damer. A widow, estranged from her husband before his death, she has grown used to governing her own life. She is first introduced to us as she befriends Elizabeth and begins work on her bust for display at the Royal Academy. However, as the story progresses, we find that the Life Mask of the title is the mask that Anne is wearing, hiding her progressive attitudes from the world. Somewhat outcast by her single state and daring to enter the realm of the arts, Anne focuses her life on sculpture and friendships. Sadly, these friendships begin to fall away before distressing gossip. She has to re-evaluate all the relationships she has known and come to terms with the fact that the rumours about her could be true. Her struggle provides a wonderful exploration of the female state and sexuality in the eighteenth-century, covering such diverse topics as intense friendships through to the legal nonentity of a wife. It is only towards the end of the story that Anne is finally able to embrace what she truly is and live the life she wants, in spite of society. She is helped along in her journey by the blue-stocking Mary Berry and Horace Walpole.

I have to admit that Donoghue made rather too much use of her research in this book. I did feel like I was being hammered with facts at times. There were parts that dragged for me and, had I not been interested in the period to start with, may have made me give up reading. Much could have been edited, however the excellence of Donoghue’s writing shines through in some truly beautiful phrasing. What is more, she makes you truly interested in the lives of the people she writes about. I was keen to do my own research and find out more about the real historical figures straight after reading. I particularly enjoyed her representation of Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill. I am now very eager to visit his Gothic mansion and see some of the scenes from the book with my own eyes.

On the whole, I would say that perhaps Life Mask does not work as a novel – I would struggle to tell you the story or the plot. It meanders and does not compel you in the way a novel should. Nonetheless, it is a great piece of creative biographical writing, and one I think her subjects would be very flattered by.

9781844081752

Posted in Reading | Comments Off on Life Mask

Caroline and George

caroline-of-brandenburgThe relationship between George II and his Queen, Caroline of Ansbach, was far from simple. The love they shared is hardly the stuff that dreams are made of – she manipulated him; he cheated on and humiliated her. And yet this partnership was the most successful of the Hanoverian dynasty, ending only with Caroline’s death after thirty-two years of marriage. In the spirit of Valentine’s day, I thought I would dwell on the romantic aspects of their love. There are many sweet anecdotes, not to mention George’s famous love letters.

Their story starts off like a fairy-tale. Caroline was a beautiful, orphaned princess growing up under the protection of George’s aunt, nicknamed Figuelotte. Figuelotte wanted Caroline to wed her own son, but the princess was not keen on the young man. As fame of Caroline’s beauty and intellect spread, she attracted many suitors, among them Archduke Charles of Austria. But the right marriage came in the most unlikely form.

406073_151546_LPR_0_0In June 1705, Caroline received three unexpected visitors: Baron von Eltz, his servant and Monsieur de Busch. They stopped, supposedly, on their way back to Hanover, to present compliments from the Hanoverian Chief Minister. But in fact, ‘Monsieur de Busch’ was George Augustus in disguise. He came to spy on the princess he had heard so much about and see if she was as agreeable as everyone said. She was – George was instantly smitten. From then on ‘he would not think of anybody else’. He ran back home and told his father he wanted to marry Caroline. The proposals were made immediately, George being ‘seized with such an affection and desire for her, that he is most eager to marry her without delay.’ The ceremony took place on 2 September, just three months after the initial meeting of Caroline and ‘Monsieur de Busch’.

In February 1707, Caroline produced her first child, the desired son and heir, Frederick. But her health remained poor following the birth. By July she had come down with smallpox and pneumonia – a deadly combination. The distraught George refused to leave her side, nursing her through the illness and finally contracting it himself.This sacrificial devotion served to bring the couple even closer together and, thankfully, they both recovered.

By 1709 a second child was born, Anne. George was away at the time of the birth but wrote Caroline one of his fabulously romantic letters.

I have just received the good news of the birth of a daughter at which  feel all imaginable pleasure… I am only a little bit angry that it caused you pain. You should know me well enough my very dear Caroline to believe that everything that concerns you is infinitely precious to me. This new token of your love attaches me the more deeply to you and I assure you dear heart that I love the baby without having seen it. Adieu my dearest heart, for God’s sake take care of yourself and the young family, particularly the new-born infant who at present has the most need of care. The peace of my life depends upon knowing you in good health and upon the conviction of your continued affection for me. I shall endeavour to attract it by all imaginable passion and love and I shall never omit any way of showing you that o one could be more wholly yours dear Caroline than is your George Augustus.

George would continue to show attention to his wife in her childbearing. In later years, he entered the birthing chamber itself to resolve a quarrel between her ladies and the midwife. And the letters didn’t stop, either. In his memoirs, Lord Hervey recalled couriers arriving weekly with ‘a letter of sometimes sixty pages, never less than forty.’

Caroline was to prove the strength of her attachment to George in 1718, when she was faced with an impossible choice: leaving her husband or her children. She was a fond and good mother, but she said her children were not worth ‘a grain of sand’ in comparison to him. Her sacrifice was rewarded richly by the time she became Queen . She was entrusted with the Regency of Britain on several occasions. George fixed her jointure at £100,000, then made Richmond Lodge and Somerset House over to her. Happily, by this time, she was also reunited with the children.

The last few years of Caroline’s life were not easy ones. Her relationship with George was rocky and he was frequently scolding her. He also sought her advice and opinion on his love affairs, of all things. But all this was forgotten when Caroline collapsed in November 1737. Once again George became the devoted husband, sleeping fitfully at the foot of her bed and kissing her hand repeatedly. This time there was no hope of recovery. The couple’s parting was both touching and comical. To quote from my previous post about Caroline’s death:

Caroline … urged him to marry again. Crying, he said he would have mistresses instead. Still unable to resist a joke, Caroline cried “My God! That never stopped you before.”  But George would stand by his words – he never took another wife. As he explained, he never saw another woman “fit to buckle Caroline’s shoe”. Caroline removed the ruby ring placed on her finger at the coronation and put it in her husband’s hand, saying “This is the last thing I have to give you. All I ever possessed came from you. My will you will find a very short one: I give all I have to you.”

The strength of George’s grief took everyone by surprise. He ‘showed a tenderness of which the world thought him before utterly incapable’. He cried when giving speeches and left drawing rooms early. His daughter Amelia removed the queens from his pack of cards to save his feelings. George was once again ‘Monsieur de Busch’, devoted to his departed wife. In a frenzy almost worth of Wuthering Heights, he ordered a hackney chair to take him to the vault where Caroline was buried and spent hours by her tomb. Then, to end the love story with the romance that it had begun, George wrote down his wishes for his own burial. Not only did he want to be buried next to Caroline, but he ordered for the sides of the coffins to be removed, so that their ashes might mingle. It was a very sweet end to what was, undoubtedly, an extremely strange marriage.

If you want to find out more about George and Caroline, look out for my book Mistress of the Court in August!