Wednesday, October 12, 2016

One thing leads to another

One thing leads to another. Buying, packing, moving, and unpacking has meant houses and (balcony) gardens are on my mind; the last thing I was reading before commencing this particular five mile trek was Deborah, the Duchess of Devonshire's The House: A Portrait of Chatsworth (MacMillan, 1982). I found this book because the search for decorating color scheme ideas led me to google "eighteenth century" in general. (I seem to remember instructions about combining black, ice blue, red, sage, and lemon yellow, and dubbing it vaguely "Regency.") There, amid links to eighteenth-century matters, including the career of the very famous, scandalous Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire and some scholarly articles about this and that, cropped up several links to obituaries for the more contemporary lady whom we might call our Duchess. 

It turns out that our duchess Deborah, nee Mitford, sister of the (not very interesting) authoress Nancy, was not scandalous at all. In in fact she was quite the respected chicken-keeper and country house chatelaine, enthusiastic reverser of staircases and preserver of rotting historic velvets and "slub" silks. Writer, too. Altogether she was just about the perfect person to happen to fall into respectful responsibility for an English stately home. It's a curious thing. She became a duchess of course by marrying a man who became a duke. But he had an older brother who would have inherited if he had not been killed in World War II, and that older brother was actually married to a Kennedy -- Kathleen, one of Joseph and Rose Kennedy's huge family and therefore sister of the future president. What a "Duchess Kathleen" would have made of Chatsworth, who knows, perhaps something marvelous, too. Although one suspects the Kennedy money might have made "the House" a bit too shiny and new. I must mention that my copy of The House, to my surprise, proved to be signed by her -- Deborah-ed -- Grace.

I was saying one thing leads to another. In the middle of the book she quotes a nineteenth-century predecessor duke's inventory of his statuary. This included busts, full figures, and medallions of everything and everyone the West found fascinating, like mythic heroes or Napoleon's scandalous sister Pauline posing as Venus, back in the days when young gentlemen made the Grand Tour and bachelor dukes bought entire, ancient marble slabs for flooring, "at Rome."

That name, Pauline Borghese (nee Bonaparte), struck me. Perhaps she could be a candidate for our "celebrity historic personality" column here? I know we had been studying Tancred of Hauteville for a while. "... for the Princess Borghese, when compelled not to talk about dress, was extremely entertaining, and full of the histories of her times" (p. 186).

But I began reading a little about her elsewhere and thought, well, perhaps not. Pauline may just have been famous for being famous. One doesn't begrudge a woman her private life, but what interest can one take in her whose first lover was a certain ghastly French revolutionary, Freron, a signer of orders for mass executions? Biographer Hector Fleishmann (Pauline Bonaparte and her Lovers, 1914), thinks that Napoleon scotched the couple's marriage because even he, no stranger to bloodshed, would not have the wretch allied with his family. Wikipedia says it was Madame Mere, mother of the brood Laetizia Bonaparte, who opposed.

All this returns me to a thought I have had before. Pauline Bonaparte Borghese only had a famous life because her brother was Napoleon. She pretended to no other significances that I know of. After Freron she was married off, and reluctantly took ship for Haiti because her husband had just been appointed provincial governor there. When for her second marriage she treated herself to, or was proffered to or if you like was able to catch, one of the superbest names in the Italian aristocracy, a Borghese! -- she got the villas and the title "princess" and she made sure to get a promise of "the use of the Borghese family diamonds." Meanwhile the lovers came and went. If you wish to see her body you may look at Canova's Venus. People who have reason to write about her always parrot the same story here: that when asked whether she did not find it 'difficult' to pose nude for Canova, la divina Paola lightly replied oh no, it was no trouble. His studio was heated.

All in all, she seems to have ridden the crest for one short life. She died at 45, "full of the histories of her times." Unlike her first lover, she did no harm. The question she prompts is, how do we make art out of history, when the founding characters to be dealt with are merely Pauline-esque? Or worse, Freron-like? In our own era it seems we have still another type which will one day be fodder for art but which is least worthy of all. These are the little, cocooned authoritarians who risk nothing, glide into power, quietly sever three or four arteries, and then when confronted perhaps glide away. I am thinking of Lois Lerner, and of what sort of great speech or aria could be written for her. There's no question of sculpture. Valerie Jarrett, the same, except there's no question of her being confronted and gliding away. A composer or a playwright of talent will want to make these people complex, changeable, chasten-able, if only by their own fates. But how so, unless future talent just makes stuff up? In life it's difficult to imagine these women understanding the meaning of the word "chasten." And because of that, it's offensive to imagine art, in the future, plumping them up and making them characters with a capital C.

If your politics or your interests are different you might substitute other names under "cocooned little authoritarian," besides La Lerner. But it is helpful to consider what eras artists tend to mine for material, and which historic figures in them pop up most often. The Tudors are the never-ending franchise for romance novels, television dramas and, years ago, operas. Among them Anne Boleyn stands very high in interest, Jane Grey hardly at all; yet both were young women of the same rank and both suffered the same death. Why the difference in attention? As far as exterior lives, action, goes, the one lived a little longer, married, and had children, so there is more "there." But romance loves also to mine the life of a virgin martyr from another time, Joan of Arc. Lack of children and a teen death are not an insuperable obstacle to a character being interesting. It seems Jane Grey was a superb person who went to the scaffold with eerie resignation. Anne Boleyn, truthfully, was probably a sort of boring high school prom-queen shrew. At the end she kept twisting about and looking behind her for the king's messenger bearing the pardon which never came. That's not a black mark against her, being no more than what we would do. Perhaps just that sort of behavior accounts for the difference in attention these two get in art. We want to see normal people, like us, on the stage or in our novels, not perfect doves. And not necessarily giants. Speaking of Pauline (remember?), where are the plays and operas about her brother?

Perhaps what we want to see above all in art is risk, risk-taking. (Not the same thing as "conflict." And not risk among giants.) As far as interior lives go, -- the source material to be perhaps plumped up -- Jane Grey, superb person, saintly scholar, walked through life an obedient dove reading Greek, and was sacrificed. Anne Boleyn, sometimes rather awful, reached out from safety to get something more, and was sacrificed. Joan of Arc seems to have been a combination of the two: a superb person who marched through life an obedient dove but also reached out from safety to get something more. For other people, not herself. And was sacrificed. Risk makes the second two interesting. Likewise, what makes it offensive to imagine La Lerner or La Jarrett given arias and complexity is the absence of risk in anything they do. Simply rather awful ... and marching through life ... and reaching out from safety to get more for themselves ... they seem merely to succeed. Perhaps "the Bullen's" half-despondent enemies thought exactly the same thing, until the morning of May 19, A.D. 1536. What does art, after all, do? What historical figures are immortalized deservingly, and how would you pick and embellish yours?

Deborah Devonshire's The House -- remember? -- has proved to be one of those delightful books that I return to and dip into from time to time. In it you get a bit of relatively recent country-house diary keeping, startling information on real servant life back in Downton Abbey days (shared bathwater for six laundrymaids once a week -- "the head laundrymaid was the first to get in, followed by her five helpers in order of seniority. More hot water was tipped in as the bathing progressed. Imagine the horrible grey soapy puddle the last one must have got into"), and the general sense that as far as The House physically is concerned, it is a massive stone square so solid that anything at all may be done to its interior without danger of its falling down. Hence the enthusiastic reversing of staircases or the transforming of rooms into corridors and back again. Parts of it look regally eighteenth century, with enormous checkerboard marble floors and football fields-ful of ceilings covered in rococo nudity. In other photos you see huge, tatty historic royal thrones like red and gold fringed dinosaurs pushed up against some wall, or what the Duchess acknowledges a French visitor called "le desordre Britannique." In a huge library there might be a television set thrust almost into a disused fireplace, and then magazines and farm equipment ads piled over lovely old gold inkwells carved with roses. Surely they must once have been caressed and dipped into, on a far tidier desk, by the scandalous but thoughtful Georgiana.

Of course our own libraries don't keep these sorts of books on hand anymore. Neither do big contemporary bookstores, so I get them from Amazon or the used book warehouses which I am glad to see have popped into existence and seem crowded with custom. By sheer chance the most recent half-forgotten English woman writer of the mid-twentieth century -- I believe it was a little silver age of literature, really -- whom I have come across, and whom I must investigate, is one Dorothy Carrington. She wrote about Corsica, Granite Island (1971), coincidentally the land of Napoleon.

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