Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Guest Post on Fanny Abington by Jo Manning

Fanny Abington as Prue in Congreve's Love for Love, her most famous comic role, 1771
Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Paul Mellon Collection.
Photo by Richard Caspole, Yale Center for British Art.

Enter Fanny Abington, stage right...

Born Frances Barton, her story was not so different in its particulars from her predecessors Kitty Fisher and Nelly O’Brien. She apparently filled the void caused in the artist’s life by the premature deaths of his loveliest and most favorite models and they became very close. She was to outlive him by 23 years.

Frances Barton/Fanny Abington (1737-1815) was, in looks, a far cry from the refined and classic beauty of Kitty Fisher and Nelly O’Brien. Her features were on the cute side: pert and elfin. Born into poverty in London’s Drury Lane, she was the daughter of either a cobbler or a mercenary/private soldier. She sold flowers in Covent Garden as a child (shades of My Fair Lady!), earning herself the nickname of Nosegay Fan. She later became a street singer and by the 1750s – when she was between 13 and 15 – she was said to have been a child prostitute.

For a brief time she apprenticed herself – or, more likely, was a servant -- to a French milliner, and was said to have created the Abington Hat (or Abington Cap) – which was odd because she was then still surnamed Barton – not Abington. (If anyone has an image of this hat, please send it on! I’ve yet to see one.) The French hat-maker taught Fanny how to dress, the story goes, and gave her a smattering of French as well as Italian; her growing sense of style as well as her ability with languages were to serve her well as time went on. (In both of these skills, she was not unlike Kitty Fisher, whose dress women emulated widely and who was said to have been rather fluent in French.)

In 1755 she made her acting debut at the Haymarket Theatre as Miranda in The Busybody, a play by Mrs. Susanna Centlivre, and was taken into the Drury Lane Theatre by David Garrick, the actor and impresario, in 1756. She became famous for her comedic roles, most notably when she portrayed the audience favorite, Miss Prue, in the play Love For Love.

Fanny made a bad marriage circa 1759 (she would have been in her early 20s) to a musician – variously described as a music master and/or a “king’s trumpeter” – named James Abington, and accompanied him to Dublin, where she got a position with Brown’s Company and perfected her acting skills. She was a great success in Ireland playing Lady Townley in Vanbrugh and Cibber’s The Provok’d Wife. She also embarked on a number of liaisons and had a serious affair with the wealthy Irish MP Francis Needham. The affair led to a separation from her musician husband and she returned with Needham to London in 1765. Alas, the Irishman died suddenly that year when they were visiting Bath, but Fanny found she was well provided for in his will.

Fanny Abington as Thalia, circa 1769. Unlike the pretty and very classical Cosway version shown in an engraving by Bartolozzi(see below), this is a flesh and blood woman

Fanny Abington performed for almost twenty years in such popular plays as The School For Scandal, The Scoundrel, and Much Ado About Nothing. Dr. Samuel Johnson, among many, was an admirer. There’s an anecdote relating to a conversation between Johnson and his biographer James Boswell, where Boswell cannot understand why Dr. Johnson attended a benefit performance for Abington despite being seated so far from the stage that he could neither see nor hear her well. “Why, then, did you go?” asked Boswell. Johnson replied, “Because, Sir, Mrs. Abington is a favourite of the public, and when the public cares a thousandth part for you that it does for her, I will go to your benefit, too.”

A popular 1791 print was this of Fanny in the role of Roxalana, in The Sultan, by Isaac Bickerstaffe. This painting of an alluring slave girl, excitement shining out of her eyes, on her way to a sexual encounter in a harem is thoroughly exotic and highly charged. The painting was shown at the Royal Academy in 1784 and afterward presented by Reynolds to Mrs. Abington as a gift.

Reynolds painted Fanny at least six times; as with Kitty and Nelly, he might have identified with the young woman’s struggle to succeed, to make something of herself despite the lowliest of upbringings. She seemed to have a winning personality, like Reynolds, and like him, too, she was generous and hospitable, entertaining lavishly and often, and mixing in his crowd, the liveliest of the art and literary circle that included Johnson and Walpole among others.

She was, however, a courtesan as well as an actress, a fact not to be forgotten, and Reynolds, in that 1771 painting of Miss Prue, made sure that the point was made. Fanny is posed in a chair sitting in a manner unlike that of the proper society wives Reynolds also painted. The way she sits, her body twisted, her torso thrust forward, is undignified, and her thumb stroking her lip is sexually suggestive, as is the frank and direct way (a tad short of insolent?) she looks at the viewer.

But it’s a beautiful composition, and the shimmering pink silk of her gown and the ecru lace ruffles of her sleeves and around her neck soften her perfectly smooth skin. The warmth of her complexion shines out from the canvas. There are odd elements in the portrait, however. What on earth do those black bands around her wrists signify? Bondage? And the dog! Dogs are symbolic of fidelity in portraits, but how faithful was Fanny to her marriage vows? The dog is ironic, a spoof, but his fluffy white coat (reminiscent of Nelly O’Brien’s lapdog) pleasingly echoes the ruffles in Fanny’s costume. And note the painting’s background, half stormy sky and half clearly the flat black of a stage curtain, wholly theatrical and reinforcing Fanny’s life on the stage.
After a tremendous success as an actress, Fanny Abington retired in 1790 at the age of 53; she returned to the boards seven years later, only to quit for good in 1799, when she was 60 years old. She had immense power to draw audiences, not only for her acting but because of her style. Some theatre-goers came simply to see how she was dressed. The company actually paid her an annual allowance of some £500 towards her wardrobe to encourage these gawkers to attend these plays.

Fanny Abington lived to the ripe old age of 78, dying a wealthy woman. She’d garnered her riches through her lover Needham’s bequest, her financially remunerative stage appearances, and by investing in London real estate and sharing in the monies from the prints made from Reynolds’s portraits. She was said to have kept a young lover or two in these homes she’d bought as investments, a nice twist on the usual stereotype of the kept woman and her male protector.

Was Sir Joshua Reynolds one of her lovers? Maybe. They certainly saw a lot of each other over twenty years, a considerable period of time. (His appointment books – not all of which survive – show an extraordinary number of sittings.) They moved in the same social circles and he seemed to have had a good deal of affection for her, an affection clearly revealed in the warmth of his portraits for those who look carefully. She did not seem to have one exclusive lover during that period, so, yes, it’s possible they had a liaison.

And she did fill that emotional void left by Kitty Fisher and Nelly O’Brien; she filled it well. There is no doubt of that, even if only as a popular model and very close friend.

Thanks Jo for blogging about these three remarkable women. If you are in London, Jo is doing a talk at Samuel Johnson's house on the 20th of May.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Scandalous Women on Film: That Hamilton Woman

Cast & Crew

Alexander Korda...... Director
Vivien Leigh as Emma Hart, Lady Hamilton
Laurence Olivier as Horatio Nelson
Alan Mowbray as Sir William Hamilton
Sara Allgood as Mrs. Cadogan-Lyon
Gladys Cooper as Lady Frances Nelson
Henry Wilcoxon as Captain Hardy
Heather Angel as Mary Smith
Halliwell Hobbes as Reverend Nelson
Gilbert Emery as Lord Spencer
Miles Mander as Lord Keith
Ronald Sinclair as Josiah

Backstory:  In 1940, Britian had been at war with Germany for a year. That Hamilton Woman was conceived by British/Hungarian producer Alexander Korda as propaganda, equating the British fiight against Napoleon with the fight against Hitler. It was his idea to team Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier, real-life lovers, as their historical counterparts Emma Hamilton and Lord Nelson. Vivien still owed Korda one more film under her contract. This would be the last film that Vivien and Oliver would make together. The script was written quickly by RC Sheriff (with help from Walter Reisch), who was known for his play Journey's End, about World War I, although there is a rumor that Winston Churchill had a hand in writing Nelson's speech in the House of Lords. Whether or not that is true, the film was one of his favorites, he owned a copy and showed it to friends at house parties.

Because of the production code at the time in Hollywood, the film was framed with scenes of Emma being thrown in debtors prison (cheaters couldn't be shown to prosper). In Europe, these scenes were excised, persumably because they were used to the idea of Great Men having love affairs. The film was shot in six weeks, and production was so rushed that no one was quite sure which arm and which eye Nelson lost. The script wasn't even finished when they started filming and rumor has it that it was constantly being rewritten during the shooting.Korda's brother Vincent was the production designer on the film and although the film was shot in Hollywood, he manages to recreate 18th century Naples and England.

According to Vivien Leigh's biographer Hugo Vickers, during the filming, Korda kept asking Vivien to play Emma coarser (at the time that Emma met Lord Nelson she was in her 30's and no longer the slyph she was when she posed for Romney and Reynolds. all that good food and wine in Naples!), Leigh replied that Korda wouldn't have put her under contract if she were coarse.

Plot (from Wikipedia): "The film tells the story of the rise and fall of Emma Hamilton, who became mistress to Admiral Horatio Nelson. Her early life as the mistress of the charming but unreliable Charles Francis Greville leads to her meeting with Sir William Hamilton, British ambassador to Naples. Greville gives Emma to Sir William in exchange for relief on his debts. Despite her shock at his betrayal, Emma comes to respect Sir William, who marries her and explains the reasons for Britain's war against Napoleon. When Horatio Nelson arrives in Naples, Emma is soon deeply attracted to him and is impressed by his passionate insistance on resisting Napoleon's dictatorial rule. She leaves Sir William to live with Nelson. Their idyllic life together is threatened by the continuing war. Nelson leaves to confront Napoleon's navy in the decisive Battle of Trafalgar. After his death in the battle, she says that nothing remained in her life."

My thoughts: When I discovered that TNT was going to be running this film during their '31 Days of Oscar' Month, I knew I had to tape it. I love this film and the reason that I love it is Vivien Leigh's performance as Emma. If the real Emma Hamilton was half as radiant and vibrant as Leigh is in this film, it's no wonder that so many men were in thrall to her. The film is a worthy follow-up to her performance in Gone with the Wind, Emma is required to age from 18 to 50, and Leigh gives the performance her all. Perhaps the film is so poignant because it seems to echo Olivier and Leigh's situation prior to making the film. Both were married to others, when they fell in love during the filming of Fire over England. Unlike Emma and Lord Nelson, their story had a happy ending, at least for awhile.

There are so many wonderful scenes in this film, it would take a much longer blog post than this to mention them all. One of the most amazing scenes in the film is the scene where Emma runs what appears to be the entire length of the villa straight into Nelson's arms and a passionate kiss, when she discovers that he's about to leave to fight the French. And the prior scene where Emma has compared herself to the antiquities that her husband has collected, and he tells her that at least his statues will never grow old. The final scenes where she collapses after hearing that Nelson has been killed and the scene in the jail at Calais are heartbreaking.

Olivier has a few good scenes as Nelson but he's hampered by having to play the character as a hero. He seems awkward and stiff in his scenes, except for those with Leigh, it's as if he knows that she's walking away with the picture and he's not happy about it. And she does. The film is called That Hamilton Woman (or Lady Hamilton) for a reason. She's the main focus of the film.

The film does a fairly good job of following the historical record, particularly in regards to Emma's friendship with the Queen of Naples, Maria Carolina (Marie Antoinette's sister). There is a scene early on in the film where Emma is able to get Lord Nelson the men that he requires by taking him to see the Queen while Lord Hamilton ineffectually writes a letter to the King. Because of the production code, there are endless scenes of the two lovers lamenting their situation and talking about how wrong their feelings are. Nelson's father is given a rather ham-fisted speech later on in the film as well.

All of the supporting performances are fabulous including Alan Mowbry as Sir William, sophisticated and jaded, and Sarah Allgood, who plays Emma's mother Mrs. Cadogan as slightly embarrassing but full of good sense. Gladys Cooper manages to give a fully realized performance in the few scenes that she is given as Lady Nelson, lecturing Nelson on how Emma is only using him for fame, and constantly criticizing every little thing that he does. No wonder he didn't miss her during the 7 years that he spent at sea! Of course to create conflict both Nelson's step-son Josiash as well as his father are shown to be against the relationship, although in real life, Emma went out of her way to flatter and charm Nelson's family. In fact, after Nelson's death, she helped to support them.

Horatia, Emma and Nelson's child, is kept off camera and we never see Emma pregnant. Lady Nelson mentions it and how Emma created the fashion of high-waisted gowns to hide her pregnancy. There is also no mention of Emma's older daughter. The film doesn't shy away from Emma's past, in the beginning of the film, Sir William tells the French ambassador all about Emma's relationship with Sir Harry Featherstonehaugh, and her stint working for James Graham and his Temple of Celestial Beauty. Emma herself mentions the time when she worked as a kitchen maid.

Everytime I watch the film, I find new things in it. This time I noticed that Emma, in her scene with Lord Hamilton where they discuss her affair with Nelson, is wearing a diamond necklace with a large 'N' dangling from it. There are some flaws in the film. The viewer never finds out just how Emma ended up in Calais, stealing wine, after Nelson's death, and some of the dialogue is unintentionally laughable, but that just maybe because the production was forced by the Production Code to spend endless seasons sermonizing about how wrong the relationship is.

Unforunately the film is still only available on VHS in the US. I have absolutely no idea why it hasn't been released on DVD.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010



Celtic Lady!

I will be emailing you shortly for your address. Thanks again to everyone that entered!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Scandalous Book Review: Midnight Fires, A Mystery with Mary Wollstonecraft

From the back cover:

Mitchelstown Castle in County Cork, seat of the notorious Anglo-Irish Kingsborough family, fairly hums with intrigue. The new young governess, Mary Wollstonecraft, witnesses a stabbing and attends a pagan bonfire at which an illegitimate sprig of the nobility is killed. When the young Irishman Liam Donovan, who hated the aristocratic rogue for seducing his niece, becomes the prime suspect for his murder, Mary - ever champion of the oppressed, and susceptible to Liam's charms - determines to prove him innocent.

My thoughts:  When I read about this book on the blog Reading the Past, I was intrigued. Mysteries with real life historical personages as the detectives are big right now, with series starring Jane Austen, Abigail Adams, and Beau Brummel on the shelves. I've also done a great deal of reading on Mary Wollstonecraft while researching SCANDALOUS WOMEN, and I thought the idea of Mary as a detective was fascinating. Most people know Mary Wollstonecraft as the mother of Mary Shelley, author of FRANKENSTEIN. Hopefully this series will introduce new readers to her mother's interesting life.

MIDNIGHT FIRES did not disappoint. Nancy Means Wright chooses one of the most tempestuous times in Mary's life, the year she spent working as a governess for the Kingsborough family, as the focus for her story. It was 1786, just after the end of American Revolution with the French Revolution three years away. Mary is at a crossroads in her life, her first book is about to come out, but the school that she ran just outside of London has closed and her best friend has died in childbirth. She has debts, her younger sisters are depending on her for guidance and support. Although she has absolutely no desire to take a job as a governess, she has very few choices at the moment.

Atlhough there is a mystery and 3 murders, what is exceptional about this book is the author's depiction of the aristocratic world of the Kingsborough's set against the backdrop of the Irish freedom fighters.  Although the family considers themselves to be enlightened because they have built stone houses for some of the farmers, they have no real concept or liking for the country they are living in. For them, it's all about keeping the privileges that they are used to living with, even if it means keeping the Catholics impoverished and without rights. Mary is trapped between in a kind of no man's land, not a servant but not one of the family, which makes her a perfect choice to solve the mystery, because she can move freely between the worlds of the Irish peasants, the aristocracy and the servants. Mary wants to help but she also doesn't want to get involved. She doesn't want to care for the children of the Kingsborough family but she does in spite of herself.

Means Wright's depiction of Mary's character is spot on as is her depiction of the boisterous, flamboyant, notorious Kingsborough family, particularly the eldest daughter Margaret, and her mother Caroline, spoiled, selfish, flighty, but with pretensions of playing Lady Bountiful. A reader who knows  Mary's story will recognize George Ogle, the poet, and Henry Gabell, the minister that Mary meets on board the ship over to Ireland. Ogle plays a major part in the mystery of the death of James King, a cousin and possible half-brother of Lord Kinsborough.

There is so much rich historical detail going on that the mystery seems like the cherry on top of a well-frosted cake. There are red herrings galore, and the identity of the murderers (because there is more than one) a complete surprise. Normally I'm able to figure out who the murderer is but Means Wright had me completely fooled. I look forward to reading the next installment of the series.

You can find out more about Nancy Means Wright and her other mystery series at her web-site.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Guest Blogger Jo Manning on Nelly O'Brien

Scandalous Women is happy to welcome back author Jo Manning on some of the Scandalous Women who modeled for painter Joshua Reynolds. This week, courtesan Nelly O'Brien.

Not much is known about the courtesan Nelly O’Brien, but she looms large in any discussion of Sir Joshua Reynolds’ favorite sitters. Like Kitty Fisher, Nelly O’Brien is portrayed with an affection and warmth that seems to be lacking in his portraits of society damsels and wives. The two portraits painted during the 1760s glow with the same radiance as his portraits of Kitty Fisher.

Nelly, who began her career as an actress before discovering the more lucrative profession of courtesan, was considered a rival of Kitty’s, but she moved in very high circles indeed as a mistress of the profligate peer George Richard St John, 2nd Viscount Bolingbroke. “Bully” Bolingbroke was in an unhappy marriage with Lady Diana Spencer (the first Lady Diana Spencer) and had had a long string of chere amies. It is safe to say that Nelly O’Brien’s relationship with him was not – on his part – exclusive. The Bolingbroke marriage was dissolved in 1768 after he charged his wife with adultery (“criminal conversation”) with Topham Beauclerk, whom she later married. The divorce was a major scandal of the time.

This 1749 Portrait of Augustus Keppel was one of 6 of him painted by Reynolds.

It was Reynolds’ longtime friend Augustus Keppel (later Admiral Keppel and lst Viscount Keppel, he was a distinguished naval hero with royal blood in his veins) who first brought Nelly O’Brien to the artist’s Great Newport Street studio around 1762. (This was Reynolds’ second studio; the first had been on St. Martin’s Lane; the last was to be on Leicester Square.) Had Nelly been dallying with Keppel prior to Bolingbroke? It’s possible, but Bolingbroke paid for the first portrait.

That inveterate gossip and chronicler of his times Horace Walpole confirmed the Bolingbroke-O’Brien relationship in a 1763 letter to his friend George Montagu. Nelly was to give birth to Bolingbroke’s son in 1764.

This portrait of Nelly O'Brien circa 1762-4 (now in the Wallace Collection, London) is one of Reynold's best-known works

The portrait commissioned by Bolingbroke shows Nelly O’Brien holding a little dog (a well-recognized symbol of fidelity) in her lap. A Victorian critic named Miss Gerard described the portrait thusly:

“Perhaps the most beautiful of Nelly is the one in the Hertford Collection, which was painted in 1763 and was exhibited at the Manchester Exhibition in 1857. It represents her in full sunlight, in an attitude of lazy enjoyment, sitting with her hands crossed, a pet spaniel on her knee. Her voluptuous face, raised as if at the approach of one she has been waiting for, is lit up under the shade of the flat Woffington hat by the reflected lights from her dress, a quilted rose-colored slip with lace over it, a black lace apron and mantilla, and a sacque of striped blue silk.”
A contemporary art critic, Jonathan Jones, writing in the Guardian, noted “the painting is deeply admiring of its subject. Reynolds’s attitude …is embodied in the frolicking, foaming brushwork of the little white lapdog nuzzling in her lap. He would like to be that dog.” (I agree whole-heartedly with Jones’ assessment of the dog and Reynolds.)

It is also interesting to note here that the Victorian critic brought up the Fisher-O’Brien portraits and their rivalry, commenting that although Kitty might have been “less handsome” than Nelly O’Brien, she was “more dangerously fascinating” a woman. They were indeed very much alike, and both had been extremely favored by Reynolds. Sadly and ironically, they were both to die young, within a scarce year of each other, leaving a hole in the artist’s affections that was to be filled in due time by another actress, albeit a successful one, Fanny Abington.

At the time Reynolds was painting Nelly, he was also – in an interesting bit of timing! -- painting Bolingbroke’s wife Lady Diana. There had to be creative scheduling at work to keep these two women and their hangers-on (sittings were notoriously social events, with friends and others dropping in) from running into each other!

Check out the eyes! Reynolds portrait of Viscountess Bolingbroke
An on-dit making the rounds at that time was that Reynolds had been given a peculiar instruction by the commissioner of both portraits. As chronicled by Horace Walpole and cited in Carola Hicks’ biography of Lady Diana, Improper Pursuits:

“Lord Bolingbroke said to him: ‘You must give the eyes something of Nelly O’Brien, or it will not do.’ As he has given Nelly something of his wife’s, it was but fair to give her something of Nelly’s; and my Lady will not throw away the present!’ ”
Walpole later pronounced the painting to be “a very pretty picture” when exhibited by the Society of Artists. (The S of A was one of several artists’ societies that were forerunners of the Royal Academy.) As for Lady Diana, she became an artist in her own right, and her work was also praised by Walpole.

My own favorite portrait of Nelly O’Brien, however, is the ¾ length painted circa 1763-7. She is gorgeous, wearing a low-cut ivory dress that exposes a good deal of her fine white neck and bosom. She is again shown sitting in a garden, next to a carved relief of Danae, a princess of classical legend to whom the god Jove made love in the form of a shower of gold. This lush, glittering waterfall openly symbolizes Nelly’s role as a successful courtesan. (An odd touch is the ornate ring displayed openly on the third finger of her left hand, where a wedding ring would be.)

Nelly O’Brien, circa 1763-7, a stunning study of a relaxed woman confident in her own beauty

Nelly was rumored to have had two sons with Sackville Tufton, 8th Earl of the Isle of Thanet, but whether this was before, after, or during her affair with Bolingbroke cannot be verified. She died in London in 1768, a year after her one-time rival Kitty Fisher. Her protectors Thanet and Bolingbroke also died a year apart, but twenty years afterward, in 1786 and 1787 respectively.

Was she sexually involved with Sir Joshua Reynolds, as Kitty Fisher was rumored to be? Although Reynolds entertained her frequently, as he did Kitty, there is no hard evidence. It seems doubtful, though, that he would have poached on Bully Bolingbroke’s turf, tempting as Nelly O’Brien might have been.

Stay tuned for Fanny Abington, the third and final installment of Sir Joshua Reynold's Women.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Author Nancy Woodruff on Dora Jordan: The Duchess of Drury Lane

Scandalous Women is pleased to welcome Nancy Woodruff, author of the new book which came out yesterday, HIS WIFE'S AFFAIR.

I first discovered Dora Jordan via a portrait hanging at Apsley House in London. The Apsley House tour guide told such a fascinating story of Dora Jordan’s life that I couldn’t believe I had never heard of this woman before. Since a biography had already been written—brilliantly, by Claire Tomalin—I knew I had to find a way to fit Dora Jordan into my fiction and I hit upon the idea of having my modern heroine, an actress, portray her in a one-woman show. Of course I then had to actually write the one-woman show, and find a way to fit it into my novel, My Wife’s Affair.

Dora Jordan came from a family of actors, and she left her native Ireland to work in England at around age twenty. At the time, she was pregnant with her first child, the product of a seduction or quite possibly a rape, and she wandered around the north of England with a theatre company. After her daughter Fanny was born, Dora moved to London, where she was an instant hit. She lived for a number of years with Richard Ford, an aspiring politician, and they had two daughters together, but when Richard refused to marry her she decided to accept the advances of another suitor, William, the Duke of Clarence. William was one of George III’s sons and the future King William IV of England (Queen Victoria’s uncle).

Dora’s romance with the Duke was quite scandalous at first and she had to endure obnoxious attacks from the press and political cartoonists of the day. It was really unfortunate that her last name, Jordan, was also a nickname for a toilet in those days. Eventually, Dora and the Duke slipped into a domestic life in a large house outside London. They lived together for nearly twenty years and had ten children together, and all the while, she almost never stopped working. She was a wildly successful stage actress, much beloved, the most famous comic actress of her time. Among her most famous roles were Rosalind from As You Like It and Viola from Twelfth Night. With her star power, her high-profile romance, and her large family, she was a kind of Angelina Jolie of her day. Although her role as royal mistress suggests scandal, it seems to me that Dora really wanted a very normal life. She loved the Duke, she loved her children, and she loved her work. She really wanted to have all those things and be left alone—but she was often hounded by the press and public.

Heartbreakingly, there’s a sad end to Dora’s story. The Duke eventually dumped her for a younger, richer, more socially acceptable woman, and though her children weren’t specifically taken from her, she needed them to live under their father’s protection because he was royalty and she, as an actress, had virtually no social status. “Giving the children up would have been death to me,” she wrote, “if I were not so strongly impressed with the certainty of it being for their future advantage.” She was also swindled out of a lot of money by her son-in-law and she had to flee to France to evade her creditors. She became ill, and died less than a year later, without having seen the Duke since the day he dumped her.

Thanks Nancy! Interesting Factoid: David Cameron, the current leader of the Conservative Party, and possible Prime Minister is descended from Dorothy and William.

If you want to learn more about Dorothy, I highly recommend Claire Tomalin's biography MRS. JORDAN'S PROFESSION.  Come back next week when I'll be giving away a copy of Nancy's new book, HIS WIFE'S AFFAIR.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Guest blogger Mary Sharratt on British Folk Magic and Familiar Spirits

Scandalous Women is pleased to welcome author Mary Sharratt to the blog.

In popular imagination, the figure of a witch is accompanied by her familiar, a black cat. Is there any historical authenticity behind this cliché?

Our ancestors in the 16th and 17th centuries believed that magic was real. Not only the poor and ignorant believed in witchcraft and the spirit world—rich and educated people believed in spellcraft just as strongly. Cunning folk were men and women who used charms and herbal cures to heal, foretell the future, and find the location of stolen property. What they did was illegal—sorcery was a hanging offence—but few were arrested. The need for the services they provided was too great. Doctors were so expensive that only the very rich could afford them and the “physick” of this era involved bleeding patients with lancets and using dangerous medicines such as mercury—your local village healer with her herbal charms was far less likely to kill you.

Those who used their magic for good were called cunning folk or charmers or blessers or wisemen and wisewomen. Those who were perceived by others as using their magic to curse and harm were called witches. But here it gets complicated. A cunning woman who performs a spell to discover the location of stolen goods would say that she is working for good. However, the person who claims to have been falsely accused of harbouring those stolen goods could turn around and accuse her of sorcery and slander. Ultimately the difference between cunning folk and witches lay in the eye of the beholder.

While witch-hunters were obsessed with extracting “evidence” of a pact between the accused witch and the devil, there’s little if any substantive proof of diabolical worship in Britain in this period. It seemed the black mass was a Continental European concept first popularised in Britain by King James I’ polemic, Daemonologie, a witch-hunter’s handbook and required reading for his magistrates.

In traditional British folk magic, it was not the devil, but the familiar spirit who took centre stage. The familiar was the cunning person’s otherworldly spirit helper who could shapeshift between human and animal form. Elizabeth Southerns, aka Old Demdike, the heroine in my new novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill, was a cunning woman of long standing repute, arrested on witchcraft charges in the 1612 Pendle witch hunt in Lancashire, England. When interrogated by her magistrate, she made no attempt to conceal her craft. In fact, she described in rich detail how her familiar spirit, Tibb, first appeared to her when she was walking past a quarry at twilight. Assuming the guise of a beautiful, golden-haired young man, his coat half black, half brown, he promised to teach her all she needed to know about the ways of magic. When not in human form, he could appear to her as a brown dog or a hare. Her partnership with Tibb would span decades.

Mother Demdike was so forthcoming about her familiar because without one, she, as a cunning woman, would be a fraud. In traditional English folk magic, it seemed that no cunning man or cunning woman could work magic without the aid of their familiar spirit—they needed this otherworldly ally to make things happen.

Black cats were not the most popular guise for a familiar to take. In fact, familiars were more likely to appear as dogs. In the Salem witch trials of 1692, two canines were put to death as suspected witch familiars.

But the familiar was just as likely to assume human form, generally the opposite gender of their human partner—cunning men usually had female spirits while cunning women usually had male spirits.

Was there a connection between the familiar spirits and the Fairy Faith, the lingering belief in fey folk and elves? Popular belief in fairies in the Early Modern period is well documented. In his 1677 book, The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft, Lancashire author John Webster mentions a local cunning man who claimed that his familiar spirit was none other than the Queen of Elfhame herself. In 1576, Scottish cunning woman Bessie Dunlop, executed for witchcraft and sorcery at the Edinburgh Assizes, stated that her familiar spirit had been sent to her by the Queen of Elfhame. For more background on this subject, I highly recommend Emma Wilby’s scholarly study, Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits, and Keith Thomas’s social history, Religion and the Decline of Magic.

Mary Sharratt’s new novel, DAUGHTERS OF THE WITCHING HILL (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, April 7), draws on the true story of Pendle cunning woman Mother Demdike. Visit her website: and join her on tour: . To learn more about historical witches and cunning folk, follow her blog:

I'm pleased to be able to offer a copy of DAUGHTERS OF THE WITCHING HILL to one lucky reader. Just leave a comment and your email between now and April 19 to enter. Note: this giveaway is only available to American and Canadian readers.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Scandalous Women in the News: Clelia Mosher, Claire Clairmont and Grace Kelly

Here's a round-up of a few articles that I've found on the Internet recently about some pretty interesting women. I'd like to thank RWA NYC member Mari Miller-Lamb for posting the link to this article on Stanford professor, Dr. Clelia Duel Mosher, an early researcher into the sex lives of women. Take that Dr. Kinsey! You can read the article here.

Thanks to Janet Mullany over at the Risky Regencies for letting readers know that a lost memoir by Claire Clairmont, lover of Lord Byron and step-sister of Mary Shelley was recently found in The New York Public Library according to the Daily Mail in the UK You can read the article here. Interesting sidebar to this story, when Claire Clairmont was an elderly woman, living in Florence, she was contacted by an American Shelley groupie named Captain Edwards Silsbee. Silsbee was an absolute fanatic about all things Shelley. He was known to declaim lines of his poetry in the middle of dinner parties, wanted to own everything that Shelley wrote, own or touched. He had already bought a guitar that Jane Williams used to serenade the poet with. When he discovered that Claire Clairmont was still alive, he hightailed it to Florence to meet the woman who had been an intimate of Shelley and Byron (some say more than intimate with Shelley. Rumors abound that she had and Shelley were lovers and that she gave birth to his child).

It was 1878, Clairmont was living in Florence on a reduced income with only her spinster niece Paula as a companion. After the death of Shelley and her daughter by Byron, Allegra, Claire had worked for over twenty years as a governess and tutor in Vienna, Germany, Moscow and England. Shelley had left her 12,000 pounds when he died (which Mary Shelley tried to get reduced to 6,000 pounds) but she could only claim her inheritance after his father died which took over twenty years.  Having lost most of her inheritance on the stock market, she had moved to Italy and converted to Catholicism. Although she had several romances after her affair with Byron ended, she never quite got over him, her love turning to hatred. Claire was unable to forgive him not only from keeping her from their daughter Allegra (Claire had given custody of the baby to Byron because she felt that he could give her a better life) but also for putting the little girl in a convent where she died from typhoid at the age of 5.

Silsbee managed to move into rooms in the same pension as Claire and her niece, where he systematically began to woo them both. He encouraged Clairmont to tell him stories about her friendship with Shelley. He also hoped to get his hands on the notebooks, letters, and the lock of Shelley's hair that she kept. For months, he never let the women out of his sight, hoping to buy the momentoes or at the worst steal them. He did get Claire to let him borrow one of the notebooks. After several months it seemed as if Claire would live forever. Silsbee went back to the States. While he was gone, Claire finally passed away on March 19, 1879. When Silsbee returned to Florence, hoping to negotiate with Paula Clairmont, he discovered that Paula was willing to let him have all the momentoes but only if he married her.  This Silsbee was not willing to do, despite his great love for the poet. All his money yes, but not marriage to a middle-aged spinster.  Silsbee returned to the states with the purloined notebook which he donated to Harvard. Paula sold Shelley's letters later to a collector, along with a miniature of Claire's daughter by Byron.

Henry James heard the story of Silsbee and Claire and her niece years later and adapted the story into his novella The Aspern Papers. Since Paula and Silsbee were still alive,  he changed the characters into Americans and moved the action to Venice.

And the lovely and talented Grace Kelly is back in the news and on the cover of the May issue of Vanity Fair (what a great cover photo). The article, written by Laura Jacobs, came out to coincide with the new exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.  You can read more about the exhibition here.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Scandalous Book Review: Daughters of the Witching Hill

Synopsis: Bess Southerns, an improverished widow living in Pendle Forest, is haunted by visions and gains a reputation as a cunning woman. Drawing on the Catholic folk magic of her youth, Bess heals the sick and foretells the future. As she ages, she instructs her granddaughter, Alizon, in her craft, as well as her best friend, who ultimately turns to dark magic. When a peddlar suffers a stroke after exchanging harsh words with Alizon, a local magistrate, eager to make his name as a witch finder, plays neighbors and family membes against one another until suspicion and paranoia reach frenzied heights.
My thoughts: I was very excited to get the chance to review Mary Sharratt's newest novel DAUGHTERS OF THE WITCHING HILL. There has been a plethora of excellent historical fiction lately and DAUGHTERS OF THE WITCHING HILL belongs at the top of the list. It was certainly refreshing to read a book that had nothing really to do with The Tudors! Before I read the novel, I had never heard of the Pendle Witches, although I had heard of King James VI (I of England)'s book on Demonology.  Sharratt brings the story of Bess Southern and the Pendle witches vividly to life. The story that she tells is so gripping that I stayed up half the night reading it. I couldn't bear to put it down. The book is about so many things, not just the fine line between good and evil, but also about friendship and family, loyalty, hypocrisy, ambition and most importantly intolerance. Not just against the witches but against anyone who practices the old religion Catholicism, as well as the intolerance against the people who look and act differently from the norm. Bess's daughter Liza has a wandering eye and her grandson Jamie is developmentally disabled. Both suffer cruelly for being different. Liza is also illegitmate, and like Hester Prynne, Bess is made to suffer for her sin of adultery.

The novel also captures the hardship and the struggle of the poor, which we don't find too often in historical fiction.  Too often the lives of those who aren't Lords are forgotten or not considered interesting. Bess and her family struggle daily just to find enough to eat. The role of the poor and what is owed to them is another theme. Bess talks about how under the old religion, the poor were taken care of but under the new, their poverty is treated as their punishment from God. What struck me the most about the novel is women and power. Until Bess is fifty and her spirit guide appears to her, leading her to become a cunning woman, she has no power. But once she cures Matthew Holden, and people look to her for her blessings and charms, it gives her a measure of power. And women with power in the 16th and 17th century (heck in any century) is frightening to others, particularly men. The saddest part of the whole book is watching people turn on each other out of fear and greed.

The novel is narrated by Bess and her granddaughter Alizon. While Bess is a mesmerizing narrator, Alizon grabs your heart with her attraction and yet her fear of the power that lies within her. I wanted Alizon to realize her powers but at the same time I understood her wanting to be 'normal.' While reading this book, I was reminded of one of my favorite historical fiction authors, Anya Seton. Sharratt has the same ability to capture the voice of another time, to make the reader feel as if they are immersed in the world of the Pendle Forest and its people. I was entranced by her depictions of Tibb, Ball, the Queen of Elthame, and the Catholic folk magic.

I can't recommend this book enough. I defy anyone not to fall under the spell of the DAUGHTERS OF THE WITCHING HILL.

Mary Sharratt will be guest blogging this week on Wednesday.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Winner of the Queen's Pawn Giveway is.........

Thanks to, the winner of Christy English's gorgeous debut novel The Queen's Pawn is, drumroll please:


Look for an email from me shortly regarding your address. Thanks to everyone who entered.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Guest Blogger Talia Weisberg on Jeanette Rankin

Scandalous Women is pleased to once again have guest blogger Talia Weisberg to give us the 411 on Jeanette Rankin.

There have been women in governmental positions since ancient times. Hatshepsut, Cleopatra, Jezebel, Salome Alexandra, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella I, Catherine de Medici, Elizabeth I, Catherine the Great, and Victoria are just a few examples. America has also had its share of women in government; Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi are two of thousands currently in office. Ninety-six of those women are in Congress. The road to getting them there has been a long one, begun by Jeanette Rankin in 1917. Jeanette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress, opened the door for women to enter politics in the United States and worldwide.

Jeanette Rankin (sometimes spelled Jeannette) was born on a ranch near Missoula, Montana on June 11, 1880. She helped her parents run the ranch and raise her five younger siblings, which gave her the confidence that she could take charge and lead, a mindset she continued to go by in her later years. After graduating from the University of Montana with a BA in biology, she became a teacher. Deciding that teaching wasn’t her calling in life, she attended the New York School of Philanthropy to become a social worker. After she practiced social work for a while, she decided this too was not her calling and enrolled in the University of Washington.

While there, she learned about the suffrage movement and began getting involved in First-Wave Feminism. She joined the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and helped the campaign for Washington women to get the vote. After the successful campaign ended in 1910, she went back to Montana and rallied Montanan women to fight for their rights. They won enfranchisement in 1914.
Rankin’s work in the suffrage movement, especially in Montana, set the stage for when she decided to run for the House of Representatives in 1916. Despite fears from leading feminists that a loss would be a blow to the movement at large, she ran as a Republican on a platform that was pro-suffrage, pro-social welfare, and anti-war, as she was also a hardcore pacifist. (“Killing more people won’t help matters,” she said after Pearl Harbor was bombed.) Her family supported her congressional bid, as her politically savvy brother Wellington was her campaign manager and her sisters helped her campaign. Fellow suffragists also gave her their backing. On November 10, 1916, the votes came in. Papers originally reported that she had lost, but they were wrong: Jeanette Rankin was rightfully elected as the first woman in Congress.

After Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare on all Atlantic shipping on April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson called a congressional session to decide whether or not America should enter World War I. This was one of the most important decisions in Rankin’s life. Friends, family, and suffragists told her to vote for the war to keep hopes of reelection alive, save her battles for times when she could win, and keep the women’s movement from suffering from a worse reputation. Rankin knew she had to listen to heart, though. When it was time for her to vote, she broke 140 years of congressional tradition when she commented as she voted: “I want to stand by my country but I cannot vote for war. I vote no.” She was joined by the minority of congress members, 374 for and 50 against.

Her decision was greatly criticized by her home state and suffrage movement. A Montanan paper described her as “a dagger in the hands of the German propagandists, a dupe of the Kaiser, a member of the Hun army in the United States, and a crying schoolgirl,” and NAWSA stated that “Miss Rankin was not voting for the suffragists of the nation - she represents Montana.” Despite the suffrage movement’s desire to distance themselves from her, she remained an ardent feminist during her congressional term. She created and was appointed to a congressional committee, the Committee on Woman Suffrage. She also managed to pass a resolution in the House on a constitutional amendment allowing women the right to vote, but it was defeated in the Senate.

After her term was over, Rankin ran for the Senate. Despite her pro-war measures votes and new pro-war planks in her platform, she lost the election by 2,000 votes. She spent the time after her first sojourn into Congress on a farm near Athens, Georgia, where she founded the Georgia Peace Society, became the speaker for the National Council for the Prevention of War, and served as the field secretary for the National Consumers’ League.

In 1939, Rankin saw Adolf Hitler rise to power in Germany and knew that America would want to enter the war ripping apart Europe. Her inner pacifist knew that she could not let this happen, so she ran for the House of Representatives again, once more as a Republican from Montana. Her platform was similar to her original one, minus the pro-suffrage plank; women across the country became enfranchised in 1920, when the Nineteenth Amendment was passed. “No one will pay any attention to me this time. There is nothing unusual about a woman being elected,” she said at her second election. It was true; dozens of women had been elected to Congress between her first and second terms, and there were ten other women in Congress at the time.

While in Congress, as she expected, she had to vote as to whether or not America should enter World War II. She was the only person to vote on both the first and second World Wars. She voted no again, once more giving a commentary as she gave her vote: “As a woman, I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else.” She stood alone, as she was the only person who voted against the war this time. Her previously middling popularity plummeted, with newspapers all across the country rebuking her harshly and individuals sending her hate mail. She had to leave the session escorted by police to protect her from furious bystanders.

Rankin stayed out of the spotlight, continuing her work in pacifist and social fields, until 1968, when she organized a march 5,000 strong on the Capitol to protest the Vietnam War. It became known as the Jeanette Rankin Brigade, culminating in the presentation of a peace petition to House Speaker John McCormack of Massachusetts.

Jeanette Rankin died on May 18, 1973, just before she turned 93, when she was considering running for a third term to protest the Vietnam War. Despite the serious events that occurred during her lifetime, she always retained a sense of humor: “If I had my life to live over, I would do it all again, but this time, I would be nastier.” Without Rankin’s achievements, women would have never been able to shrug off the shackles of typical feminine roles and go on to fight for the right to high-powered careers in business, law, and government. Jeanette Rankin paved the way for women to aspire to rise from the duties of the kitchen to the highest level obligations of the White House.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Bette Davis: Icon of the Silver Screen

Happy Birthday to screen legend Bette Davis. Called "one of the major events of the 20th century," Bette was intelligent, opinionated, feisty but never boring. During her 60 year career, she was the first person to receive 10 Academy Award nominations, the first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and the first woman to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Insitute. She was also the co-founder with John Garfield of the Hollywood Canteen. In 1999, Bette was second after Katherine Hepburn on the American Film Institutes list of the greatest female stars of all time.

Bette was born Ruth Elizabeth Davis on April 5, 1908 in Lowell, Massachussetts. Her parents split up when Bette was 7 and her sister Bobby was 6. For the next several years, the little family bounced around from New York City to New Jersey and back to Massachussetts as Ruth tried to make ends meet (Bette's father was not big on the child support payments). Occasionally Bette and her sister Bobby attended boarding schools Crestalban in the Berkshires, and Cushing, her mother's alma mater in Ashburnham where she met her first husband Harmon Nelson.  At the age of 13, Bette changed the spelling of her nickname from the ordinary 'Betty' to Bette after Balzac's novel Cousin Bette, a character that she would have been ideally suited to play in the movies.

Bette was determined to be an actress from a very young age, particularly after her father told her that she wasn't likely to be a success. Rejected by actress Eva Le Gallienne for her Civic Repertory Company, she was accepted by the Anderson-Milton Academy where she studied dance with Martha Graham. She left school early to make her Off-Broadway debut. After a few years of stagework, Bette was seen by a talent scout for Universal Studios and offered a screen test. She failed that first test but was used to screen test other actors for which she was paid abot $150. "They laid me on a couch, and I tested 15 men. They all had to lie on top of me and give me a passionate kiss. Oh, I thought I would die."  She was finally offered a short-term contract with Universal but Carl Laemmle Jr., the Chief of Production didn't think she was sexy (She'd already been fired from one theatrical repertory company for not putting out.). She appeared in several small roles including the original film version of Waterloo Bridge but after 9 months and 6 films, she was let go. 

Fortunately for Bette actor George Arliss chose her for the female lead in his next film The Man Who Played God. She was soon offered a 5 year contract with Warner Brothers. But they didn't know what to do with their new star either. She made 20 films for the studio that she felt were mediocre and beneath her talent. In 1934, she begged Jack Warner to loan her out to RKO for the film version of Somerset Maugham's novel Of Human Bondage. Warner had no idea why she wanted to play a slatternly and unlikeable character like Mildred Rogers, but Bette knew that it was the opportunity of a lifetime. But Bette never let a thing like whether a character was sympathetic or not to get in the way when it came to acting. She later fought with William Wyler when they made The Little Foxes because she thought he wanted her to make the character more likeable.

Despite the glowing reviews that she received for Of Human Bondage and the Academy Award she recieved for her role as an alcoholic actress in Dangerous, Warner Brothers was not giving her the roles that she felt that she deserved, nor was she getting paid as much as others at the studio, who made fewer films a year than she did. Taking matters in her own hands, Bette signed a contract to appear in two films in England, hoping to break her contract with Warners. However the studio was not willing to let such a valuable asset go, they sued her, and the case went to court in England. The barrister for Warner Brothers and the press portrayed her as an ungrateful actress.  Davis tried to explain her viewpoint, "I knew that, if I continued to appear in any more mediocre pictures, I would have no career left worth fighting for."  Bette not only lost the case but had to pay her legal fees and Warner Brothers. But her courage in taking on the studio led to Olivia de Haviland's successful suit years later.

The upshot was that her roles did get better.  The next 10 years were the halcyon days for Bette at Warner Brothers. She won another academy award for her role of Julie Marsden in Jezebel. Dark Victory, The Letter, Now Voyager, The Old Maid, The Great Lie, The Little Foxes, Old Acquaintances, A Stolen Life, The Private Life of Elizabeth and Essex (where she shaved her hairline and eyebrows to portray the 60ish Queen) are just some of the films that she made. She became the studio's most profitable star. There were some disappointments, she longed to play Scarlett O'Hara in GWTW, although not with the possibility of Errol Flynn as Rhett Butler. She also wanted to play Mary Lincoln (what an interesting film that would have been with Henry Fonda or Raymond Massey opposite her as Lincoln).

While Bette's career was going great guns, her private life suffered. Her first marriage ended in divorce, but Bette remarried a few years later to Arthur Farnsworth.  Tragedy struck when Farmsworth collapsed while walking along a street in Hollywood. An autopsy revealed that he had suffered a head injury two weeks before his death. Although she testified that she didn't know how he had gotten the injury, she later allegedly told a lover, director Vincent Sherman, that she had accidently pushed her husband from a moving train. Her next husband, artist Wiliam Grant Sherry was the father of her only biological child, Barbara known as B.D.  Sherry played Petruchio to her Kate, only more abusive. Bette claimed that he threw a trunk at her on their honeymoon. Sherry claimed that Bette belittled him, threw the fact that she was the breadwinner in his face, and provoked his anger, that she wanted to be tamed.  Her last husband, Gary Merrill, she met on one of her best films All About Eve.  This marriage was equally tempestuous, as both became heavy drinkers. They adopted two children Michael and Margo before divorcing after 10 years. There were other lovers including Howard Hughes (she apparently cured him of his sexual dysfunction) and the man she considered the great love of her life, William Wyler. Due to her career, Bette also had several abortions. She also apparently turned down Leslie Howard and Errol Flynn, when they made passes at her. If Bette realized that finding lasting love alluded her, calling her first biography "The Lonely Life," in which she openly admitted her flaws.

In 1949, Bette and Warner Brothers parted ways after 18 years and 52 films. Bette was now on her own. The last 32 years of her life was filled with ups and downs. While married to Gary Merrill, she tried to be just a housewife for a few years but she couldn't live without acting. Ironically, several of her characters gave up their careers for marriage. Her adopted daughter Margo was discovered to be mentally handicapped and spent her life living in a home. Bette still had some good pictures ahead of her including A Catered Affair, Death on the Nile, The Whales of August and the two horror films that she did Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, and Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte. She made guest appearances on many television shows, and was in the pilot for the series Hotel which starred James Brolin (Anne Baxter eventually replaced her). In 1983, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had a masectomy but two weeks later suffered 4 strokes. Despite this, Bette fought back and managed with physical therapy to keep on working until the end of her life.  She when she tried to explain that she had a short fuse, because of the stroke, a friend good-naturedly told her that she'd always had a short fuse. Although she became even more difficult at times in her later years, she could also be a loyal friend and daughter, supporting her mother and sister throughout their lives, and giving generously of her time during the war at the Hollywood Canteen, hectoring stars into doing some of those menial tasks like washing dishes.

She became well known to new generation when the Kim Carnes' song 'Bette Davis Eyes' was released. It was the best-selling record of 1981. Bette, of course, considered it a compliment and wrote to Carnes and the songwriters. However, in 1985, her oldest daughter B.D. Hyman published a tell-all entitled My Mother's Keeper that accused her of being a drunken and overbearing mother. Bette Davis died on October 6, 1989 at the age of 81 in Neuilly, France. She had been in Europe to attend the San Sebastian International Film Festival when she fell ill. She is buried in Forest Lawn-Hollywood Hills Cemetary, with the epitaph 'She did it the hard way.'

During her lifetime, Bette Davis earned the reputation for being 'difficult' because of her tendency to fight with studio exeuctives, directors, writers, costume designers, and co-stars. Highly strung, Bette Davis cared about the work, and her fights were always about how to make it better. "Until you're known in my profession as a monster, you are not a star," she said, "I've never fought for anything in a treacherous way. I've never fought for anything but the good of the film." Often the crappier she thought a film, the harder she fought to make it better. She is probably one of the most imitated stars in movie history, the opening of Edward Albee's classic play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Martha does an impersonation, demanding of her husband George what film the line 'What a dump!" comes from. She once famously took an ad out in the tradepapers that read "Situations wanted - women artists, Mother of 3-10,11, 15-divorcee, American. 30 years experienced as an actress in Motion Pictures. Mobile still and more affable than rumor would have it. Wants steady employment in Hollywood (Has had Broadway). " What serious actress would have the chutzpah to do that today?

Interesting Trivia: Steven Spielberg bought both of Bette Davis' Oscars for Dangerous ($207,500) and Jezebel ($578,000)at auction, donating them to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

In 1942, she sold $2,000,000 worth of war bonds in 2 days.

When Bette Davis disliked someone, she usually disliked them for life. Although they made 2 films together, she heartily disliked Miriam Hopkins, accusing her of constantly upstaging her. She also disliked Joan Crawford, starting apparently when Bette had an affair with Joan's husband Franchot Tone during the making of Dangerous, continuing when Joan came to Warner Brothers (Bette turned down the role of Mildred Pierce that won Joan her only Academy Award) but reached its peak during the making of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. Joan allegedly faked being sick to get out of making Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte.

For further reading:

Ed Sikov - Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis, Henry Holt 2007
Charlotte Chandler - The Girl Who Walked Home Alone: Bette Davis, A Personal Biography. Simon and Schuster, 2006
Whitney Stine, Bette Davis- Mother Goddamn: The Story of the Career of Bette Davis. W.H. Allen, 1974
Sam Staggs - All About 'All About Eve'. St. Martin's Press (2000) (One of the best books on film ever written).

Friday, April 2, 2010

Scandalous Book Review and Giveaway: The Queen's Pawn by Christy English

Yesterday in 1204, Eleanor of Aquitaine passed away, so it's fitting that I'm reviewing Christy English's debut novel THE QUEEN'S PAWN, since Eleanor of Aquitaine is a major character.

What it's about: At only nine, Princess Alais of France is sent to live in England until she is of age to wed Prince Richard, son of King Henry II and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. Alais is an innocent pawn on the chessboard of dynastic marriage, her betrothal intended to broker an uneasy truce between the nations.

Estranged from her husband, Eleanor sees a kindred spirit in this determined young girl. She embraces Alais as a daughter, teaching the princess what it takes to be a woman of power in a world of men. But as Alais grows to maturity and develops ambitions of her own, Eleanor begins to see her as a threat-and their love for each other becomes overshadowed by their bitter rivalry, dark betrayals, conflicting passions, and a battle for revenge over the throne of England itself.

Set in the years 1169-1173, the book is told in alternate chapters between the two women, starting with King Louis of France informing Alais of her betrothal to Prince Richard. Alais is naturally treptidatious, she's heard rumors that King Henry II of England is the devil, and that his children are the devil's spawn. When she arrives in England, she and Eleanor showly come to know each other. In Eleanor, Alais finds the mother that she never knew, and for Eleanor, Alais is more like her daughter than the daughters of her own blood. When Eleanor brings Alais home from the convent where she has gone until she's old enough to marry, Alais and Richard fall in love at first sight, but Henry also wants Alais. When Alais has her illusions shattered by Eleanor and Richard, she makes a choice that has devastating consquences.
It's no secret that Eleanor of Aquitaine is one of my favorite historical women, and English captures her perfectly. Eleanor is a loving mother, but also a shrewd political operator, moving people around like pieces on her chessboard (lovely scene where Eleanor teaches Alais how to play chess). Eleanor has some regrets for her actions, but would still do the same again. But the real revelation in the book is English depiction of Alais. In her hands, Alais is a complicated, headstrong, loving beauiful young girl, who is at once a mature woman and at the same time a child in many ways. Some of the loveliest scenes are when Alais meets Henry for the first time in the stables where she has gone to play with the puppies. Because of the way he is dressed, she thinks he's a stablehand not the King of England. The alternating chapters work so that just as you find yourself learning towards one woman or the other, you read the next chapter and your point of view on the situation changes. 
English's take on Richard is intriguing. On the surface, he's the same Richard that we know and love from THE LION IN WINTER and other novels, devoted to God and war, but English shows a softer side to him in his relationship with Alais. Historians are divided on whether or not Richard was gay, bisexual, or neither and English has come down squarely on the straight side.  I totally bought her version of Richard.

English bumps up Alais' age for the novel and moves the dates of her affair with Henry a few years earlier to coincide with the final rift between Eleanor and Henry, and the start of the conflict with his older sons. According to Wikipedia, she was born in 1160 which would have made her only twelve at this time. In the novel, Alais is older when she starts her affair with Henry. Still there was a part of me that was a bit queasy at the idea of a 14 year old sleeping with a man who was almost 40. I had to remind myself that this was not unusual at the time. Henry VII's mother, Margaret Beaufort gave birth to him when she was 13, after being married to Edmond Tudor who was in his 30's.

I highly reccomend this book. English deftly brings to life one of the most intriguing women in history, and her times to life. It will be hard for readers not to sympathize with both women, particularly Alais. As I was reading the book, I couldn't help casting the movie version. I see Toby Stephens as Henry, Saoirse Ronan as Alais or Romola Garai, and Harriet Walter as Eleanor. Perhaps Rupert Grint, who played Ron in the Harry Potter films, as Richard.

I'm giving away a copy of Christy's book to one lucky winner. Just leave a comment along with your email address between now and April 7th to win. This giveaway is only to readers in the United States.