Sunday, March 29, 2009

Mixing Fact and Fiction: The Devil's Whore

Last night I watched a miniseries set in the English Civil War that was broadcast by Britain's Channel 4 last November. I picked up a copy of the DVD in the airport while waiting for my plane back to New York. I'm fortunate to have a region-free DVD player which means that I can play English DVD's as well as American (for some reason Europe has a different system than we do). I had planned to write about the miniseries as part of my reviewing of fictional Scandalous Women but instead I've decided to write about mixing historical fact and fiction, something that crops up a lot while watching movies and TV films based on historical scandalous women.

The story revolves Angelica Fanshawe (who is fictitious) in the years 1623 when she is born until the restoration of Charles II. When Angelica is small, her mother who is Catholic decides to go to France to become a nun, leaving Angelica to the care of her cousin's family. As the boat is leaving, Angelica declares that she no longer believes in God, and she sees the Devil standing on a branch of a tree. When she is sixteen, she marries her cousin Henry who is the heir to Fanshawe manor. On her wedding day, Elizabeth Lilburne begs her to ask the King to pardon her husband John Lilburne who is being flogged within an inch of his life for his radical views. Angelica declines to intervene.

Her marriage to her cousin Harry is not smooth. Angelica has opinions which her husband does not like, and he treats her coldly for being enthusiastic in the marriage bed. When the Civil War breaks out, Harry offers his manor up to the enemy without a fight which leads to the King ordering his death by firing squad. This leaves Angelica feeling betrayed by the King, and disenchanted with the royalist cause. After her husband's death, she is left penniless and alone. She is taken in by a merchant who buys her dinner but wants sex in exchange. Angelica threatens him and when he doesn't take her warning seriously, she stabs him to death, leading his friend Jollife seeking revenge for his death. Sexby rescues her from being attacked in the woods.

She becomes involved with Thomas Rainsborough when the Roundheads occupy her families manor house, and they fall in love and are married. Unfortunately Rainsborough is assassinated leaving Angelica a widow for the second time. A friend, Edward Sexby offers to marry her, although Angelica no longer wants to be married. She wants her freedom. However there is a war on and marriage will protect her as she goes back to live at the manor house which has no been given to the Dissenters.

Sexby is in love with her but she tells him that she will never love him. She gets involved with another one of the dissenters who is actually being paid by Jollife to get Angelica arrested for indecency and promiscuity. Sexby again rescues her and this time she is willing to allow herself to love him. Unfortunately Sexby has been disallusioned by his good friend Cromwell who he suspects of ordering the death of Rainsborough. He was also disgusted by Cromwell's actions in Ireland and the idea that Cromwell might become King. He decides to take matters into his own hands and assassinate Cromwell, however he is betrayed and commits suicide when he realizes his plan has been foiled.

The miniseries ends with Angelica giving birth to Sexby's daughter and living to see the restoration of Charles II.

The Devil's Whore is sub-titled the 'true adventures of Angelica Fanshawe.' However Angelica is fictional although the majority of characters in the miniseries that she mixes with are not. My biggest problem with this story is that she marries real life historical characters. This may sound hypocritical. I have no problem with fictional characters sleeping with historical figures known to be particularly promiscuous such as Charles II, Byron, Edward VII, George IV, Alexandre Dumas, etc. But having fictional characters marry real life historical characters is going to far.

The other big problem is even though the miniseries is called The Devil's Whore, there is nothing particularly outrageous or scandalous about Angelica. She's actually quite boring compared to the real life historical figures she mixes with. Elizabeth Lilburne, who spent her life helping her husband John Lilburne with his causes, and who fought like a demon to have him set free during his imprisonment, is a more interesting figure than Angelica. Angelica seems to have no opinions of her own, she takes on the opinions of the men that she's involved with. Compared to real life women Brilliana Harley who defended her home Brampton Bryan Castle for seven weeks against the Royalist, Angelica really does nothing much of note during the miniseries.

One of the writers Martine Brant is married to a man who is descended from Lady Anne Fanshawe, the wife of King Charles I's Chancellor, who wrote a diary about this period. I would rather the miniseries be based on one the actual women who lived during the Civil War than this hodge podge that was created. When Peter Flannery was asked if he was worried that people will take their history from the miniseries, he was quoted as saying that people don't take Gone with the Wind as fact about the American Civil War, which is true but at least Margaret Mitchell didn't have Scarlett O'Hara involved with Stonewall Jackson or Robert E. Lee.

The saving grace of the miniseries was that it was set during the English Civil War which is a neglected period in English history. I found the men in the series to be the most compelling characters, particularly Cromwell, who fought so hard against the royalists, only to end up not having achieving what he set out to accomplish when he becomes Lord Protector of England, in defacto King but without the title.

Unfortunatley I don't know when or if this miniseries will ever be available in America. If you are lucky enough to find it on You Tube, I would watch it simply for the story of the English Civil War.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Hedda Gabler - Fiend or Heroine?

Last night I went to see the Roundabout Theater's production of Hedda Gabler starring Mary Louise Parker at the American Airlines theater here in New York. As I was watching the play (before I walked out during the interval), I started thinking about the fictional scandalous women, women whose stories shocked the reading public at the time. Women like Madame Bovary, Forever Amber, Scarlett in Gone with the Wind, and Fanny Hill.

This blog has been mainly about the real life Scandalous Women in history, but I thought I would start a new feature, tackling some of these fictional women and why their stories were so outrageous to readers at the time.

I have long had a love/hate relationship with the play Hedda Gabler. I have seen many productions of this play and I still can't get around the fact that I hate this character. Last night, I started wondering what it was about this fictional woman that pushed my buttons. And was it the same for audience members in the late 19th Century when Hedda was first produced?

The character of Hedda is considered to be one of the great dramatic roles, the "female Hamlet." Over the years, Hedda has been portrayed as an idealistic heroine fighting against society's stricture on women, a victim of circumstance, a feminist icon, or a manipulative villainess. When the play opened in Germany, in 1891, it garnered mainly negative reviews. The idea of a character, especially a woman, committing suicide on stage had to have been controversial.

Here are some of the earliest reviews and commentaries on the play:

So specious is the dramatist, so subtle is his skill in misrepresentations, so fatal is his power of persuasion that for a moment we believe Hedda Gabler is a noble heroine, and not a fiend, and that Lovborg is deserving of our pity and not our condemnation. (Clement Scott - The Daily Telegraph, 1891)

Ibsen's greatest play and the most interesting woman that he has created - she is compact with all the vices, she is instinct with all the virtues of womanhood. (Justin Huntly McCarthy, London Black and White, April 25, 1891)

What a hopeless specimen of degeneracy is Hedda Gabler! A vicious, heartless, cowardly, unmoral, mischief-making vixen. (The Ledger, Philadelphia, February 13, 1904)

What a marvel of stupidity and nonsense the author did produce in this play! It is incredible to think that only a score of years ago the audience sat seriously before its precious dullness. (G.B. Shaw)

Ibsen himself wrote: The title of the play is Hedda Gabler. My intention in giving it this name was to indicate that Hedda as a personality is to be regarded rather as her father's daughter than her husband's wife. It was not really my intention to deal in this play with so called problems. What I principally wanted to do was to depict human beings, human emotions, and human destinies upon a groundwork of certain social conditions and principles of the present day.

Hedda is a woman of complex passions and emotional extremes. In a sense, if you want to get technical, you could say that she is manic-depressive or bi-polar as it is called nowadays.

Spoiler Alert: If you have not read and seen the play, you might want to skip this portion of the blog as I give a brief plot summary of the play.

The action takes place in a villa in what is now Oslo but was called Kristiana back in Ibsen's day. Hedda Gabler has just returned from her honeymoon with Tesman, an aspiring academic, who has turned their honeymoon into a research trip. It becomes clear over the course of the play that she has never loved him but has married him for reasons pertaining to the boring nature of her life, (she is 28 and was presumably on the shelf when she finally got Tesman to marry her) and it is suggested that she may be pregnant.

The reappearance of Tesman's academic rival and Hedda's old love, Ejlert Løvborg, throws their lives into disarray. Løvborg is an alcoholic who has wasted his talent until now. Thanks to a relationship with Hedda's old schoolmate, Thea Elvsted (who has left her husband for him), he shows signs of rehabilitation and has just completed a bestseller. The critical success of his recently published work transforms Løvborg into a threat to Tesman, as Løvborg becomes a competitor for the university professorship Tesman had been counting on. The couple are financially overstretched and Tesman now tells Hedda that he will not be able to finance the regular entertaining or luxurious housekeeping that Hedda had been looking forward to.

Upon meeting Løvborg however, the couple discover that he has no intention of competing for the professorship, but rather has spent the last few years labouring with Mrs. Elvsted over what he considers to be his masterpiece. Hedda, apparently jealous of Mrs. Elvsted's influence over Løvborg, hopes to come between them. Tesman returns home from a party and reveals that he found Løvborg's manuscript which he lost while drunk. When Hedda next sees Løvborg, he confesses to her that he has lost the manuscript. Instead of telling him that the manuscript has been found, Hedda encourages him to commit suicide, giving him one of her pistols.

She then burns the manuscript, telling Tesman she has destroyed it to secure their future. When the news comes that Løvborg is dead, Tesman and Mrs. Elvsted are determined to try to reconstruct his book. Hedda is shocked to discover, from Judge Brack, that Løvborg's death, in a brothel, was messy and probably accidental. Worse, Brack knows where the pistol came from. This means that he has power over her, which he will use to force Hedda into a sexual affair. Leaving the others, she goes into her smaller room and ends the play by shooting herself in the temple.

Not exactly a feel good play. Hedda is a very hard character to root for her. A product of her class, she is a woman who has married down, it is clear in the play that Tesman is of a different class from her. She's probably rejected many suitors over the years. Now she's 28, and probably married Tesman out of a sense of desperation, hoping that he had a bright academic future ahead of him. She clearly is spoilt and materialistic, caring more for appearances. She envies Mrs. Elvsted for doing the things that she would never dare to do, leaving her husband, throwing her lot in with Eilert. She lives vicariously through life versus living her life.

But is Hedda a heroine or a fiend who destroys everything in her path? Are we, the audience to pity her, for not having the courage to take a stand? For a 19th Century audience, Hedda must have seemed incomprehensible, particularly to the men in the audience. For the women, I suspect she made them look into themselves, and their choices, and it wasn't a very comfortable evening at the theater. Her suicide must have been particularly shocking, a last and tragic attempt to escape her environment.

Even today, there are women out there, who live through the men in their lives, instead of using their ambition and their talents for themselves. Perhaps, they have a fear of failure and find it easier to live through either their children or others. Hedda fears scandal above everything. It is why she will stay married to Tesman despite the fact that he bores her to pieces, it is why when Eilert tried to make love to her when they were younger, she refused. It is why she chooses suicide over being forced into an illicit relationship with Brack.

Her destructive impulses, which even she has no idea why she does the things that she does, take over. And ultimately destroy not just Eilert but also her life. Hedda is bored, and has no other outlet in her life. For some women in the 19th Century, their children were an outlet, but Hedda refuses to see children as a gift. She just sees them as another way to trap her in a life that she doesn't want but has chosen. Ironically, in Kate Williams' new biography of Queen Victoria, the young Queen expresses the exact same sentiments about having children.

So is Hedda a heroine or a fiend? In the end, it all comes down to the individual audience member how one feels about this woman.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Empress of Numbers: The Life of Augusta Ada Byron King

My daughter! with they name this song begun
My daughter! with they name thus much shall end
I see thee not, - I hear thee not, - but none
Can be so wrapt in thee; thou art the friend
To whom the shadows of far years extend:
Albeit my brow thou never should'st behold,
My voice shall with thy future visions blend,
And reach into they heart, - when mine is cold, -
A token and a tone, even from thy father's mould.
George, Lord Byron

March 24, 2009 is Ada, Countess of Lovelace Day. So to celebrate, over 1,000 people will be blogging about Ada today. Below is my little contribution to the effort.
From childhood, Augusta Ada Byron's mother tried her damndest to make sure that her only child was nothing like her father, Lord Byron. Ada would be brought up to revere science, mathematics and reason. Any poetic impulses would be squashed out of her, but despite her mother's best efforts, Ada Bryon King, Countess of Lovelace grew up to be more like her father than her mother ever dreamed.

She was born of the misalliance between George Gordon Byron, the rock and roll poet of the regency and Annabella Milbanke, the 'princess of parallelograms,' on December 10, 1815. The unhappy couple met in 1812, when Bryon woke up to find that he had become the most famous man in Britain on the publication of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. Women flocked to him, including Lady Caroline Lamb, with whom he embarked on a scandalous affair. Annabella took a different tact, she seemed indifferent to him, played hard to get, which intrigued Byron. He proposed to her, and she turned him down the first time, but unfortunately for both of them, he was convinced to propose again.

On the surface the wedding of her parents made sense, Bryon was perpetually broke, and Annabella was not only an heiress but related to the Lambs, her aunt Elizabeth had married the 1st Viscount Melbourne, making William Lamb and his wife Lady Caroline her cousins. But it was a miss-match from the start, Annabella had decided that she would reform Byron from his more wicked impulses, and at first Byron was willing. But the demons that drove him led him to drink too much, and to abusive behavior. At first, Annabella thought that perhaps Byron and his friend John Hobhouse had killed someone, but soon she discovered the awful truth, Bryon and his half-sister Augusta Leigh had been lovers. Annabella had her family physician examine Byron to see if he was mad, but she was told that he was perfectly sane, that his actions did not come from a diseased mind, she left him taking their newborn daughter with her. Byron never saw his daughter again.

Byron signed the deed of separation in April of 1816, and soon took off for the continent in the company of Shelley and his wife, and Mary Shelley's step-sister Claire Clairmont. He next returned to Britain eight years later in a coffin. While Ada was growing up, the famous portrait of her father in Albanian dress was hung over the mantelpiece at her grandparents' home, covered with a green cloth. She was not to see her father's face until she was twenty years old and a married woman. Even though the funeral cortege passed by the family estate, Ada didn't attend her father's funeral, although Lady Byron was completely distraught.

Instead, Ada who was an unruly child, full of high spirits, was confined to the house with her governess and her pet cat (she had inherited her love of animals from her father), while she studied science, mathematics, and foreign languages. From childhood, Ada suffered from bouts of ill health. At the age of 8, she had headaches that obscured her vision. At the age of 14, she was paralyzed for a year after a bout of measles; it wasn't until she was sixteen that she was able to walk again. Like her father, she was prone to plumpness, something she struggled with all her life, since she adored food. When she was 16, she attempted to run away with her tutor, a young man who had been hired to further her studies. Ada and her mother had a fraught relationship. Annabella was not the most maternal of creatures; she seemed to regard her daughter more as an experiment than an actual child, someone to practice her theories on. She was shocked that despite her best efforts, Ada should turn out to be rebellious teenager.

When she finally made her debut at court, all eyes were upon her, wanting to meet the daughter of the infamous Lord Byron. In many ways, Ada was the first celebrity child. If she had lived today, her every move would have been followed in the tabloids. She made the rounds of various parties where she was known to shock people by the bluntness of her speech and her willingness to discuss topics not normally talked about in polite society. She first met Charles Babbage at the age of 17 at a social gathering through her friend Mary Sommerville, a noted researcher and scientist. Babbage had displayed his difference engine in his home, and Ada went to see it again and again, fascinated by the ideas behind it. But it wasn't until 1843 that they began to work together.

At the age of 20, Ada married William King, 8th Baron King, and later 1st Earl of Lovelace, primarily to escape the watchful eyes of her mother. It helped that William seemed fascinated by her, and was willing to allow her to continue her scientific studies. Ada hobnobbed with all the best scientists of the day, including besides Babbage and Mary Sommerville, people like Sir David Brewster and Michael Faraday, and writers such as Charles Dickens. She also spent time studying phrenology and mesmerism, two interests of her mother's, but Ada's interest was much more scientifically based than her mother. Ada had already surpassed her mother in her understanding of mathematics.
But first came motherhood, Ada gave birth to her first son Byron in 1836, followed by a daughter Annabella in 1837 and a son Ralph in 1839. In 1841, Ada finally met her cousin Medora Leigh, the youngest child of August Leigh and possibly Byron. Already, Ada had gleaned the truth through reading her father's poetry, but she blamed Augusta for the relationship not Byron much to her mother's disgust. Still the knowledge sent Ada into a sort of nervous breakdown for a time.

Ada decided that her life's work was to combine the disparate natures of her parents, the imagination and the reason, to science. She called it 'poetic science.' "Religion to me is science, and science is religion," she wrote, "I am more than ever now the bride of science." This she achieved with her work on Babbage's Analytical Engine. During a nine-month period in 1842–43, Lovelace translated Italian mathematician Luigi Menebrea's memoir on Babbage's Analytical Engine. With the article, she wrote a set of notes that were longer than the memoir itself and include (Section G) in complete detail a method for calculating Bernoulli numbers with the Engine. This note is considered by some historians as the world's first computer program. Some contemporary biographers such as Benjamin Woolley debate the extent of her contributions, with some insisting that the programs were written by Babbage himself. However, even Babbage himself acknowledged her contributions. There has also been debate of whether or not Ada was even a good mathemetician although she impressed her tutors like Augustus de Morgan with her knowledge. Given how far mathematics have advanced in the almost two hundred years since her birth, it is impossible to judge her by today's standards.

Ada was certainly one of the few people who fully understood Babbage's ideas and was able to explain them in way that a layman could understand. Ada also acknowledged some possibilities of the machine which Babbage never published, such as speculating that "the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent".
Ada never again completed anything like her notes for Babbage's analytical machine. Instead she spent her time on one of her other interests, horse racing. She was constantly in debt as she lost huge sums of money gambling on horse races. To her mother, it was just more evidence of how she had failed to keep Ada from becoming like her father. Ada and her husband continued to live separate lives throughout their marriage. William spent most of his time at their estate in Ockham making improvements, his closeness to her mother didn't help matters. Ada loved London, hanging out with her scientific friends. She may or may not have had an affair with John Crosse, the son of Andrew Crosse, a noted scientist. What is known is that after her death, he used her letters to obtain the funds from her life insurance policy from her executor.

For a number of years she had also been taking laudanum to ease her nerves, like a number of Victorian women. Laudanum, which is an opium derivative, was perscribed in the 19th century for basically every ailment, most particularly for female hysteria. Although Ada loved her children a great deal, and managed to forge better relationships with them, before she died, for years she felt trapped and stifled in marriage and motherhood. In a different era, she might have been able to attend university, and have a career as a professional scientist, which is what she longed for, to have a profession. Instead like most women of her class, she married instead.

Ada died in November 1852 of uterine cancer and the constant bloodletting that was medical treatment at the time. At first Ada's illness was thought to be psychosomatic until it was determined after she was examined, that she was riddled with cancer. In the end, Ada was buried next to the father she never knew at the Church of St. Mary Magadalene at her request which totally pissed her mother off. Despite all her best efforts to separate her daughter from her father, in the end, it came to nothing. Ada combined the best and the worst of both of her parents, like most children.

Over one hundred years after her death, in 1953, Lovelace's notes on Babbage's Analytical Engine were republished after being forgotten. The engine has now been recognized as an early model for a computer and Lovelace's notes as a description of a computer software. Ada's daughter Lady Anne Blunt became famous in her own right, as a traveller in the Middle East along with her husband, poet Wilfred Scawen Blunt, and as a breeder of Arabian horses.

The computer language Ada created by the Department of Defense in the U.S. was named after her and the Department of Military Standard for the language, "MIL-STD-1815", was given the number of the year of her birth.

Other sources:

The Bride of Science, Romance, Reason and Byron's Daughter: Benjamin Wooley, McGraw-Hill, 1999


Childe Byron - Romulus Linney (Linney, a playwright and father of actress Laura Linney, imagines Ada on her deathbed confronting her father)

The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Bolter - The Racy Life of Idina Sackville

Imagine picking up the newspaper and reading about the scandalous doings of an upper-class wife in Happy Valley, Kenya and finding out that the woman in the article was your great-grandmother! That is what happened to writer Frances Osborne in her teens. She happened to be reading an article about the book White Mischief, a new book about the murder of Josslyn Hay, the Earl of Errol. The article mentioned his first wife, Lady Idina Sackville and the outrageous life of a group of English settlers in Kenya. Too her surprise, her mother told her that Lady Idina was her great grandmother, a skeleton in the family closet, that had never been revealed.

Intrigued, Frances kept digging for information. As she researched, she must have been reminded of that old adage, that one should be prepared when researching the family tree, that you might not always like what you find. Happily for those of us who love reading about Scandalous Women, she kept on researching.

The result is a book called The Bolter. The nickname stands for women who loved too much and cared too little. Everything about this book is intrguing, from its topic and story to the relationship of the author to the woman that the book is about. The inspiration for a character called The Bolter in Nancy Mitford's novel, The Pursuit of Love, Lady Idina Sackville was born in 1893 to the Earl de la Warr(the family gave their name to the state of Delaware) and his wife Muriel, a rich heiress. When Idina was about five years old, her father ran off with a can-can dancer, only returning long enough to father his heir, before decamping for good. Furious at the way her husband was now spending her money on his mistresses, Idina's mother divorced him for desertion, which was a terrible scandal at the time. Little Idina suddenly found herself without her usual playmates, as the aristocratic world was closed to her. Her mother found a new calling, devoting herself to supporting Labor politician George Lansbury (grandfather of actress Angela Lansbury) and the theosophist movement. She also became an ardent suffragette.

Lady Idina Sackville grew up, like most women of her class, with very little education apart from snaring a rich husband. At the age of 20, she married Euan Wallace, the son of a rich Scottish landowning family. The couple were only married a few short months before war was declared and her husband went off to serve with his regiment. He returned home long enough for Idina to give birth to two sons, David and Gerard in 1914 and 1915. The cracks in the marriage soon appeared. On leave during the war, Euan left Idina, who was seriously ill, alone while he continued to party. He spent his time with her younger sister Avie, and her best friend Barbie Lutyens, the daughter of noted architect Barbie Lutyens. Barbie, whose family was constantly trying to make ends meet, set her cap for Euan. By the time, Idina was feeling well enough to join her husband in his social rounds, the damage to their marriage was done. Idina threw herself into an affair with Charles Gordon and when the war was over, told her husband that she wanted a divorce. But her decision came at a terrible cost.

Her husband demanded custody of their sons, as well as insisting that Idina was never to contact them again, feeling that it would confuse them to have their mother coming in and out of their lives. Indina agreed never to see her young sons again, probably thinking it wouldn't be permanent, and high-tailed it off to Africa to live a Bohemian life style, ripe with intrigue, freewheeling sex and other adventures that a lady of good breeding may dream about, but would never entertain if she valued her family. She soon realized her mistake when her second marriage fell apart. Unfortunately, her ex-husband remarried to Barbie, who had been waiting in the wings. They soon had three sons of their own, and Barbie took Idina's place as her sons mother.

Soon Idina was causing more scandal in Kenya. There, she swiftly acquired a racy reputation, possibly not unconnected to her habit of receiving guests while stark naked in a green onyx bath. Idina turned up the heat in Kenya with after-dinner games, including a sort of 'blind man in the buff' where you had to identify body parts through a hole in a sheet. Idina wasn't beautiful, but she knew how to make the most of the attributes she had. She was impeccably dressed for all occasions, the type of woman who still looked cool and collected despite it being 100 degrees outside. Her second husband couldn't take her infidelities and another marriage bit the dust.

But Idina wasn't finished yet. Her third husband was Josslyn Hay, 8 years younger. Heir to the Earl of Errol, one of the oldest peerages in Scotland, Josslyn was cash and land poor since the ancestral estate Slains Castle had been sold. Josslyn and Idina fell madly in love, although Idina knew that the only way to hold him was to not require fidelity. When Idina and Joss met, he was already having an affair with an American heiress, Alice de Janze. Idina and Alice soon became good friends, and Idina turned a blind eye to their affair. Joss and Idina married in 1923, and moved back to Kenya. They bought a farm that they called Slains, and had a daughter Diana, who inherited the earldom after her father's murder in 1941.

Upper-class society of Twenties Britain was scandalised. Respectable married women were allowed to take lovers after they had provided 'an heir and a spare', but acquiring new husbands was simply not playing the game. Idina became a social outcast. And in Kenya, the British settlers who were not part of the Happy Valley set of drug-addicted, wife swappers were outraged, feeling that the publicity embarrassed them all, and made them laughing stocks. It was hard enough dealing with the growing unrest among the natives of Kenya against the white settlers without having a group of decadent aristocratics mucking things up. However, Idina, while she may have partied as hard as the rest of them, truly loved Kenya. She took life on the farm seriously enough, since it was her only real means of support. She had very little money of her own, and unfortunately apart from her first and fourth husbands, neither did the men she married.

But thats what makes this such a juicy ride. Osborne's great grandmother is driven to lead a reckless wild life with few regrets. While she does eventually meet her young adult sons, the meeting is just that, not a reunion, but a bit of a reality check. She has to settle for being their friend, since she abdicated the right to be their mother. Frances Osborne does a remarkable job of writing about her great grandmother. She doesn't judge her life but just lets it unfold for the reader to decide how they feel about this rather intriguing woman who traveled the world with a black pekingnese called Satan. The book is compulsively readable, the reader can certainly understand why Osborne found her great grandmother so amazing, despite her bad behavior.

If Idina had lived in the sixties and seventies, a more open period of sexuality, her life would have been different. Instead, she lived in an age, when sexual hypocrisy reigned. Part of her problem was that she married every man that she fell in love with! It doesn't take Dr. Phil to realize that she continued to marry men who were very like her father. Ironically the unconditional love and happiness that she was seeking, she finally found with her children. Unfortunately she found it too late, both of her sons died during World War II, and her daughter Diana, who had been brought up in England mainly by her sister, Idina briefly reconnected with before her tragic early death in 1953.

Idina never got over her love for her first husband, she kept his picture by her bedside until her death.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Scandalous Movie Review: Iron Jawed Angels

Directed by Katia von Garnier


Hilary Swank .......Alice Paul
Anjelica Huston..... Carrie Chapman Catt
Frances O'Connor.....Lucy Burns
Molly Parker......Emily Leighton (fictional character; a senator's wife)
Laura Fraser.......Doris Stevens
Lois Smith........Rev. Anna Howard Shaw
Vera Farmiga......Ruza Wenclawska, also known as Rose Winslow
Brooke Smith........Mabel Vernon
Patrick Dempsey........Ben Weissman (fictional character)
Julia Ormond........Inez Milholland

In February 2004, Iron-Jawed Angels premiered on HBO. It is the story of Alice Paul (1885-1977) and her friend Lucy Burns, and the last 8 years of the women's suffrage movement in the United States. The film opens with Alice and Lucy arriving at a meeting with Carrie Chapman Catt and the Reverand Anna Howard Shaw, two stalwart's of the women's right's movement. Both Paul and Burns had been actively involved in the suffrage movement while studying in England. As the duo becomes more active within the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), they begin to realize that their ideas were much too radical for the established activists, particularly Carrie Chapman Catt who openly disdains their methods. While both Paul and Burns lobbied for the a constitutional amendment, Catt and the NAWSA had focused more on suffrage on a state by state basis. By 1912, 9 states had given women the right to vote, mainly in the west. Both Paul and Burns eventually leave NAWSA and create the National Woman's Party (NWP), a much more radical organization dedicated to the fight for women's rights. Both women had been inspired by women like Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters in England.

Over time, tension between the NWP and NAWSA grows as NAWSA leaders criticize NWP tactics such as direct protesting of a wartime President and picketing directly outside the White House. Relations between the American government and the NWP protesters also intensify, as hundreds of women are arrested for their actions, though the official charge is "obstructing traffic." 230 of them are sent to prison for 60-day terms where they suffer poor conditions. Paul demands that they be treated like political prisoners. During this time, Paul starts a hunger strike and is joined by the other women and during which prison authorities force feed them through a tube. News of their treatment leaks to the media and they are dubbed 'Iron Jawed Angels.' Pressure is put on President Wilson as Carrie Chapman Catt and the NAWSA seize the opportunity to lobby tirelessly for an amendment to the Constitution. The film ends with the news that the 19th amendment has been rafitied in August of 1920. An end note to the film lets the viewer know that Paul, Burns and all of the other women eventually being pardoned by President Wilson.

This film should be required viewing in every high school across the country to remind not just young women but also men of the struggles that women went through to get the vote and that it is a right that should not be neglected and taken for granted. Hilary Swank drives the film as Alice Paul. Raised a Quaker in Moorestown, NJ, from childhood Alice had been taught that men and women were equal. She worked relentlessly to get women the right to vote, even giving up any semblance of a personal life.

The film captures the fractured relations between the old guard of the women's right's movement, women who had come up through the ranks when Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were the leaders, and the younger generation who had less patience than the older generation. This wasn't the first time that the suffrage movement in this country had split, there was an earlier split just after the Civil War between the Bostonians such Lucretia Mott, and Anthony and Stanton. Nor does the film neglect the contributions that immigrants and African-American women made to the struggle. Because the film is only two hours long, some of the important women in the movement get short shrift such Inez Mulholland. The film also gets bogged down when it tries to introduce something of a love interest for Alice Paul in the character of Ben Weissman, a fictional cartoonist for the Washington Post. Even the writers don't seem particularly interested in this story-line because he disappears for huge chunks of time and never seems bothered that Alice doesn't seem as interested in him. The other weak link is the fictional wife of a U.S. Senator who one supposes is meant to symbolize the well-to-do woman who realizes that she has just as much at stake as other women in the movement.

Katia von Garnier uses contemporary music like Sarah McLachlan on the soundtrack which is a bit jarring at first. The other disappointment is that the DVD has no real extras apart from the director's commentary. There is no behind the scenes look at the filming or any more information about the women portrayed in the film. There are also some minor historical inaccuracies. Woodrow Wilson did not ride to his inauguration in a car, William Howard Taft was the first president to do that, and there are some inconsistencies in the hairstyles and costumes such a woman wearing a wristwatch before they were invented.

Alice Paul continued the fight for equality even after the 19th amendment was ratified. She was the architect behind the Equal Rights Amendment which she fought for until it was finally defeated in the 1970's. Having obtained a Phd, Alice went on to also obtain a law degree in 1922. For forty years she lived in Washington, DC in a house that was donated to the movement by Alva Belmont called the Sewell-Belmont House. The house is now open to the public as a museum. Alice was also rewarded with a postage stamp in her honor by both Britain and the United States.

Paul is as important in the history of the women's righ's movement as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and deserves to be more well known (I had never heard of her before seeing this movie.)

Friday, March 6, 2009

Goodness Had Nothing to do with it: The Scandalous Life of Mae West

“Come up and see sometime!”

“I used to be Snow White… but I drifted.”

“Is that a pistol in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?”

“When I’m good, I’m very good. But when I’m bad, I’m better.”

These are just a few of the gems that Mae West, sex goddess and comedienne, was responsible for during her long career in vaudeville, theater, movies and Las Vegas. A playwright as well as an actress, Mae West scandalized theater goers with her 1926 play simply entitled Sex, starting off a long battle against censorship that lasted her whole career. She was a feminist icon who showed the world that sex was a natural thing and not something dirty to be hidden. Her costumes and look have been duplicated by drag queens the world over.

Mae West entered the world as Mary Ann West on August 17th 1893 in Brooklyn, New York when it was still a separate city. Her father had been a prizefighter known as ‘Battlin’ Jack West’ before settling down to various careers including owning a detective agency and a hansom cab. Her mother Tillie had been a corset model. Young Mae began entertaining audiences early, entering amateur shows at the age of seven. Before long she began performing professionally on the vaudeville circuit, encouraged by her mother, who had wanted to be an actress in her youth.

Mae West’s signature walk was said to have been influenced by the female impersonators of the era. She wore special eight-inch platform shoes to increase her height and enhance her stage presence. Soon she was appearing on Broadway high profile revues such as Sometime, where she danced the shimmy. Not content to just rely on producers for work, Mae West picked up a pen and began writing her own plays. Sex premiered on Broadway in 1926. Mae wrote, directed, produced as well as starred in the play. She once told a reporter that she got the idea one night when she saw a prostitute on the waterfront with two johns, her stockings had runs in them, and she was drunk. Mae wanted to give this woman a different ending to her story.

Sex told the story of Margie, a prostitute working in a brothel in Montreal who wanted better things in life, but who didn’t apologize for the life she had led. Margie falls in love with the son of a rich Connecticut family. Like a true Victorian melodrama, Margie gives up her lover when she realizes that marrying her will ruin his life. The moral of the story, for Mae at least, was the sheer fact that she had been accepted by her lover, Jimmy Stanton despite her past. As far as Margie was concerned she had triumphed.

While critics hated it, audiences loved it. Sex wasn't the first play to feature a prostitute as the main character, Somerset Maugham's Rain and Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie had also featured prostitutes, but Sex was different because Mae West didn't pass moral judgement on her Margie's career choice. However city officials were even less enamored of the play and arrested the entire cast. Mae was prosecuted on morals charges and was sentenced to ten days on Welfare Island (now Roosevelt Island). She served eight with time off for good behavior. It wasn’t the last time that Mae would have to battle the censors. She wrote a play about homo-sexuality called Drag. Her other plays with such titillating titles such as The Wicked Age, Pleasure Man, and The Constant Sinner were also plagued by controversy, which ensured that Mae would constantly be in the newspapers, and her plays would have packed houses. Her last play, Diamond Lil was a bonafide Broadway hit.

Mae West hit the movies in 1932 at the age of thirty-eight, which was unusual for the times when most stars were under contract in their early twenties. From the beginning she was a smash. There was no one like her on the screen with her frank sexuality and way with a line of dialogue. Within a year, Mae West was a huge box office draw and one of the highest paid people in the United States. Soon however Mae ran into problems with the Production Code which had been charged with cleaning up the movies. Mae just increased the number of double entendres in her films. Mae West was so popular that during World War II, life preserver jackets were referred to as “Mae Wests,” because they resembled her curvaceous upper torso (ironically Mae in her younger years, was quite slim, during an era when voluptuousness was prized. Her curves appeared during the flapper years when slim was in!).

When the movie roles dried up for her, Mae just took her act back on stage. She revived Diamond Lil and later took her act to Las Vegas where she surrounded herself with young, handsome muscle bound men, including Mickey Hargitay (future father of actress Mariska Hargitay). She added recording artist to her name when she recorded two rock and roll albums. The movies came calling again when Billy Wilder offered her the role of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, but Mae turned him down. She couldn't relate to Norma Desmond, down on her luck, living in the past. In Mae West's world, everything was coming up roses.

Mae West shunned the life of a wife and mother. Her career was everything to her, which her mother encouraged. Matilda West didn't want Mae to end up like her, in a bad marriage having given up her dreams. From her teenage years, Mae soon had lots of boyfriends. She indulged in necking and petting freely, not worrying about whether or not her actions damaged her reputation. The one time she did get married, she was barely eighteen and it was more out of fear of pregnancy than any great love affair. Her husband Frank Wallace was her partner in a vaudeville act. They never lived together as husband and wife and Mae forgot the marriage existed. She never told her family what she had done, and if it hadn't been for an intrepid reporter, the marriage probably would have stayed hidden. Mae was an equal opportunity lover, race or religion didn't matter one whit to her. Among her many paramours were the actor George Raft, and gangster Owney Madden.

But Mae was not just about her career or men. When the building she lived in refused to rent an apartment to one of her boyfriends, an African-American former boxer, She solved the problem by buying the building (the Ravenswood which still stands in Hollywood. Mae lived in the penthouse apartment.). In the early 70's, Mae made a movie after nearly thirty years called Myra Breckenridge based on a novel by Gore Vidal. It was not a success nor was another feature Mae made just two years before she died called Sextette in 1978. Ironically for someone who had made her living being a sex symbol, Mae deplored the open sexualityand profanity in movies and television in the 60's and 70's. She made have implied sex on film and in her stage plays, but in real life, Mae was a much more private person.
Mae West died at the age of 87 on November 22, 1980. She’s buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery in her home town of Brooklyn. She leaves behind an enduring legacy of a woman who was not afraid to speak her mind, who took control of her image, and who was an early advocate of gay and transgender rights.

Sources include:
Becoming Mae West - Emily Wortis Leider
Mae West: It Ain't No Sin - Simon Louvis

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Scandalous Book Review: Pauline Bonaparte

"I have no ambition, except for a comfortable existence, a small number of good friends, and freedom of action."

Pauline Bonaparte

In the year and a half since I started Scandalous Women, I have written about many women across the centuries. Some have haunted me more than others, and left me hungering for more information about them. Pauline Bonaparte (1780-1825) is one of them. The general consensus from most of the books that I read while preparing my post was that Pauline was a flighty nymphomaniac who finally expired from the excesses of her life. Somehow I knew there had to be more to the life of Napoleon's favorite sister. Thankfully Flora Fraser has written a new biography about Pauline that was just published last week. As far as I know this is the first major biography about Pauline in English I think ever.

On the surface, Pauline doesn't seem like an excellent candidate for a full length biography. Pauline Bonaparte led no salons like Madame de Stael, nor was she a revolutionary like Charlotte Corday, or a scientist like Emilie de Chatelet. But Flora Fraser makes a credible case for her interest in Pauline. Like Josephine, her place in history rests alongside that of her powerful sibling Napoleon, but her life gives us insights into the role that women played during this period.
Pauline Bonaparte was known as one of the most beautiful women in Europe as well as the favorite sister of the Emperor Napoleon. Almost eleven years younger than her brother, the two shared a special relationship. You can read my earlier post on Pauline here. I wish I had had a copy of this book last year when I wrote the post! During her brother's reign as Emperor, she was known for her scandalous love affairs and for her decision to pose for Canova's famous sculpture of her Venus Victorious. But Pauline was more than just a society beauty, she was immensely loyal to both her brother and her first husband Victor Emmanuel Leclerc.

Flora Fraser (daughter of noted biographer Antonia Fraser, biography must run in the blood!) is known for her biographies of Emma Hamilton (Beloved Emma), Caroline of Brunswick (Unruly Queen) and the six daughters of George III (Princesses: The Six Daughters of George III). She does a wonderful job of bringing not only Pauline to live but also the world that she lived in. Particularly insightful are the chapters detailing Pauline's life in Saint-Domingue (present day Haiti) when her husband Leclerc was in charge of quelling Toussaint L'ouverture's rebellion. Pauline showed remarkable courage under difficult circumstances.

Fraser does much to quell most of the rumors and myths about Pauline, (everything from lesbian affairs to incestuous relations with her brother were thrown at her during her lifetime), particularly the notion that the death of her son Dermide meant nothing to her. Prior biographies make Pauline out to be a heartless mother, who went on willy-nilly after his death without a thought of his passing. Instead, Dermide's death was a contributing factor to the demise of her marriage to Camillo Borghese which limped on for several years after his death. Pauline blamed Borghese for insisting that Dermide stay behind in Rome while they traveled up north in Italy for the summer. Fraser makes the case that the rumors were started by anti-Napoleon factions and those who were plain jealous of Pauline.

Pauline was also a shrewd business woman as well as astute politically. When Napoleon became Emperor of the French, Pauline was uneasy about the crown that her brother wore. What is remarkable about Pauline's life, was that in an age, where women were the property of their husband's and had very little freedom even among the upper classes, Pauline pursued a life free of restraint. One senses that even if the family Bonaparte had never risen in the world due to Napoleon, Pauline would have found a way to live a life of freedom of action.

Pauline was a force of nature who couldn't be controlled by anyone least of all her brother Napoleon, who she openly defied. Throughout her life, Pauline captivated the world with her beauty, boundless quest for passion and diamonds (which she wore frequently, sometimes covering her gowns in them), and her high-handed manner (for instance using her ladies-in-waiting as footstools). Fraser fleshes out the privileged and politically unstable world of post-revolutionary France and Napoleon's reign. After her son's death, her raison d'être seemed to be the joyful pursuit of pleasure in her love affairs, which Fraser asserts may have been a source of her invalidism throughout her adult life. It seems that birth of her son Dermide may have led to gynecological problems complicated perhaps by veneral disease. She seems to never have able to have other children, not even a hint of pregnancy after his birth.

Fraser provides insight into the permissive culture of the French Empire and glimpses into Napoleon as a protective and frequently exasperated older brother while simultaneously engaged in politics, invasions and his eventual fall from power. She also paints a remarkable portrait of the Bonaparte family and the matriarch, Letizia Bonaparte (Madame Mere), the infighting between siblings, and particularly their disdain for Josephine. Pauline's loyalty to her brother led her from France to Elba, and would have led to St. Helena as well if she had been able to gain permission to join her brother in his final exile. She was the only sibling who didn't desert Napoleon after his fall from power. Pauline, for her part, survived her setbacks with style-"I am the sister of Bonaparte. I am afraid of nothing, "expressing a vitality and joie de vive that Fraser clearly admires without being blinded by her subject's flaws. Fraser has enormous sympathy and affection for Pauline and it comes through in the writing.

In stores now, Fraser's book can be purchased at Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and Powells.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Friendliness Award for Scandalous Women

The lovely Lucy of Enchanted by Josephine nominated me for a blog award yesterday. With this award, I must nominate others to share the prize and they, in turn, are supposed to nominate others in the same spirit of blogging friendship.

"This blog invests and believes in the PROXIMITY-nearness in space, time and relationships. These blogs are exceedingly charming. These kind bloggers aim to find and be friends. They are not interested in prizes or self-aggrandizement! Our hope is that when the ribbons of these prizes are cut, even more friendships are propagated. Please give more attention to these writers! Deliver this award to eight bloggers who must choose eight more and include this clever-written text into the body of their award."

My eight bloggers are:

Kwana Writes - Kwana is one of the loveliest people that I know

Megan Frampton - Another wonderful writer and friend

History Undressed - A wonderful blog by Eliza Knight

Edwardian Promenade

Hope Tarr - Wonderful historical and contemporary romance author

Risky Regencies - the first, the best, the riskiest bunch of writers on the Internet

Passages to the Past - A new blog to me but one that has quickly become a must read.

Reading the Past - A wonderful blog by Sarah Johnson

Monday, March 2, 2009

March Madness

Welcome to March Madness here on Scandalous Women! Since it's women's history month, Scandalous Women will be featuring some of history's most fascinating women. In the following weeks, the blog will feature:

Movie review of Iron-Jawed Angels: starring Hilary Swank as suffragette Alice Paul

Book review of Pauline Bonaparte by Flora Fraser

Let's Talk About Sex Baby! - The Life of Mae West

In Search of the Queen of Sheba

Mistress of Louis XIV-Athenais de Montespan

Nancy Astor

I'll also be off to London for next week to do research but I'll be back loaded down with books! I'll try to check in while I'm away.