Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Talleyrand and Fouché

Duff Cooper, Talleyrand's biographer, on the difference between Talleyrand and Fouché was that for the former: “politics meant the settlement of dynastic or international problems discussed in a ball-room or across the dinner-table; for Fouché the same word meant street-corner assassination, planned by masked conspirators in dark cellars.”

Charming individuals, no?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Frederick the Great on Voltaire

This is taken from Frederick the Great's early journals:

"I admire [Voltaire's] eyes, so clear and piercing... I would kiss his eloquent lips, 100 times."

This came as something of a surprise to Voltaire when he found out, particularly considering Voltaire was, at that time, madly in love with Emilie du Chatelet, a renowed physicist. They were on the outs at the time of the trip because Emilie was actually much smarter than Voltaire, which had sent Voltaire into a passion when they discovered it (Emilie placed above Voltaire in an essay contest for the Academie des Sciences).

Fortunately, though Frederick the Great wrote that most evenings he and his court full of young men "lost money at cards, danced till we fell; whispered in each other's ears, and when that had shifted to love, began other delicious moves", Voltaire talked about Emilie a great deal and was off the hook.

Less fortunately, he was still irritated with Emilie for being smarter and his name-dropping turned to mocking quips and compaints about her, which Did Not Amuse Emilie when word got back to her.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A Moment with Voltaire

Voltaire visited Frederick the Great as a French spy, something which he took no pains to conceal. Most of Europe then thought of Frederick the Great as a floofy monarch who didn't pose a threat to anyone because his claim to fame had been trying to run off with his boyfriend, and then getting caught. His father then threw Frederick the Great into prison, where the guards mocked Frederick for playing his flute and reading French literature.

Surely Frederick wouldn't catch on. The fact that most of Europe was pretty pissed at Voltaire for his satirical poetry, and the mission was pretty much given as a 'get-the-hell-out-of-my-country-if-you-won't-stop-writing-about-me' sort of trip by Louis XV did not daunt Voltaire either. Thus, he set off from France in high spirits, going so far as to grandly inform a sentry gaurding Westphalia, "I am Don Quixote!"

The sentry apparently did not speak any language other than German and, smiling and nodding, let Voltaire pass.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Voltaire Takes On the Universe

Gentle Readers, the Amateur Historian is Quite Pleased to announce yet another series, entitled "Voltaire Takes on the Universe: Voltaire Wins."

The title, I should hope, is self-explanitory.

To begin with, we must start with the twenty-three year old Voltaire, who was then going by the name Francois-Marie Arouet and was merely a minor poet. Someone had recently published some extremely subursive verses about the sexual escapades of Phillippe d'Orleans, who was serving as regent of France until Louis XV was old enough to rule on his own.

Arouet, who was rumored to be one of the possible authors of the poem, got into a dicussion of said poem in the Parisian inn where he was living. Arouet mysteriously asked one of his new friends, i.e. a random guest in the inn, if he liked the poem and boasted that though he, Arouet, was very young he had, in fact, written it and written many more like it.

His new friend turned out to be a police spy.
Arouet went to the Bastille.

While he was there, he befriended his guards and formed an instant dislike for his head inquisitor, Monsieur Ysabeau. Ysabeau asked Arouet for any and all subursive poems. Arouet said he had no knowledge of said poems (which was actually true, as he hadn't yet written any) and then "gave in" and said he'd left them at the inn. When Ysabeau failed to find them, Arouet feigned a fit of temper and "admitted" to throwing them down the toilet.

Ysabeau was forced to open up the sewage drain near the inn where Arouet had been staying, much against the wishes of the rest of the inn and all the people living around it. Ysabeau ought to have listened to the protests of Arouet's neighbors. The drain was made of old bricks and mortar and collapsed as soon as Ysabeau tried to inspect it more closely. The sewage spewed forth, ruining everything in the cellars of the inn (the inn-keeper later got compensation for the loss of his entire collection of beer and wines) and forcing Ysabeau to pick through the collected waste in search of the poems.

As Ysabeau wrote in his formal report: "It appears M. Arouet, with his active imagination. only pretended to have thrown away [the documents]... to create unnecessary work."

While this was going on, Arouet wrote his first famous play, an adaptation of Oedipus that became the theatrical success of the decade. While his eleven-month jaunt in the Bastille had been unpleasant, the lack of other occupation forced him to finish his play, and this play earned him popularity with audience and critics alike. Philippe d'Orleans, apparently feeling Arouet (who had now chosen the penname Voltaire) had learned his lesson, told him to keep up the good work and gave him a gold watch and a large annual subsidy.

Voltaire thanked Philippe d'Orleans for paying for his food, but begged the regent to never again chose his lodgings.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Following the Fashions

This print is pretty self-explanitory. Regency Gowns simply don't flatter every figure. Compare Gillray's take on the new fashions of the late 1790s with Boilly's, where a dedicated follower of fashion (a merveilleuse) is mistaken for a prostitute because of the general skimpiness of her attire.

In the 1790s, fashion took a complete 360 from the poufs and panniers associated with Marie Antoinette. The French Republic wished to complete change French culture, and what better medium than fashion? Since the National Assembly wanted to build a republic the likes of which had only been found in ancient Rome, tailors and dress-makers took their cues from ancient Roman statues, which meant high waists, long, trailing drapery, and simpler, curlier hair-styles.
Since the French set the fashion, England followed, even though for most of the period when empire-waist dresses were popular, England and France were engaged in a series of long and vicious wars against each other.
Fashion, apparently, is the one import that continues despite naval blockades and Russian winters.

Percy Blysshe Shelley's First Foray into Publishing

The Amateur Historian has a soft spot for Shelley, who writes fantastic poems and whose life was chock full of the sort of absurd happenings that make the Amateur Historian laugh aloud.

Her personal favorite has to be when Percy Shelley wrote The Necessity of Atheism. It is difficult to understand what, if anything was going through Shelley's head when he decided to send this treatise to a bunch of bishops and the heads of all the Oxford colleges.

He apparently expected for his theories to be accepted and widely publicized if he was right, or for some kindly ecclesiastical or academic official would draw him aside and give him empirical evidence for the existance of God if he was wrong.

He got kicked out of Oxford instead.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Earl Grey: Kind of a Dick

Earl Grey is the name of an absolutely delicious black tea blended from Indian and Ceylon tea leaves with a dash of bermagot oil. Legend has it that the eponymous earl, Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey, got the blend off of a Chinese mandarin, after Lord Grey kindly saved said manderin's life.

History has it that Charles Grey was kind of a dick when he was younger.

Charles Grey had a precocious talent and a predeliction for older women and power. When he was first elected at the age of 23 to the House of Parliament in 1786 he lost no time in befriending the leaders of the Whig party. One of those leaders was the political hostess Georgiana Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire. By having the tenacious persistance that would put a cactus in a drought to shame and an emo obsession with the Duchess that would make Stephanie Meyer's Edward Cullen seem well-adjusted , Lord Grey managed to convince the Duchess of Devonshire (who was rather lonely, as her husband was a cold fish who prefered his dogs to human beings and who was dickishly sleeping with her best friend) into having an affair. In the late 18th century this was not at all uncommon; it was even quite expected. Aristocrats started up affairs to stave off boredom, glean governmental secrets, pay off debts, or gain political power. As long as you were discreet, you were good to go. However, the Key Word was Discreet, and there Lord Grey and Her Grace the Duchess of Devonshire showed themselves to be completely illiterate.

While the Duke of Devonshire was in London, the Duchess was in Bath with her sick sister, Harriet, Countess of Bessborough. Charles Grey was in Bath too, and was very publically seen to go in and out of the Duchess's house. Gossip spread, Lord Grey impregnanted the Duchess, and someone wrote a letter to the Duke of Devonshire to come to Bath immediately.
This was Bad.

The Duke was in a towering rage about his wife's indiscretion (it was impossible to pass of the child as his, as they had been living apart for most of the year) and threated to divorce the Duchess and keep her from ever seeing her three beloved children again if she didn't give up Grey and Grey's baby immediately. Grey was also in a towering rage and demanded that the Duchess give up her other children and social position and marry him. The Duchess couldn't bear to give up her dearly beloved children off of the Duke, or her position as The political hostess of the Whig party/ the arbitrator of Georgian fashion/one of the most popular and influential political figures in Great Britain, and so was forced to give Grey's baby by Going Abroad For Her Sister's Health, i.e. giving birth in France, where hopefully no one would notice she was pregnant, and then shipping the baby off to Grey's parents to raise. Grey was furious, refused to speak with her again, blamed her for the entire mess and married someone else without even bothering to tell her. The Duchess was speechless with grief when she found out, by reading it in a newspaper.

Later on, Grey, who had fifteen children with his wife Mary Ponsonby, found monogomy not to his taste and had a torrid affair with another Whig political hostess, Richard Brinsley Sheridan's second wife, Hecca.

So, Earl Grey. Kind of a dick.

Fun Fact: Earl Bessborough, Harriet (the Duchess's sister)'s husband escorted Georgiana and Harriet to France. During the entire time, Harriet's husband had no idea that the Duchess of Devonshire was pregnant. Absolutely none. However, Earl Bessborough was not known for his powers of observation. Later on, his wife had two children by the love of her life, Lord Granville Leveson-Gower and her husband did not notice she was pregnant either time.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Pitt the Younger Goes Grouse Shooting

Funny things tended to happen to Pitt the Younger when he was, well... younger. It is possible that this was because Pitt, who was a notorious drinker, could outdrink most university students and often led his college friends in drunken routs. At one point in time, Pitt instigated a practical joke by stealing a friend's top hat during a house party at William Wilberforce's villa in Wimbleton, cutting the hat to pieces and then planting the pieces in the garden.

The Amateur Historian is sure the joke made more sense when drunk.

However, one of the most amusing of his university experiences had to be when he was invited to the country estate of his friend, Henry Bankes, along with William Wilberforce and a number of others. Pitt readily accepted this invitation, as he was a younger son without a country estate and London (this was at the beginning of the industrial revolution, and also at a point where London was one of the msot populated cities on the planet) was said to be deadly in the summer. While they were there, Pitt and his friends engaged in some grouse shooting.

No record remains of what they shot, except that the short-sighted Wilberforce took aim at Pitt and nearly shot him in the head by mistake.

Grouse shooting later came back to haunt Pitt the Younger; in 1797, his bill to introduce some regulation and social security for child laborers failed when the MPs decided they'd rather debate grouse-shooting insted.

Wilberforce got the worst end. For the rest of his life, his friends teased him for having taken "a shot a greatness" and missed.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Lubber's Hole!

This 1791 print is entitled "THE LUBBER'S HOLE... alias... the Crack'd JORDAN" because Gilray believed wholeheartedly in CAPITALIZATION. The speech bubble is a nonsensical nautical cry of glee (an articulate "Yar! Yar! Yar!"), because Gillray Had No Freaking Clue how the hell sailors talked.

The subjects of the painting are the actress Dorothea Bland, who went by Mrs. Jordan (Mr. Jordan was what one would call a figure of speech) and was famous for doing cross-dressing comedic roles at the Drury Lane Theatre, and the Duke of Clarence, the third son of George III and a member of the Royal Navy- as can be seen with the blue and gold coat hanging on the wall.

Jordan is unfortunately a slang word for "chamber pot" and Mrs. Jordan was well-known for her vulgarity and the number of men who made her their mistress and later tired of her, hence her representation as a cracked chamber pot on legs. By far the most famous of her... suitors... was the Duke of Clarence, who gave her ten children and dickishly told her she'd get a pension only if she gave up the stage. Mrs. Jordan did so, but was forced to return to the stage when one of her sons-in-law fell greviously into debt. Her pension vanished and she died in poverty in France, as did a number of Regency Celebrities. Fleeing to France in poverty was basically the 18th century equivalent of going into rehab.

The Duke of Clarence later became a king of England (King William IV), but most people thought he was a really crappy sailor, too distracted by impregnating Mrs. Jordan to actually do anything of consequence. The fact that he did not take part in the Napoleonic wars because he had fallen down some stairs drunk and broken his arm, thus rendering himself incapable of command and convincing the Lords of Admiralty that he was Too Dumb To Live, did not do him any favors. Gillray calls attention to this by making the Duke of Clarence go through the lubber's hole; it was a naval tradition to get up to the crow's nest by climbing the diagonal netting up to fifty feet above the deck instead of just climbing up the mast and pulling oneself through a hole (the lubber's hole) to the platform of the crow's nest. Real Men, you see, don't follow safety precautions.

However, by the time he became William IV, everyone was royally pissed off at his elder brother George IV who had massively overspent his income, gone completely mad and horrifed most of British society with his hedonism and his lechery and he was welcomed with open arms. William IV was better recieved as King of England than Duke of Clarence (the Duke of Wellington said that he "he had done more business with King William in ten minutes than he had with George IV in as many days"). Despite his conservative opinions, his reign saw a large number of reform bills, the total abolition of slavery, a weakening of the generally conservative House of Lords, a welfare bill, and the establishment of child welfare laws. This came, of course, with a weakening of monarchal influence.

Since the House of Hanover was known to have porphyria and a genetic history of stupidity, this could be seen as a good thing.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Georgette Heyer's "Friday's Child"

Gentle Readers, the Amateur Historian will, on occasion, review a work that has some affiliation to the Period Mentioned in the Header. Generally these works will have at least something to do with the absurdity of history, though whether or not the author intended it is a matter of debate.

Friday's Child, by Georgette Heyer, takes place in the Regency Period (1811-1820, when George III went permanently mad and his much-hated son George IV took over), where real men wore heeled boots and lavender kid gloves. I'm not entirely sure if the title Friday's Child refers to the old nursery rhyme which informs one that though Saturday's child works hard for a living, Friday's child is loving and giving, or to Man Friday, Robinson Crusoe's justification for colonization... er, devoted companion.

In either case, it is certain it refers to Hero Wantage, the Heyeroine, if you will, who has the decision-making capabilities of a stunned lemming in the last stages of a degenerative brain disease. This then makes the Heyero, the viscount Sheringham known as “Sherry” and also known as someone so impulsive it makes him look as if he has some kind of learning disability, the Robinson Crusoe figure, who must show this strange, uncivilized Companion (Hero has lived in the country her entire life) the Ways of the World. In this he is helped by his three absolutely hilarious friends: Gil, who appears to be the only sane and practical person under the age of thirty in Regency England and is totally gay for Ferdy, Ferdy, who excellently shows the dangers of Your Brain on Dangerous Amounts of Inbreeding, and George, Lord Wrotham, who is the most splendid send-off of a Byronic Hero that this Amateur Historian has ever seen.

It all begins when Sherry, in some financial difficulties, decides to propose to the heiress Isabella, who wisely tells him to bugger off, the dissolute bum he is. Sherry gets scolded by his mother and uncle for being immature and failing to marry Isabella causing Sherry to come up with the brilliant plan to marry the first woman he sees. Yeah, that’ll show ‘em you’re an adult now.

Enter Hero, who lives next door. She’s been secretly in love with Sherry for years and agrees to elope with him at once. After Sherry realizes the practical difficulties of marriage (where does he get a marriage license? Does he have to have a ring? Ought he to see a lawyer? Where the hell is the church?), he and Hero marry. Hero promptly gets into buckets of trouble because her only guide in how to act in society is Sherry, who, being a somewhat dissolute bachelor who has the impulse control of a spastic two-year-old, sets her an extremely bad example. The rest of the book is devoted to the hilariously tormented love affair between the practical-minded Isabella and George, who mopes about romantically, threatens suicide or homicide just for fun and keeps trying to challenge people to duels, and the increasingly bad situations from which Sherry, Gil, Ferdy and George have to save Hero. “She’s as innocent as a Kitten,” quoth Sherry. “She doesn’t know any better!”

However, he doesn’t manage to tell Hero he doesn’t blame her for being an incredibly twee little idiot and so she runs off to Gil for help when Sherry of the notoriously absent self-control pitches a fit when she manages to nearly ruin her reputation. Gil (with the help of Ferdy and George) comes up with a plan to get Sherry to fall in love with Hero. Hilarity Ensues.

This is where Heyer really excels. She creates these absurd, whacky Wodehousian plots that come together very neatly and very satisfyingly in the final chapter. The best part is that they seem totally justified based on her characters. This is possibly why the plot of Friday’s Child is so absolutely hilarious: all the characters are so stupid that they get into one of the absurdest and yet most believable denouements I have ever read. (Just to pique your curiosity, Ferdie gets terrified by Greek mythology and wakes Sherry up at two in the morning, Gil jaunts off to Bath, Hero takes an asthmatic pug with her in a romantic kidnapping, Isabella totally shuts down a would-be seducer, George nearly shoots someone in an inn, and Sherry jumps out of a moving carriage to try and kill George.)

Heyer is famous for perfectly capturing Regency society, with all its furbelows and frivolities. Her books are an amazingly accurate portrait of the life of high society (the ton) of Regency England. People take boxing lessons with Gentleman Jackson, make outrageous drunken bets, lose fortunes at the card tables, and race carriages everywhere. I’m not sure of the amount of useless twits in Friday’s Child is an accurate representation of Regency society, but considering that everyone in England looked to a man famous for spending four hours getting dressed every morning to tell them what was fashionable and how they ought to act, it might be possible.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Pitt the Younger Has Fun Times in France

History can be fascinating for a variety of reasons. This Amateur Historian must admit to her Gentle Readers that part of her fascination with the 18th century is thanks to her fascination with Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger. Why yes, Gentle Reader, you have found the only Pitt the Younger fangirl this Amateur Historian knows about, though she would be glad to start a club.

To the below right you have Gainsborough's stately portrait of a Prime Minister in perfect control of both himself and his elegant setting (note the neatness of Pitt's attire and how the line of the pen matches the line of his right arm- very orderly is the young Mr. Pitt) and to the upper left you have Gillray's less than flattering print of Pitt the Younger as a "An Excrescence; – a Fungus; – alias – a Toadstool upon a Dung-hill", as Gillray believed Pitt's power to stem solely from rotten Royal Favor. Note the rosy nose, which is a pot-shot at Pitt's habit of drinking three bottles of port a day.

William Pitt the Younger became Prime Minister of Great Britain at 24, a position he held (except for two years) until his death, which not only makes him the youngest Prime Minister in history, but also one with the second longest term in office. Many people, including Pitt himself, who was and MP at 21 and Chancellor of the Exchequer at 23, were quite surprised when George III tried to bully Pitt into taking office in 1782, just as Pitt was about to complete his gentlemanly education by taking a Grand Tour of the Continent with two of his friends, William Wilberforce (who spearheaded the British Abolition movement) and Edward Eliot (who later married one of Pitt’s sisters).

Being bullied by a monarch is enough to put anyone into a tizzy, which is probably why none of these gentlemen thought to get a letter of introduction. In the 1780s, letters of introduction served not only as a passport into a country, but a passport into society. The three gentlemen managed to secure a letter to a certain Monsieur Coustier in Rheims, just before they had to leave England.

In the words of Mr. William Wilberforce: “From Calais we made directly for Rheims, and the day after our arrival dressed ourselves unusually well, and proceeded to the house of Mons. Coustier to present, with not a little awe, our only letters of recommendation. It was with some surprise that we found Mons. Coustier behind a counter distributing figs and raisins. I had heard that it was very usual for gentlemen on the continent to practice some handicraft trade or other for their amusement [Marie Antoinette liked pretending to be a milkmaid, herself], and therefore for my own part I concluded that his taste was in the fig way, and that he was only playing at grocer for his diversion; and, viewing the matter in this light, I could not help admiring the excellence of his imitation; but we soon found that Mons. Coustier was a ‘véritable epicier,’ and that not a very eminent one.”

They thus spent what one can assume was an extremely boring week at Rheims, since their friend the grocer did not even sell figs to the local aristocracy and could not introduce them to anyone. Since they spoke no French (Wilberforce had slacked off at Cambridge, Eliot had studied law, not languages, and Pitt had studied classical languages like Greek and Latin which, though helpful for becoming a famous Parliamentary orator, was of no practical value in Rheims) and kept to themselves, they were almost arrested as spies.

Fortunately for them, the bishop of Rheims know Pitt the Elder, the late Earl of Chatham/Pitt’s now-dead father, and took them in as guests, causing Mr. Wilberforce to note: “N.B. Archbishops in England are not like Archeveques in France; these last are jolly fellows of about forty years of age, who play at billiards, &c. like other people”.

Sage words, Mr. Wilberforce, sage words.

Thus concludes the first part of what will be an admittedly long series on Funny Things That Happened to Pitt the Younger.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Welcome Gentle Readers!

"History shall be kind to me, for I intend to write it." -- Winston Churchill

When one first mentions the word "history", what dread associations it evokes! Agonizing AP tests, lists of dates, dead people who once upon a time did something that has nothing to do with you, hours of boredom, a particularly hated teacher--

Ah, say I. Not so.

History is, quite frankly, funny.

Somehow or other we have lost this, and ignored the satires of Gillray in favor of the dramatic formal portraits hung in the better class of museums. History is generally supposed to be objective, by the combining as many subjective sources as possible in order to create a better picture of the events. I started this blog with the intent to point out the humor in history, or, at least, the period of history I like best. To begin with, let us begin with an introduction to the man whose name graces the title of this blog.

James Gillray is a SWM, political cartoonist and caricaturist, famed for popularizing the Napoleon-is-an-angry-midget stereotype and for managing to mock pretty much every major political figure from the 1780s to the 1810s. He likes wit, watching the high drama of English political life and exploiting 18th century England's comprable freedom of expression.

Seeks SWF with a printing press and the ability to bail him out of jail (though he hasn't been to prison yet!). After 1797, you can rest easy, ladies! Suggar-daddy's got a pension from the government to stop making George III look stupid, not that he actually let that stop him (though he obligingly mostly mocks the French instead). French ladies need not apply, as James Gillray's daddy lost an arm to the French during the Seven Years' War, and James Gillray's got a grudge against those demmed Frogs even greater than your average Brit.

Though his violent anti-French sentiments and some of his poitical viewpoints have this Amateur Historian raising her eyebrows, Gillray's contributions to political satire are invaulable. He was the first person to regurlarly and blatantly mock the royal family (thus humanizing them in accordance with Enlightenment ideas) and his changing views are in many ways a microcosm of British sentiment. The Terror during the French Revolution appalled him and turned his former, somewhat liberal views into reactionary conservatism.

He's guaranteed to make you laugh, and then draw an insulting picture of your date afterwards. So, any takers?