Friday, May 29, 2009

Don't Mess With Talleyrand

Talleyrand, the political chameleon of Europe, Napoleon's foreign minister even when Napoleon believed Talleyrand to be "shit in silk stockings", did not have the best of relationships with the military.

During one particular meeting between the emperor, Talleyrand and a top military advisor, the military advisor decided that he was going to use the word "weaklings" to describe the citizenry of Europe... including France. Talleyrand, the only civilian present, politely asked for clarification.

The advisor explained, "We call 'weakling' anybody who is not military."

Talleyrand's rejoinder: "Ah yes, as we call military all those who are not civil."

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


Richard Brinsley Sheridan was as famous for his plays as he was for his liberal opinion and was equally as famous for his wit. Sheridan was strolling through Piccadilly Square one day when he met up with two English lords. They decided to join him on his walk and took a position on either side of him.

"I say, Sherry," said one of the lords. "We were just discussing whether you were a rogue or a fool."

Sheridan immediately linked arms with both men and replied, "Why, I do believe I am between both."

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


Newspapers reached incredible levels of popularity during the latter half of the 18th century, with over a hundred newspapers being published in France during the first half of the French Revolution (i.e. before the Terror). Journalists were held in some esteem during the French Revolution. One of the greatest celebrities of the Revolution, Camille Desmoulins, was as famous for inspiring the people of Paris to direct their furious rioting towards tearing down the Bastille as for his newspapers, and it is impossible to seperate Marat from his L'Ami du Peuple or Herbert from his Pere Duchene. However, newspaper journalists were not quite so popular outside of France.

Sir Walter Scott told his son-in-law, "Your connection with any newspaper would be a disgrace and degredation. I would rather sell gin to poor people and poison them that way."

I believe Kierkegaard topped that when he wrote, "The lowest depth to which people can sink before God is defined by the word "journalist." If I were a father and had a daughter who was sedueced I should despair over her; I would hope for her salvation. But if I had a son who became a journalist and continued to be one for five years, I would give him up."

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Potential Scandals in Sheridan's School

The Amateur Historian, if you, Gentle Reader, have not yet noticed, is a huge fan of Sir Thomas Lawrence's portrait of the actress Elizabeth Farren, who later became the Countess of Derby. Elizabeth Farren was more famous for her re-interpretation of roles than any debut performances in them and more famous still for her propriety.

Horace Walpole, pretty much the go-to guy for nicknames, gossip and information about Georgian society, wrote to Mary Berry:

"In the evening we [himself and his life-long friend Field Marshal Conway] went together to Miss Farren's, and besides her duenna-mother, found her at piquet with her unalterable Earl. Apropos, I have observed of late years, that when Earls take strong attachments, they are more steady than other men."

Said unalterable Earl was the Earl of Derby, and the reference to Earls being more steady than other men is a not-so-subtle hint to Horace Walpole's own devoted friendship to Mary Berry, who later became his literary executrix and the editor of his correspondence.

According to John Fyvie's Comedy Queens of the Georgian Era, Lord Derby and Miss Farren occasionally did manage to meet without Mrs. Farren's chaperonage, usually during Sheridan's School for Scandal, where Miss Farren took on the part of Lady Teazle. Rumor had it that when Derby left his box during the screen scene in School for Scandal, (i.e. when Lady Teazle, visiting Joseph Surface's home with somewhat scandalous intentions in mind, hides behind a screen to avoid her husband, Sir Peter), he snuck onstage to see Miss Farren.

One diarist wrote that, "one always wished the screen would fall a little earlier than usual, so one might see Sir Peter confronted with a very different sort of lover than the one trying to keep him from knocking down the screen."

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Why on p. 47, I lost all respect for the author.

The field of biography is a tricky one, fraught with many perils, the chief of which is falling in love with your subject. The other is coming off as an absolute idiot, either by failing to explain what was going on, by explaining too much, or by explaining in such a fashion as to make your readers doubt your sanity, your literacy, or your mastery of contemporary English.

I am sorry to say that this passage, from Eric Metaxas's Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery fulfils almost all of them. Since I fear, Gentle Readers, that you will not have any idea of Mr. Metaxas's subject based on what he wrote, allow the Amateur Historian to explain that Mr. Metaxas is describing a carriage ride in the Alps taken by William Wilberforce, he of the great mind and moral character, but diminutive stature, and Isaac Milner, an intellectual and physical giant elected to the Royal Society as an undergraduate at Cambridge. This is copied verbatim.

"The extraordinary felicity of this scene, of these incandescent minds meeting on this subject of eternal things, sailing in their horse-drawn coach through the mountains, seems like something out of a fairy tale, one in which a gnome and a giant on a journey in a sphere of glass and silver discover the Well at the World's End, and drinking a draught therefrom learn the secret meaning at the heart of the universe."

... a gnome? That's just mean.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Worse than the Scottish Play....

In 1796, financial difficulties caused the ususally canny Richard Brinsley Sheridan to take a very stupid gamble and stage a five-act tragedy, Vortigern, by no other than 'William Shakespeare', i.e. William Ireland, who forged a trunkful of 'Shakespeare's' plays and legal papers. Above, a pissed-off Shakespeare attempts to smack William Ireland upside the head.

Kemble, the manager of Sheridan's Drury Lane Theatre, attempted to open the play on April 1, which shows his stance on the play quite clearly, but was forced to open on the 2nd.

As Gyles Brandreth writes in Great Theatrical Disasters, the play turned into "pandemonium after the first two acts. The actor playing Horsa died right beneath the curtains, and was bisected by them at the end of the scene. Other members of the company were so drunk that they failed to kill their adversaries in the many skirmishes between the Saxons and their foes. And the lines themselves provided an ironic commentary on the ill-fated production. From the Prologue's 'Before the Court immortal Shakespeare stands' to Vortigern's climactic line 'And when this solemn mockery is ended' the audience could not contain their scornful merriment. During the last two acts the more erudite were calling out 'Henry the Sixth', 'Richard the Third', etc. whenever they detected an echo in Ireland's dialogue. The announcement that Vortigern would be played the following night met with an uproar that lasted a quarter of an hour, after which Kemble came forward to announce that The School for Scandal would be played instead. His reputation recovered. Vortigern's did not."

Monday, May 18, 2009


... I ... don't quite know what to say about the movie, Gothic, so I shall stick with the facts.

Fact 1: The movie is about the summer of 1816, when Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Mary Godwin (later Mary Shelley), Mary's half-sister Claire Clarmont and Lord Byron's doctor were all living by Lake Geneva. It is, in particular, about the night where they read ghost stories to one another, Byron suggested a ghost story writing competition and Mary Shelley began to write Frankenstein. Above, you can see an absolutely adorable Percy Shelley geeking out about Cornelius Agrippa and the metaphysical aspects of lightening, Lord Byron indulgently seducing Per... er, drying Percy Shelley's hair, and Mary Shelley looking freaked out, as she is the only sane woman amongst a bunch of drunken, extremely high and extremely excitable people.

Fact 2: Percy Shelley is absolutely gorgeous. One (or at least, the Amateur Historian) does not even question the purpose of the nude scene where Percy Shelley attempts to connect with the greater forces of the universe by drinking his weight in laudanum and then climbing onto the roof. One simply looks at Julian Sands's wet, naked body and ceases to question the script.

Fact 3: This movie was made in the 1980s. The soundtrack will remind you of it every five seconds.

Fact 4: The director, like Blackadder, thinks that a Romantic Poet is someone who wanders around Europe in a poofy shirt trying to get laid. This is certainly true of his Byron, who, alas, crosses from dangerous, sexy rogue into creepy sketchball who seems physically incapable of being in the same room with someone (and, on occasion, something) without at least attempting to seduce them. Odd notion of hospitality, but since his other remarkable acts as a host include trying to stab his doctor, biting Claire Clarmont's neck, and setting his shirt on fire, perhaps one ought to be grateful he only makes the attempt. Perhaps this Byron thinks pick-up lines are part of being polite.

Fact 5: After the first half-hour, resign yourself to the fact that all the main characters are so high they have probably broken through the ozone layer and are contributing to the ecological destruction of our planet, just as surely as the script has brought about the destruction of your willing suspension of disbelief. It is also, apparently, a very bad trip. Claire Clarmont, for example, goes feral and starts catching rats in her teeth. I Am Not Making This Up.

Fact 6: At certain points, the story is historically accurate. Mary Shelley was inspired by the ghost-story-writing competition, Claire Clarmont did get pregnant with Lord Byron's illegitimate daughter, Byron was into some kooky and kinky stuff (as in, his half-sister- Gothic goes there and goes there and then takes a month-long, drugg-addled vacation there), Shelley did hear parts of Coleridge's unfinished poem Christabel and then imagine seeing eyes in the middle of breasts, and Byron's doctor, John Polidori , did hear a vampire story Byron was thinking of writing and then took it, rewrote it to star Byron as a vampire, and then published it to great acclaim. Then, of course, the camera zooms in on a fish in a bird-bath or Byron's incredibly creepy collection of life-sized mechanical dolls and you have no idea what the hell is going on.

Fact 7: Be aware of your own tolerance for horror before renting this film. The Amateur Historian personally thought the creepiest bit of the film, where Mary Shelley goes utterly bonkers, was absolutely hilarious, but the friend sitting next to her had nightmares for a se'enight afterwards.

Fact 8: I don't think I can justify recommending this movie. It is so bizarre I still have difficulty forming an opinion about it. However, if you don't mind a creepy overindulgence in the macabre and drug-addled history, it's two hours of unexpectedly fascinating hilarity.

An explination?

Edmund Kean made his debut at the age of six-and-a-half, where he played a goblin in Drury Lane's production of Macbeth starring, of course, Mrs. Siddons as Lady Macbeth. Her brother, John Phillip Kemble, took the titular role.

During the witches' incantation scene at the beginning of Act IV, he and a number of other goblins were suppsoed to run out onstage and cluster around the mouth of the cave. Kean arrived last and had difficulty stopping; he ran into another goblin and everyone tumbled down in a domino effect.

The scene was, predictably, ruined.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Christian Bale wasn't the first to do it....

Edmund Kean rose to great popularity as an actor at the beginning of the 19th century, where his imperfect but impassioned performances fit into the new, Romantic sensibility. He and John Phillip Kemble, who represented the more classical school of acting and was famous not only for his talent but for the lengthy pauses he took between each word, shared a sort of cordial enemity that delighted newspapers.

Though Kemble was reserved and dignified, and probably treated Kean with a chilly gravity, Kean had a fierce temper. One evening, he played Othello with such passion, an admirer told him, "I really thoguht that you would have choked Iago, Mr. Kean! You seemed so tremendously in earnest."

Kean turned to his admirer in amazement and said, "In earnest! I should think so! Hang the fellow, he was trying to keep me out of focus."

Thursday, May 14, 2009

No Love Lost, Then

Charles James Fox on William Pitt the Younger: "All he knows of love is a description he got from The Illiad."


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Yet Another Funny Portrait Story

This particular Funny Portrait Story (of which the Amateur Historian now recollects there are several) is also an installment of Funny Things that Happened to Pitt the Younger.

The landscapist Sir Francis Bourgeois once told the diariest Joseph Farington that, he, Sir Francis, had once

"Called on [Gainsborough] and saw a half-length portrait, and was struck with the haughty expression of the countenance, and observed it to Gainsborough, who expressed satisfaction at the remark, as it proved that He had hit the Character. Gainsborough said that it was a portrait of Mr. Pitt, who He said came the day before to sit for his picture and on coming into the painting room sat down in the painter’s chair and began to read.

Gainsborough, struck with the hauteur and disrespectful manner of Mr. Pitt treated him in this way.- He took up his pallet and seeming to be trifling among his Colors, began carelessly to hum toll, roll de roll, on hearing which Mr. Pitt recollected himself shut his book, and sat in a proper manner."

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Strong tea and scandal-- Bless me, how refreshing!

Tea is, today, a quintessential part of British identity but, until 1784, it was reserved solely for the upper classes.

The British upper classes first began to take tea in approximately 1645, when the East India Trading Company began importing it. Britain had a total monopoly on the leaf and thus, it was rare and terribly expensive... made even more so by the 119% tax on it. Thank you King Charles I's parliament. Though tea remained expensive (and locked away in little silver caddies made especially for the purpose), it gradually became part of the lives of most citizens of the British empire (see the Boston Tea Party, for evidence of this).

Tea really entered into the life of the average Brit thanks to (you guessed it!) William Pitt the Younger, who reduced the tax to 12%, making tea affordable to everyone and thus a part of the British national identity. And also making him a hero to the tea-loving Amateur Historian.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Have a fruit tart, Robespierre

Today is the 251rst birthday of one Maximilien Robespierre, to whom history, or just embittered British historians who want to find a scapegoat for the excesses of the French Revolution has given an incredibly bad rap.

In the opinion of the amateur Historian, there were times when M. Robespierre was just as funny as your average political figure. When he was still a young lawyer in Artois, Robespierre wrote a letter about, surprisingly, fruit tarts.

He is decidedly in favor of them. He writes, "Since Saturday evening I have been eating tarts non-stop. Fate has decreed that my bed should be placed within the chamber that forms the patisserie and so I was very tempted to eat all night long. Luckily I reflected that I should master these passions and finally managed to fall asleep amidst all these seductive items." Considering that Robespierre is, for some mysterious reason, refered to as the "Sea-Green Incorruptable" (possibly because he wore green-tinted glasses and because, no matter what else you can say about the man, he was incorruptable), it seems very fitting that even in the silliest of letters, he praises virtue and attempts to lead the way in his own example. A historian who follows Edmund Burke and his "OMG THE FRENCH REVOLUTION IS AN UNMITIGATED DISASTER FLEE FOR THE HILLS BEFORE WE HAVE A DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC!!111!!!!" interpretation of the Revolution might point at the last sentance as eerie foreshadowing that M. Robespierre would never be able to live in a world of total virtue because the temptation always existed, there was some flaw in Robespierre's character that would make him succumb to the allure of a fruit tart, etc.

To this, the Amateur Historian would like to point out that she would then think such an interpretation to be incredibly stupid, as Robespierre was being patently silly and using hyperbole to entertain. Earlier in the letter, Robespierre, in a fit of enthusiasm, leans out of a carriage and tips his hats at some farm-hands because he is "filled... with a noble emulation", who think he's crazy, and is mildly satirical about his tour of a courtroom (Robespierre writes, "I kissed with transport the seat in which, long ago, the buttocks of the great T__ had rested").

As I have said before with the Right Honorable Mr. Pitt, history is a strange and often biased field.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Another Bad Choice in Publishing from the Shelley Family

Comparatively recently (as in the 1950s), scholars found an unpublished novella by Mary Godwin Shelley, author of the generally grossly misinterpreted novel Frankenstein. This novel was in a similar Gothic vien and is called Mathilda.

It is... strange, to say the least. Like many early novels, Mathilda is semi-autobiographical. Mary Shelley's mother, the early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, died shortly after Mary Shelley's birth; Mathilda's mother does as well. Mary Shelley grew up in comparative seculsion in Scotland; so does Mathilda. When Mary Shelley's father, William Godwin, fetched her from Scotland to bring her to London, he remarked on the remarkable similiaries in face and form between Mary Shelley and her mother.

However, Mathilda's father returns for his daughter (Mathilda's father, who never gets a name, has been wandering around Europe for no easily discernable reason other than narrative convenience), remarks several times on her similarities to her mother, and sweeps her off to London where he promptly falls in love with her.

... yes, you read that correctly, gentle reader. Mathilda is, in fact, about incest. Incest was a popular subject with the second generation English Romantics. Byron's heroes, when not homoerotically tangled in a "last embrace of foes" that exceeds in passion any between a man and a woman (read The Giacour for more details), tend to be in love with someone morally and ethically unsuitable. This someone often turns out to be the hero's sister.

Mary Shelley sent this manuscript to her father, William Godwin, a successful publisher. The Amateur Historian assumes that Mary Shelley had thought that the novel would sell as well as Frankenstein had, considering that it was both extremely creepy and tragic and concerned a popular trope, i.e. incest. Her father was a well-known publisher; surely he would be able to print it?

Wisely, William Godwin decided not to publish it, lest London society thought him in love with his daughter.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Man, being reasonable, must get drunk....

In the Georgian and Regency period of history people tended to drink a lot. As Byron wrote in his satiric masterpiece, Don Juan:

Let us have wine and women, mirth and laughter,
Sermons and soda-water the day after.
Man, being reasonable, must get drunk;
The best of life is but intoxication:
Glory, the grape, love, gold, in these are sunk
The hopes of all men, and of every nation;
Without their sap, how branchless were the trunk
Of life's strange tree, so fruitful on occasion:
But to return,—Get very drunk; and when
You wake with headache, you shall see what then.
Ring for your valet—bid him quickly bring
Some hock and soda-water, then you'll know
A pleasure worthy Xerxes the great king;
For not the bless'd sherbet, sublimed with snow,
Nor the first sparkle of the desert-spring,
Nor Burgundy in all its sunset glow,
After long travel, ennui, love, or slaughter,
Vie with that draught of hock and soda-water.

Byron added flair to his claret-quaffing by drinking out of the skull of a mediveal monk. Keats apparently liked to take a pinch of cayenne pepper and put it on the tip of his tongue before knocking back his claret. Though claret appears to be the standard drink of the Romantic poets (aside from laudanum, which pretty much everyone drunk, according to Thomas de Quincey), port was the drink of politicians.

When William Pitt the Younger was fourteen, the Pitt family doctor advised Pitt to treat his inherited gout with a bottle of port a day. Pitt apparently liked port a great deal because Pitt soon had a reputation of downing three bottles a day. He often had late night drinking parties with one of his ministers, Dundas, a fact which gave rise to a popular epigram:

Pitt: I cannot see the Speaker, Hal; can you?
Dundas: Not see the Speaker, Will? Why I see two!

Pitt, however, rarely appeared the worse for drink until the very end of his life, when his alcoholism significantly contributed to his state of constant ill-health. When he was younger, however, he did not have this problem. One day Pitt walked into the House of Commons, more full of port than a liquor store and promptly vomited in the antechamber. He then took the floor and perfectly delivered a speech. The Amateur Historian is not quite sure on what, but, considering Pitt had drunk enough to vomit in the antechamber, she is impressed that Pitt was even able to stay conscious, let alone make parlimentary orations.