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REGENCY GENTLEMEN’S CLUBS
by Alicia Rasley
In the Regency era, it was said whenever an interest or political persuasion was shared by two or more men, a new club was formed. There was a club for ancient supporters of the Jacobite cause (the Mourning Bush), for short men (the Little Club, with an entry door only about five feet high), for literary and scientific gentlemen (the Athenaeum, 1824), and even for gentleman coachmen (the famous Four-In-Hand Club, 1809, before that known as the Whip Club). Only the names survive of other clubs, but those names speak volumes—the Humbugs, the Je ne sai quoi Club, the No Pay No Liquor Club, the Great Bottle Club. These provided a retreat from the world of care, of worry, of women. Regency men, as gallant as they were as suitors, all too often preferred their club to their home. One Regency bride wrote in her diary, “We have now been married exactly a year, in which my husband has dined with me but once. Every other night he has dined at Mr. Brook’s Club.” (You can find more great anecdotes in the book Gentlemen’s Clubs of London.)
Here follows a map of Clublandsincluding the famous, the infamous, the foolish. Founding dates, if known, are given.
(Let’s meet there! Grace Elliott takes a contemporary stroll through Clubland.)
The most famous club, White’s, offered a cornucopia of activities—a bit of politics (Tory), a lot of gambling, a lot of drinking (a White’s barman asked by a new member if the bar was open replied, “Bless my soul, sir, it’s been open 200 years!”). Founded in 1698 as a chocolate house, White’s remains the quintessential London Club three centuries later. Prince Charles had his bachelor party here (a dull affair with no stripper or exploding cakes, it broke up before midnight).
Judith and I share a love of the Shakespeare plays, so I was excited to hear about her graphic novel based around Romeo and Juliet. Here’s her account of her book:
I was not a big Shakespeare fan in high school. The Elizabethan language was difficult to wade through, and besides, I was young and living life in the fast lane…sex, drugs, rock ‘n roll. Okay, just kidding about the sex and drugs, but there was lots of rock ‘n roll. It wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I gained an appreciation for Shakespeare’s amazing abilities as a storyteller.
I was working in London at that time. A friend invited me to dinner and the theater to see The Royal Shakespeare Company perform The Merry Wives of Windsor. I knew dinner would be nice, and then I could sleep at the theater. Well, to my utter amazement I was enthralled with the production. First, there were no Renaissance costumes or sets. This show was set in the1950’s with fabulous set decoration and costumes from that era. Second, even though I may not have understood every single line of dialogue, I understood enough to fully appreciate the intricacies of the plot and the humor. I was hooked, and I did everything I could to get my children interested in Shakespeare.
Fast forward twenty years…I was still lamenting the fact my kids thought Shakespeare was boring when inspiration struck. What if the stories were told in modern language that kids could understand! I had a mission!
The Process of Writing a Graphic Novel
Taking Romeo and Juliet from a full-length play to a graphic novel required distilling the dialogue and narration into as few words as possible without losing any of the storyline. This was the most difficult part of the project and required the expert skills of my husband who had been an editor. We went scene by scene, creating new dialogue and reading it aloud to see how it sounded. It took about four months to come up with a first draft of the dialogue.
I have been in a writing group for years with excellent writers and editors, so each week I took the scene we were working on to my writing group for their critique. I also asked my niece and nephew who were in high school to read the manuscript. Who better than teenagers to help with modernizing the language? The next step was combining lines of dialogue into conversations which could be represented by one drawing.
At this point we needed an illustrator. I contacted my friend Mark Bennett, who had recently retired from the art department at CBS, and asked if he would be interested in doing the illustration for this project. He is immensely talented so my husband and I were thrilled when he agreed. Mark created drawings for each dialogue group. With a computer program, he inserted our dialogue into the drawings. Once again I took the whole manuscript to my writing group for critique. The computer program made it easy to edit the dialogue as necessary.
The cover art for Romeo and Juliet is a combination of original artwork from Mark Bennet combined with the work of a graphic artist from Flying Pig Media. Kristin Lindstrom, who owns and operates Flying Pig Media, prepared the Romeo and Juliet manuscript to be uploaded at CreateSpace and Amazon Kindle. Technical issues arose when uploading the drawings to Amazon, so I was relieved to have Kristin handling those details.
We are thrilled to be able to bring Shakespeare’s most famous tale to a new generation of readers.
You can find Judith’s graphic novel at Amazon:
Judith Whitmore is the best-selling author of the romantic-adventure
Come Fly with Me, a cookbook All Time Favorite Recipes, and Romeo and Juliet
Reimagined, an illustrated account of Shakespeare’s story co-authored with
her husband Wes Whitmore.
During Judith’s seven-year term as President of American Theater
Company in Aspen, ATC presented shows starring Julie Harris, Hal Holbrook,
Vincent Price, Shawn Cassidy, John Travolta and Charles Durning. Judith
later produced the musical Taking a Chance on Love in Los Angeles, followed
by the London production of Leonard Bernstein’s Wonderful Town which she
Judith has a Master’s Degree in Clinical Psychology, is a licensed
Marriage and Family Therapist, and is also a licensed Commercial Pilot with
a Learjet type-rating. Since 2003, she has been a regular volunteer makeup
artist at the Laguna Beach Pageant of the Masters.
During college, Judith sang background vocals for Capitol Records
and performed with a band in San Francisco. She never forgot the thrill of
performing, and several years ago she and two friends formed the trio, ACT
THREE. ACT THREE has performed concerts in California, Arizona, and last
year at UC Irvine and New York’s Carnegie Hall. Their first album will be
released this summer. All proceeds from ACT THREE performances are donated
Visit Judith at:
The death of Princess Charlotte in childbirth in November 1817 was a huge event
in Regency times and it’s key to for my April book, The Viscount Needs a Wife, and for the one I’m writing now for 2017, Merely a Marriage.
I write my Company of Rogues books along a time line that started in 1814, and though I’ve gone slowly I’ve always wondered how to handle Charlotte’s death.
It could hardly be background wallpaper, especially as the effects lingered well into 1818.
People sometimes think that death in childbirth was common in the past. It was more common than now, but not so much so that the death of a young, healthy woman and her baby was taken in stride. The nation was plunged into a genuine and almost manic mourning that bears some resemblance to the reaction to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.
Cruel nature was clearly the prime villain, but Queen Charlotte was blamed as well, for not supervising the birth. The poor woman was in her seventies and not well, but she was castigated for not rushing from Bath to the birth. Remember, however, that no one expected anything other than a normal, healthy birth. Why the grandmother, not the mother? Charlotte’s mother, Caroline of Brunswick, estranged wife of the Regent, was living in Italy. And in any case, if she’d travelled to England she probably wouldn’t have been allowed near her daughter, as that had been the Regent’s policy from the first.
Th Regent was given some unspecified blame, but he was a man and childbirth wasn’t men’s business. Except for doctors, and man-midwives.
Charlotte was attended in the later months by two prominent and fashionable “man-midwives” and they were generally blamed, though it seems that the baby was in a bad position for birth, which is no one’s fault. Today, Charlotte would have had a C-section and all would have been well. As it was, she laboured for days and did eventually deliver a dead son. At that point Charlotte was not expected to die, but perhaps exhaustion played a part, or there might have been a lot of blood loss. Of course, there were no blood transfusions then, and if there had been, without blood type matching, it would have been perilous.
The men — the husband Prince Leopold, and the father, the Regent — benefitted from an outpouring of sympathy, which the Regent certainly needed, as he’d become increasingly unpopular during the post-war depression.
The general and republican-minded unrest, subsided under the pressure of mourning. Court mourning plunged the aristocracy into black, and nearly everyone in the nation wore sober colors, black arm bands and similar signs of grief. Not to do so was to declare oneself a Republican, but also a heartless person, because this was a tragedy, royal or not.
Despite the tone of Regency fiction, men in the Regency were allowed and expected to give in to their emotions. Leopold stayed with the coffin between Charlotte’s death on November 6th and her state funeral on the 19th. The Regent fled to Brighton, supposedly in an emotional collapse. This annoyed his ministers, as all government staggered to a halt without him. As he lingered there, worry increased that he might follow his father into insanity.
Difficult times, and against this backdrop, widowed Mrs. Kitty Cateril realizes that life is chancy and she shouldn’t waste it.When she’s offered a chance at a peculiar marriage of convenience, she takes it.
The Viscount Needs a Wife is a Romantic Times Top Pick and has a starred review
from the Library Journal. “…combining graceful writing, and impeccably researched historical setting, and intelligent, well-matched protagonists into a superbly satisfying love story.” It will be on sale in print and e-book on April 5th.
Jo is offering the prize of a copy of her book Too Dangerous For a Lady to a commenter. Leave a comment, and I’ll enter you into the raffle! Thanks, Jo.
Read more about Jo’s April book, The Viscount Needs a Wife.
Paving the Way for Women Writers: Aphra Behn, 1640 – 1689
“All woman together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, which is most scandalously but rather appropriately in Westminster Abbey, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds. It is she – shady and amorous as she was – who makes it not quite fantastic to say to you tonight: Earn five hundred a year by your wits.” –Virginia Woolf
It sounds like the kind of adventure fiction most people would dismiss as being much too unlikely, doesn’t it? But much of this biography is documented through letters, not to mention Aphra Behn’s own work. Not only that, Aphra Behn achieved all this without being a member of the nobility. She may or may not have come from a “gently born” family that fell upon hard times, but either way, she was not born privileged. Most of the women writers of the 17th Century were from the nobility, and they wrote for their amusement and that of their friends and family, their oeuvre remaining small and genteel. By contrast, Aphra wrote for a living. Since it was her main, and perhaps only, source of income, she adapted to the tastes and the times. She wrote racy comedies in the style of her male contemporaries. When times grew hard for the playhouses in London, she reacted and began to write and publish prose fiction — a genre that was so new, in the 18th century it started being referred to as the “novel” (from the Italian “novella” for new or news).
She achieved all of this in an era when women had few rights. They were subject to their fathers, and then their husbands. But Aphra Behn was a widow, and as such, in control of her own property, free to make her own decisions.
The status of women was changing in the 17th Century, but it was a slow process. One of the most important changes for the emergence of Aphra Behn as a writer was that the theaters were opened up to actresses. After the Restoration in 1660, Charles II decreed that women would be able to take the stage. Before that, female roles were played by men. Many of the new actresses were women who intentionally used their position to find “protectors” among members of the nobility, such as Nell Gwyn, who became the mistress of Charles II. But others became involved in the business of the theater. Mrs. Betterton helped manage the highly successful Duke’s Company with her husband, Thomas Betterton, training younger actresses like Anne Bracegirdle.
Aphra Behn, never an actress, may have possibly made her way into the world of Restoration theater through family connections. Even working within the constraints of the Restoration’s male dominated society, Behn managed to create strong, independent female characters who made their own choices. Over the course of her nineteen year career, Behn wrote over twenty plays, as well as several novels and volumes of poetry.
While she wrote to please, since she had to in order to make a living, at the same time she staunchly defended her art in one of her more more memorable forewords to her play “The Lucky Chance”:
“…I am not content to write for a Third Day only. I value Fame as much as if I had been born a Hero; and if you rob me of that, I can retire from the ungrateful World, and scorn its fickle Favours.”
Aphra Behn died in 1689 at the age of only 48. She was famous and celebrated at the time; Daniel Defoe, a pioneer in the novel and author of Robinson Crusoe, even called her “one of the giants of wit and sense.” But her fame was not to last. By the middle of the 18th Century, her reputation had dwindled to that of a lewd writer of pornographic works little better than Fanny Hill.
I first came across mention of Aphra Behn when I was a graduate research assistant working on my MA in English Literature — and was immediately fascinated. In my dissertation on the use of the female perspective in the novel, I included a chapter on Behn’s novel Oroonoko. If I had remained in academia, I’m sure I would have ended up writing many more articles on Aphra Behn. But I didn’t, so instead I wrote a novel.
In Chameleon in a Mirror, the main character is sent back in time to the 17th Century, where she gets to meet her (and my) idol, Aphra Behn. This gives her a chance to rehabilitate Aphra’s literary reputation. Even though we are not supposed to have causes in our fiction, I have to admit I hope that with Chameleon in a Mirror, I just might be able to do that a little bit myself.
To find out more about Aphra, you can visit my site on her, the Aphra Behn Page.
Brighton Pavilion: Britain’s Own Kubla Khan
by Alicia Rasley
(My Tryst at the Brighton Inn is set outside Brighton. In fact, Natasha is on her way to Prinny’s birthday picnic at the Pavilion when she gets caught up in a murder.)
In 1786 George, Prince of Wales was 24 and newly married, illicitly, to his great love Mrs. Fitzherbert. He was also deeply in debt, hundreds of thousands of pounds owed for jewelry, horses, and especially his beautiful London home, Carlton House. When the stress in the capital got too much, he would retreat to a farmhouse he owned in the seaside town of Brighton.
But this was the time leading up to that astonishingly creative period known to most of the world as “the Romantic era,” though most of us would call it the Regency. And this was the future Prince Regent, “The Prince of Pleasure.” A simple farmhouse wouldn’t satisfy his extravagant nature and luxurious tastes for long. So soon he hired the fashionable architect Henry Holland, who started adding to the farmhouse. And adding. And adding. Holland designed the first of the great buildings, the Marine Pavilion, in the clean neo-classical style Prinny favored. One of the special features Holland provided for his royal patron was a tunnel to the nearby home of Mrs. Fitzherbert, still the secret wife.
The Marine Pavilion in 1787
For most of the next decade, Prinny contented himself with furnishing the pavilion, spending thousands on art, fixtures, and draperies. This was hardly his only extravagance, but it was a major contributor to the impossibly large debt that he’d accrued by 1795. In fact, in return for Parliament paying off his debt, he was forced into a bigamous marriage with his German cousin Caroline. He could be forgiven, perhaps for later wondering if it was worth it, because his was one of the worst marriages of all time.
Once freed of his crushing debt, Prinny felt up to spending again. But few of us would argue with his choices. For example, one of his early decisions was to put a couple water closets in the main building, for those special guests who weren’t up to battling the sea breeze to get to the outdoor privies. He kept (this will not surprise you) three confectioners on his Brighton kitchen staff, and brought Holland back to create a special confectionery in the kitchens.
The Grand Saloon, where the Regent entertained guests, changed occasionally to show the particular trends in high-priced decorating. The room was remodelled in the late 1790s by the artist Biagio Rebecca, painted in dramatic colors with gilt-framing. While he did use some French artisans and artists, in the time of war, Prinny tried to be patriotic. Much of the furniture was built by such great British cabinetmakers as Chippendale and Seddon. (The “sociable” circular couch in the middle of the room is probably from a later period, as it appears in a print that pictured the room in early Victorian times.)
Fortunately, the prince’s taste wasn’t confined to European. A gift of some Chinese wallpaper inspired the prince, and he conjured up a manically oriental design for the main rooms of the Pavilion. Biographer J.B. Priestley describes one feature, “Along the southern wing was an astonishing Chinese passage of painted glass, decorated with flower, insects, fruits and birds, and illuminated form the outside, so that guest could easily imagine they were passing through an immense Chinese lantern.”
By the turn of the century, Prinny turned his attention to the outbuildings, commissioning a new stable and a riding school. Even he was taken aback at the elegance of the resulting buildings, admitting that his horses were being “housed in a palace.” In fact, the new additions posed a pair of problems. The facades were in an Indian style, clashing with the more classical house, and also, with a 65-foot high cupola, the stable outshone Prinny’s own home. This could not, of course, be borne.
Much of the time before his Regency were spent hiring and firing architects. First he hired Humphry Repton, primarily a landscape architect, submitted plans to unify the house and gardens with an Indian theme. Prinny declared this a “perfect” design, but Parliament didn’t agree, or at least didn’t agree to finance it. By the time he had the blunt, he’d moved on from the “mogul trend” and he reached out to a new architect, James Wyatt, to make his Gothic dreams come true. Imagine a neo-Gothic monstrosity rising out of the South Coast landscape! Well, you’ll have to imagine it, for before he could break ground, James Wyatt was killed, and Prinny had to search for new inspiration. It took years after Prinny became Regent, but finally he turned to John Nash, who was a known quantity, having already remodeled Carlton House. (He had also once been a student of Repton’s, who could not have been pleased to be set aside this way.) Nash got to work, and by 1815, he had expanded the Pavilion and unified its exterior into a vaguely Indian shape.
Nash used the Pavilion as an opportunity to experiment. After all, the nation was paying the shot! He used cast iron to strengthen the walls and pillars while still creating an illusion of Oriental fragility in the minarets and domes. He built new kitchens and heated them with steam. The queen mother was so impressed by all this, she gave her reckless son fifty thousand pounds, some of which went to creating State Apartments suitable to host the Prince, the Queen, and other royalty.
For the rest of his Regency, and during his own reign, Prinny used the Brighton Pavilion both as a canvas for his creativity, and as a retreat from the barrage of criticism he faced in London. As author Victoria Hinshaw remarks, the Pavilion’s “constantly changing architecture and decoration reflect the restless personality of George IV.” He frequently summered there, and was engaged in constant improvements to the house and grounds. Even so early, the Pavilion was something of a tourist attraction, rising up on the edge of town like a vision of Kubla Khan’s palace.
The Nash-designed Pavilion
Royal sea-towns were nothing new. For example, Prinny’s father had made Weymouth to the west a popular escape. But Brighton was special, only a day trip from London, and even then possessing a raffishly louche mien that would have appealed to the fun-loving prince. There’s no doubt, though, that without the Pavilion, Brighton would be just another beach town. Instead, it became a fashionable watering-hole, and many nobles made the trip down in order to attend one of the Regent’s elaborate parties.
After he became king in 1820, Prinny continued to host admirers at the Pavilion, until poor health kept him confined mostly to London.
After he died, his brother William IV also came to use the Pavilion as a refuge, for as a sailor in his youth, he had affection for the sea-vistas. He and his queen became known for their informal get-togethers especially in the summers. The continuing royal patronage turned Brighton from a small town to one of southern England’s major cities, with more the 40,000 residents in 1831.
But his successor didn’t regard Brighton so fondly. Queen Victoria, Hinshaw reports, didn’t like the house. The decadent Pavilion couldn’t help but remind the prim new queen of her pleasure-obsessed uncle, and as her family grew, she found little use for this holiday home. But she treasured it enough to let it stand, and in 1850 she sold it to the city of Brighton. First, however, she stripped much of its elaborate furnishings; most of these have been returned, but some are still to be found in Buckingham Palace.
Soon the city reopened it as a showplace, charging a sixpence to the tourists to ogle the garish yet oddly tasteful rooms. Several times in the next century, the Pavilion was remodeled, once to turn it into a hospital for victims of the Great War. Though it must have posed an inviting target to the Luftwaffe, the Pavilion survived World War II and was extensively renovated during the post-war period. The renovators this time consulted period guidebooks and sketches as they tried to return the house to the one of Prinny’s vision. The house was almost finished when an arson in 1975 almost destroyed the Music Room. Author Leslie Carroll remembers visiting years later and finding that part of the house was still closed for repair. The Music Room was barely reopened when the epic storm of 1987 dislodged a stone from the minaret and once again damaged the salon.
However, private donations and contributions from the local and federal government have funded a massive renovation, and the Pavilion is now restored to its former glory. To tide us over until we can all take a road trip and see it in person, here is a 9-part (!) class about Brighton Pavilion from the Open University: http://openlearn.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=399183
This is a great multimedia experience, with color plates, floorplans, and snippets of the sort of music Prinny would commission for his parties.
The Brighton Pavilion is, above all, an experience, onr that manifests the extravagant and romantic Regency period, and recalls the Prince who remains the most poignant symbol of that time. As the OU concludes, “The Pavilion itself has been called silly, charming, witty, light-hearted, extravagant, gloriously eccentric, decadent, childish, painfully vulgar, socially irresponsible, a piece of outrageous folly and a stylistic phantasmagoria. Whatever you decide about it, it has always been, beyond all dispute, an astonishing flight of the Romantic fancy.”
For a quick look at the Pavilion, author Ashley Kath-Bilsky suggests the videos made by the Brighton Museum, narrated by Andrew Barlow, the former Keeper of the Royal Pavilion at http://www.brighton-hove-rpml.org.uk/RoyalPavilion/video-tours/Pages/FirstFlooroftheRoyalPavilion-VideoTour.aspx: “He gives some interesting back-story to the history of the Pavilion, i.e., the wood and wrought iron that was made to look like bamboo, or the 16 x 10 foot marble bathtub that could hold 6,000 gallons of fresh or salt water.”
Brighton and Hove. http://www.timetravel-britain.com/articles/towns/brighton.shtml
Dale, Antony. Fashionable Brighton. London: Oriel Press, 1947.
The Marine Pavilion. Georgian Net. http://www.georgianindex.net/Brighton/marine.html
About the author: Alicia Rasley is a RITA-award winning Regency writer who tries to visit England twice a year. (In her dreams….) New book set near Brighton!
Check out the Amazon page for Regencies by Rasley.
v Rakish heroes.
v Reckless heroines.
v Elegant stories.
Love letters have been written since ink was first put to paper.. However, billet-doux were not referred to as valentines until the early 1400’s when the Duke of Orleans, imprisoned in the Tower of London after the Battle of Agincourt, wrote a poem to his wife. Sadly, she died before he was released from captivity, but the tales of his passion lived on..
The Tower of London circa 2015.. The blue cupolas were added on Henry the Eighth’s orders in honor of Anne Boleyn’s coronation.. Pretty romantic..
Ever since, love letters and cards exchanged on the 14th of February were commonly referred to as Valentines in honor of the man (or one of them–see history on the plethora of St.. Valentines, HERE) who wrote a love letter to his jailor’s beautiful, blind daughter, prompting one to wonder how she could possibly read it with any sense of privacy.. But I digress.
The making and writing of Valentine’s Day cards thereafter became a tradition. The wealthy could afford manufactured cards, some of which date from as early as the 1700s. Factory workers painted color onto black-and-white images, leaving the composition of the words up to the giver of the card. However, it would be hundreds of years before the mass production of cards created a market for Valentines amongst all walks of life.
During the Regency era, most cards were still handmade. As such, not many survived.. However, there are quite a few examples of a special card known as the puzzle purse, perhaps because they were so much work for the creator that they were cherished in ways that a simple letter was not.
This photo shows the back of a puzzle purse that is preserved at the British Postal Museum in London.
That our two hearts will join in one.
This puzzle purse, dated February 14th, 1816, is quite beautifully illustrated. The current owner, an avid collector, has baptismal certificates that are folded in the same manner.. You can read more about this particular card and learn how to make your own puzzle purse via these instructions.
These elegantly written cards differ from most ordinary letters during this time period. Due to the exorbitant cost of delivery, people “crossed” their letters, meaning that they wrote across the page horizontally, then turned it and wrote across it vertically, sometimes even turning it to write across the letter diagonally. You can see a replicated example of a crossed letter here.
Though there is no evidence that the men and women who peopled the Regency era held parties for Valentine’s Day, they did enjoy some rather romantic parlor games throughout the year. Kissing games were quite popular, a fact that might come as a surprise to those who think of the 19thC as an era of utter moral rectitude. You can read about these games on this blog post, complete with a delightful period illustration.
From the publisher of the #1 Amazon bestselling A Timeless Romance Anthology series in Clean Romance.. Join three bestselling regency romance authors, Heidi Ashworth, Annette Lyon, and Michele Paige Holmes, for three new Regency romance novellas in A MIDWINTER BALL.
Whatever your Valentine’s celebrations entail this year, they are part of a very long tradition of love all around the world, including that highly romantic time period and place known as The Regency.
REMEMBERING MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT
Half a life-time ago, I was in a women’s consciousness-raising group at which we read Mary Wollstonecraft’s groundbreaking A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). In it she told women to think for themselves, get an education, and work toward equal rights for all. I felt an immediate kinship with this spirited 18th-century Englishwoman. Reading her collected letters, I discovered that we were both raised in a somewhat impecunious, unstable home, with no room of one’s own to write in. We escaped (we thought) at an early age—Mary at nineteen to caretake a cranky old lady, and myself at twelve when my father died, rushing me into a girls’ boarding school for five long years. I worked hard at my studies and played sports, something Mary advised. A female should “cultivate mind and body,” she insisted in a day when women might spend up to five hours just getting dressed and coiffed. But mine was a uni-sex world, whereas Mary had envisioned boys and girls working together—highly unusual for the time!
Later I lived with my husband in an all boys’ school where I wasn’t allowed to teach English, my college major, because the headmaster considered it “a man’s subject.” I got back at him by directing a number of radical plays, but to no avail. So with Mary Wollstonecraft in mind, I went on to earn a masters degree in French, and became the department head of languages, with three men under my direction. Yet beyond my ivory tower, women were dying from abortions or producing multiple children. I already had four, born in rapid succession—although the “pill” was about to stop the flow. Mary, of course, had advocated her particular brand of birth control: “Did women suckle their own children,“ she reasonably wrote, “there would be such an interval between the birth of each child, that we should seldom see a houseful of babes.”
Her advice didn’t work for me, but I went on with the fight. I joined NOW, and sat up all night on a shaky schoolbus to join the Equal Rights Amendment fans in Washington DC (we lost). But many of my peers were afraid to risk a husband’s or employer’s disapproval and join the struggle for power. “Though I do not wish (women) to have power over men,” 18th-century Mary insisted, “but over themselves.”
I taped her words above my desk, and published a first novel about a rebellious faculty wife in the sixties—not unlike Mary, A Fiction (1788), Wollstonecraft’s first autobiographical novel written after she was fired as governess to a large Anglo-Irish family. “I shall live independent or not at all!” she declared, undefeated, and went on to publish her Vindication for which they cruelly called her a “hyena in petticoats.” All her short life after that she deplored any injustice, and one time literally kidnapped her own sister from an abusive husband. They went spinning through the streets of London with the husband in hot pursuit while the sister bit her wedding ring into pieces, and made it safely to a rented room.
She had a hard time, though, reconciling her principles of independence with her sexuality, and in her early 30s fell desperately in love with the artist Henry Fuseli. One day she went knocking on his door to request a mέnage ᾲ trois—only to have the door shut in her face, while a red-faced Henry stood in stony silence at the top of the stairs.
To escape the Fuseli scandal, she took ship for Paris as a “war correspondent,” to write a history of the French Revolution, where the guillotine was already claiming its bloody victims. There, she lost her own head (a virgin at 34) to a dashing but feckless American captain who got her pregnant and ultimately abandoned her and child. Despite a leap into the Thames and an overdose of laudanum, she persevered, married the writer William Godwin, who for the first time in her life offered commitment. But shortly after giving birth to a second daughter, the future Mary Shelley (of Frankenstein fame), she died of septicemia when a doctor yanked out the split placenta with unwashed hands. Godwin wrote a detailed memoir of her radical life from his point of view only, and Mary was considered a bad girl until the 20th- century when several well-researched biographies and a collection of her fascinating letters revealed her as the highly original, brilliant though conflicted woman that she was.
Since I shared many of her principles, thoughts and flaws, she became an alter ego for me. She was far from perfect, yes, and she made some poor judgments – but always owned up to them, and fought fiercely for what she considered right. Thinking she’d make an excellent – if sometimes impetuous – sleuth, I planned to write her colorful life into a trilogy of mystery novels. To begin with, I reconstructed her frenetic year as governess to the aristocratic King family as a novelist would, imagining, with the help of her detailed letters, what she’d have said and done. I kept as close as possible to her character and personality while staying true to time, place and the people historically connected to her. Perseverance Press published the novel beautifully, then brought out my second mystery set in London at the time of her Vindication and the Fuseli scandal. The final novel, Wild Nights, depicting her life during the Paris massacres, is just out from Prince and Pauper Press as an ebook—ultimately to be in print. Viva la Rέvolution!
Nancy Means Wright www.nancymeanswright.com