Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Evelina Group Read

Hello my dears! I'm very excited to be done with my coursework- not only for the semester but, in theory, forever- as I have just passed my qualifying exams. What a relief it is! Not only have my scientific peers approved my candidacy for the PhD, but now I have more time for blogging and reenacting and sewing. Huzzah!

One thing I always told myself I would do once I was done with my coursework is catch up on my 18th century research and my pleasure reading. As it turns out, the lovely Duchess of Devonshire has been so kind as to provide an opportunity for me to do both. She is assembling an online book club- what a marvelous modern age we live in!- for the purposing of discussing Fanny Burnley's Evelina. As I have been wanting to add this book to my repertoire for some time, and I now have the time, I'm glad to be joining in on the discussion, and I urge you all, dear readers, to do the same.

I just started reading last night and I am having great difficulty putting it down. Perhaps when I have finished this one I can finally tackle Tom Jones again. (Apparently all the ladies want to tackle Tom Jones...)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Remember the Ladies

Greetings, my dears. Some of you may know that my birthday just passed on March 31. I shall refrain from revealing my age, though it is fair to say that I am fast approaching what one might call "maturity." However, I had a lovely celebration with good friends, presents, and of course, a delicious cake prepared by yours truly.

I was very excited to discover this morning that a famous and oft-quoted letter from Abigail Adams to her husband John was written on my birthday in 1776. Abigail and John kept a long correspondence through his years as Congressman in Philadelphia, and John often sought his wife's advice on many matters. As marriages go, theirs was, I believe, one to be envied even by today's standards. The love and friendship they felt for each other is all too apparent in their letters to each other. I am certain her passing, eight years before John's, was very difficult for him to bear.

In the letter in question Abigail makes certain recommendations to her husband (and the Continental Congress as whole) on the treatment of women by this budding American republic. Abigail writes as a woman of the 18th century; she does not argue the idea that females are the weaker sex and require the protection of men. However, she points out that if men abuse their position as protector, the ladies will surely "foment a Rebelion"- and a rebellion in stays would most assuredly be a very sexy one.

Below is an excerpt from the letter:

"I long to hear that you have declared an independancy--and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.

"That your Sex are Naturally Tyrannical is a Truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute, but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up the harsh title of Master for the more tender and endearing one of Friend. Why then, not put it out of the power of the vicious and the Lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity with impunity. Men of Sense in all Ages abhor those customs which treat us only as the vassals of your Sex. Regard us then as Beings placed by providence under your protection and in immitation of the Supreem Being make use of that power only for our happiness."

[You may note there are some spelling errors in her letter. Keep in mind that there was no standardized spelling in those days, and rest assured that Abigail was an educated, intelligent woman.]

It is often disputed whether Abigail could be considered an early feminist (ah, the hideous F-word). I would argue that, for her time, she most certainly was. It is all too easy to impose modern standards or definitions on events and people of the past, but it is important to ever remember context. Yes, Abigail accepted her societal role as requiring the protection of her husband. However, she went so far as to recommend that men treat their wives as friends (and dare I say, almost equals), rather than "vassals of your Sex." A bold assertion for a woman of her time, and one which, to be honest, we women still assert today. Of course Mrs. Adams was certainly no shining ideal for the feminist movement (I doubt few, if any, women could fill such a role), but she is a figure in American history who had at least the beginnings of the right idea.

I hope you all enjoyed these words from the incomparable Abigail Adams. I'm resolved to write more about her, and her husband, as they are two of my most favorite figures in American history, and I am currently plodding (thanks to grad school, not lack of interest) through David McCullough's biography on John, which is excellently written. For now, I will leave you with a clip of John and Abigail from one of my favorite period films, "1776." While it's far from accurate- the ladies' costumes make me cringe a little, and I doubt very much that John Adams was much of a singer- the songs do in fact take their lyrics from actual letters between John and Abigail. (The line about "Cupid's Grove," however, was actually taken from a diary entry about the girl John courted before Abigail, Hannah Quincy. Ooof. Perhaps it was a favorite turn of phrase for John. I imagine in a age where so much romance was conducted with the written word, one must recycle one's cleverer bits occasionally.) Just as John and Abigail ended their letters, their duets end with the words "Til then."

For those of you who have never seen "1776," there will be a review coming one of these days. And yes, that is Mr. Feeny (William Daniels) of "Boy Meets World" singing his heart out.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Ladies of Pleasure: Marquise Elle Reviews "Fanny Hill" and "Moll Flanders"

I know, I know- over a year and no posts? It's simply unforgivable. But grad school is indeed a cruel mistress who will spank you with a spiked paddle if you don't behave.

And on that note, here is my review of the BBC series "Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure," which for some reason was only two episodes long. I'd like to preface this review by saying that I haven't yet read the novel, written by John Cleland in 1748 (it's on my long list of 18th century novels to read). From what I can tell, the series follows the book fairly closely but actually cleans up the story considerably- rather the opposite of what you might expect, but make no mistake, the 18th century novel is dirtier than the 21st century adaptation. Those of you who like to think that the 1700s were a time of delicate sensibilities (in other words, if you look at the 18th century through a 19th century glass), may want to read that last statement over a few more times and let it sink in before we proceed.

First of all, I'm not sure if the language of the series reflects the language of the book, but at times it was downright corny. Maybe it's because it was made in England (no offense to any of my English readers), but there was this stifling yet hilarious attempt to say dirty things in an "18th century" way, rather than just come right out with a dirty word (as, say, a prostitute might have done). Example: Fanny refers to one man's rather impressive member as "a positive maypole." For all I know, this language was taken directly from the book, so perhaps it was simply the actress's delivery of the lines which made it sound so ridiculous. Either way it was fairly distracting. Also, Fanny's introduction to sex seemed a bit rushed and unrealistic- her first sexual encounter (with another girl, Phoebe) was so silly that my flatmate ended up leaving the room in disgust. This is, however, straight out of the book (and probably cleaned up), so it's difficult for me, having not read the novel, to know who to blame.

Plot aside, I both loved and hated the costumes. Many of them were absolutely lovely, particularly the finer clothes, but there were several glaring inaccuracies, the most annoying being Fanny's inability to tuck her hair up under her cap properly. I get it, she's a loose woman, etc., but if you're trying to get that point across, why bother putting her in a cap at all? (Or at least have her cover her hair before she becomes a prostitute, then let it hang down once she's embraced her vocation.) There was also an abundance of caps that resembled shower caps, and a few shifts with full-length sleeves- in other words, the kinds of mistakes you see at reenactments, which should be inexcusable in a well-researched series or film (and really, inexcusable at reenactments as well, thanks to the internet). The series also suffers from PotC-syndrome (also known as "what part of the 18th century is this again?" disorder). For example, in one scene Fanny is wearing a zone gown that wouldn't have been seen until thirty or forty years after the novel takes place, which is sort of like seeing bell-bottomed jeans, platforms, and an Afro on a character in a 1930s film noir. There are also examples where the costume designer started out on the right track, but then stopped just short of the mark: if I may draw your attention to the picture at the left, you may notice that Miss Hill's stays are accurately constructed, but aren't laced properly (and call me crazy, but I think her shift is made out of that imitation linen they sell at Jo-ann Fabrics). In short, we have evidence of a lazy costume designer: one who started out by looking at period clothing, but in the end made certain choices based on what would look correct or attractive to a 21st century viewer.

There was one glaring anachronism in the series that I would be amiss not to point out. Fanny claims that Mrs. Coles's motto is "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law." First of all, this was the maxim of one Aleister Crowley, famous/infamous occultist who was born in 1875, over 100 years after the publication of "Fanny Hill." More importantly, however, its use in the context of the series completely subverts its meaning. By "will," Crowley was referring to one's "true will," or intended path in life, not "whatever strikes your fancy." I might excuse this misuse of the motto, and chalk it up to some scriptwriter being a fan of Crowley's, but surely a fan would know the true meaning behind the statement? Perhaps, being a fan of Crowley's myself, I'm just splitting hairs here, but ascribing the words of the Great Beast to the owner of a small-time bawdy house- and using the quotation out of context!- is just too too much.

Silly euphemisms and poor costuming choices aside, I did enjoy "Fanny Hill" overall. It has your typical 18th century bawdy novel plot: virtuous people are sinful, sinful people are virtuous (though some sinful people are just plain jerks), there are a few highly improbable coincidences, and all's well in the end. Huzzah.

Now on to "Moll Flanders," another adaptation of an 18th century novel I haven't read. I was going to make this a separate blog entry but I don't have very much to say about it. The film takes one element from the novel- the fact that Moll was born in a prison- and then the plot takes a left at Improbable Avenue and Bananas Boulevard. In short, it has nothing to do with the 18th century novel. As a stand-alone film it's not that groundbreaking, either. I love Robin Wright Penn (as a long-time fan of "The Princess Bride"), but I don't think any actress, no matter how talented, could have made the character of Moll Flanders believable. As in many period films, the female lead character of this one is headstrong, quirky, and unafraid to follow her passions- in a way that seems totally out of place for the time period. Unlike Glenn Close's Marquise de Merteuil (I swear I will review "Dangerous Liaisons" one of these days), who becomes a liberated woman by making the system work for her, Moll seems unaware that there is a system at all. In other words, she is your typical empowered yet two-dimensional 21st century female character who has somehow been dropped into the 18th century (or any other century) by mistake. I could list characters like these until I turn blue: Anne Howard in "The Patriot," Veronica Franco in "Dangerous Beauty," any character played by Keira Knightley...

The film is, on the whole, pretty anemic. The plot is ludicrous and predictable, the costumes and makeup are schizophrenic, and while there are a few notable quotes much of the dialogue is desperately trying to sound poetic but in the end only comes up as forced (much like in "Dangerous Beauty"... food for thought). The writer/producer/director, Pen Densham, also wrote/produced "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" with Kevin Kostner, if that tells you anything (and it should). In short, this movie has only one saving grace: Morgan Freeman.

As strange as it felt to have Morgan Freeman running around 18th century England, I can't express what a joy it was to see. First off, the combination of early-18th century flowing frock coat and cocked hat with long braids transformed the quiet, solid Morgan Freeman of "Shawshank Redemption" and "Se7en" into Morgan Freeman: Gentleman Adventurer of the High Seas. My favorite scene in the entire film, hands down, was watching Freeman cold clock a man on the street for making a racist comment. Not even his wandering accent could detract from the sheer awesomeness of 18th century Morgan Freeman. I think he even out-shone his own bad-assery in "Red." So to sum up, Morgan Freeman has the ability to be a shining beacon of awesome in any bad or mediocre movie: "Robin Hood," "Brice Almighty," and now this. Well, done, M.F. I guess we know what your initials really stand for.

So that sums up my reviews of "Fanny Hill" and "Moll Flanders": two women of pleasure who brought me very little. Stay tuned, my lovelies, for your marquise is back with a vengeance!