Laure de Chevigne

Following up to my post from last week, I’m doing a second one about Marcel Proust’s other muse: Laure de Chevigne. All quotations are from the June 2018 edition of American Vogue.

“Laure de Chevigne’s ancestors included the notorious Marquis de Sade and her namesake, the poet Petrarch’s muse. She parlayed an early marriage to a lackluster count serving the exiled French court in Austria into a leading role among the gratin of Paris. Her salty language, gender-bending fashions, exaggerated links to the ancien regime, and near total independence from her husband delighted members of the all-male Jockey club, even as they raised eyebrows – and blood pressure – elsewhere”.

She was born Laure Marie Charlotte de Sade in 1859 and lived to the ripe old age of 77. She married at 20 and both she and her husbands were legitimists, meaning that they believed in the sovereignty of the eldest branch of the Bourbon dynasty, which was overthrown in 1830. Laure was a great friend of Isabella II of Spain. She was also a heavy smoker, which led to her famously husky voice.

Much like last week’s muse, Laure did not particularly like Proust (I have no idea if he was aware that his muses seemed to hate him; maybe that was part of their allure).


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The Vicomtesse Greffulhe

I found a really interesting article in the June 2018 issue of American Vogue about the French fin de siecle author Marcel Proust (article called “Marcel’s Muses”). I’m going to do a post on each of the three real-life muses that supposedly helped form Proust’s Duchess de Guermantes in his  À la recherche du temps perdu.

The first of these women is the rather magnificently named Elisabeth de Riquet de Caraman-Chimay (the future Vicomtesse Greffulhe). According to the article, she “had received, for a girl, an unusually thorough education, often accompanying her father, a Belgian prince, on diplomatic missions. Her marriage at eighteen was a mismatch: The vicomte disparaged his bride’s dark beauty and intelligence, favoring blonde, blue-eyed mistresses.”

La Comtesse Greffulhe dans une robe de bal. Papier albumine, vers 1887. Galliera, musÈe de la Mode de la Ville de Paris.

Come on, now. Who needed a mistress when you had a fabulous bish rocking a cape like this?

She was also famous for her very unusual eye colour, which has been described as purple-brown.

She was a particular fan of both fashion and photography, recognising both as significant art forms in their own right. She once said, “I don’t think there is any pleasure in the world comparable to that of a woman who feels she is being looked at by everybody, and has joy and energy transmitted to her.”

Apparently she even upstaged her own daughter at her daughter’s wedding in 1904 by wearing an elaborate dress that is now famously known as her “Byzantine” gown:

Charles FrÈderic Worth (1825-1895). Robe byzantine portee par la Comtesse Greffulhe pour le mariage de sa fille, 1904 – Taffetas lamÈ, soie et filÈ or, tulle de soie, application de paillettes. Galliera, musÈe de la Mode de la Ville de Paris.

It was made out of gold lamé, completely encrusted with pearls, and trimmed (rather tackily, in my opinion) with fur. When she entered the church, people in the crowd apparently said, “My God, is that the mother of the bride?”

Despite her unhappy marriage, she led a glittering and privileged life, around which Proust notoriously buzzed, trying to get in with the In Crowd. In the late 1940s or early 1950s, the elderly Vicomtess recalled Proust to her grandchildren as: ‘A displeasing little man who was forever skulking in doorways‘. Somehow, I think he’d be okay with that.

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Malinda Russell

I’ve been way behind on my Vogues lately, but the US June 2018 Vogue had some killer Victorianist stuff in it, so the next few posts are going to be from that issue. God, I’m so fancy. Anyway, it was in their article “A Cut Above” that I first learned of Malinda Russell.

Malinda Russell was the author of A Domestic Cookbook (1866), which was the first cookbook known to be written by a black woman (presumably in the US? The article doesn’t specify). According to Wikipedia, “The book is historically significant, as it shows that black Southern cooking was not solely the domain of poverty cooking, but provides evidence of a sophisticated cosmopolitan skill with complex dishes.”

She was probably born in 1812 in Tennessee. Her mother Karon was a free woman so, as best as I can tell, Malinda was born into freedom as well. Despite Karon’s early death, Malinda received a surprisingly good education for women in general at the time and had high hopes to see the world.

Her plan, at age 19, was to travel to Liberia (I’m not sure if she intended to relocate there permanently or if she just wanted to visit; regardless, a trip of that length at that period could not have been made lightly). She saved up enough money for the trip, received a certificate vouching for her good character, and made it all the way to Virginia where her ship was to leave.

Because the world is a shitty place, Malinda was robbed on the way by a fellow traveler and arrived in Virginia with absolutely nothing. She was forced by circumstance to take up a job with a local family as a nurse and traveling companion. It was there that another freed woman first taught her how to cook.

She married soon thereafter, but her husband died after only four years, leaving her to care for their invalid son on her own. She worked as a laundress to pay the bills, eventually earning enough to return to Tennessee and run a boarding house. From there, she opened a pastry shop, which was very successful until it was raided by a gang of traveling white men in 1864 (the war no doubt increasing the already fraught race relations in the south–especially relations that include a successful, business-owning, single black woman).

She and her son fled quickly to Michigan where she decided to write a cookbook. She self-published the book as a way to supplement her income and in the book gave a potted autobiography, which is how we came to know it as the first cookbook to be written by a black woman. There were undoubtedly others, but their identities have been lost to time. It contained not only 265 recipes, but also recipes for ointments, colognes, and other household and beauty goods.

Unfortunately, a few months after her book went to publication, her entire new town in Michigan was destroyed in a fire. No one knows what happened to her after that–she simply disappeared.

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The Petticoat Affair

My good friend leia131 on Livejournal has been posting this really interesting series on the First Ladies of the United States. I’ve been really tempted just to reblog what she wrote, but I think you guys deserve some original content for once (I’ve really been slacking this summer). So I’m going to do a full post on something she’s referenced in passing in a couple of her entries: the Petticoat Affair.

The Petticoat Affair, also known as the Eaton affair, was a U.S. political scandal from 1829-1831, and it completely shook up Andrew Jackson’s cabinet to the point that it heavily contributed to Martin Van Buren being elected in the next presidential election.

In short, there was a woman named Peggy O’Neill (later Peggy Eaton), whose father owned a boarding house and bar really close to the White House. This led it to be a popular pit stop for politicians. Peggy was supposedly very pretty, charming, talented, and well-educated as a young girl, leading her to be the local pet for the high-ranking regulars there. Unsurprisingly, as she grew up, she got a lot of male attention (no longer just of the paternalistic type) and her reputation came under scrutiny because she was a woman who spent a lot of time in a bar (a sign of loose virtue at the time, even if it was the bar her family owned).

At 17, after her father already managed to stop Peggy from eloping with a dashing young Army officer, Peggy married a Navy purser more than 20 years her senior named John Timberlake. He turned out to be heavily in debt and an alcoholic. John Timberlake became friends with a handsome, wealthy 28-year old widower named John Eaton, who was newly elected as a senator. Eaton was also a good friend of Andrew Jackson, who was not yet president.

After hearing about Timberlake’s financial issues, Eaton managed to get him a well-paying posting in the Navy’s Mediterranean squadron. Because Eaton had been so chummy with the Timberlakes, and due to Peggy’s beauty and reputation, naturally the gossips in town said that Eaton only got Timberlake the posting so he’d be far away for months or years at a time–leaving him and Peggy alone in Washington together.

John Eaton, giving his best bedroom eyes.

When Timberlake died (of pneumonia, the doctors at the time reported), the rumors continued: he had killed  himself because he had found out about an affair between his wife and best friend. As far as I’m aware, there is nothing to substantiate that rumor. Eaton and Peggy did, however, marry with undue haste after Timberlake’s death (almost 9 months to the day, whereas it was standard practice for a widow to wait at least one year and a day, out of respect for her late husband, before remarrying). Some sources say they were pushed into it by Andrew Jackson, who was really rooting for the couple.

In addition to Peggy’s lowly background, tainted reputation, haste in remarrying, and her beauty (which no doubt sparked some jealousy), she also was very outspoken and flouted convention. She notoriously “didn’t know her place” and discussed things thought to be unseemly for a woman to even know about, let alone bring up in public.

So when Andrew Jackson–Peggy’s good friend–was elected president, and her husband Eaton was elected Secretary of War, a lot of the upper crust of Washington were NOT. HAVING. IT. In particular was a woman named Floride Calhoun, who was Vice President John C. Calhoun’s wife and therefore the Second Lady of the U.S.

Floride Calhoun, with a face like a slapped ass.

She went so far as to call an “Anti-Peggy Coalition”, in which she and several others decided to snub the Eatons as publicly as possible. The Eatons were to be ignored on the street and no one was to invite them to any events or respond to any of the Eatons’ invitations. Even Andrew Jackson’s niece and First Lady, Emily Donelson (Jackson was a widower) sided with the Calhouns.

The only person apart from Andrew Jackson who sided with the Eatons was Martin Van Buren, Secretary of State at the time. This drastically raised Van Buren in Jackson’s esteem–in part because Jackson’s own late wife, Rachel, had herself been the subject of nasty gossip in Washington. The strain of Jackson’s presidential campaign had been too much for her, and she died of a heart attack only ten weeks after he was elected. He never forgave Washington society for being so cruel, hence his fury over the pettiness of the Eaton affair. Jackson was once recorded as saying, “I [would] rather have live vermin on my back than the tongue of one of these Washington women on my reputation”.

Peggy O’Neill Eaton’s image on a cigar box, illustrating her beauty and salacious past (the two men are supposedly fighting a duel over her).

As things escalated over the course of two years, a massive schism broke between President and Vice President, with Calhoun overtly setting himself up to be Jackson’s primary competitor in the next election. There were a lot of machinations, both political and personal, at this time, but everything was finally resolved when Martin Van Buren told Jackson that he would resign as Secretary of State, if it would make things easier. By doing that, it would allow all the pro-Calhoun, anti-Eaton members of Jackson’s cabinet to resign, too, and allow them to save face; Jackson, meanwhile, could then reorganize his cabinet more to his liking and everyone could just part ways before the next election.

Despite this, the pro-Calhoun, anti-Eaton faction kept starting shit, but it just made them look pettier and pettier as things went on. When Martin Van Buren was nominated as Jackson’s running mate for the upcoming election, it really weakened Calhoun’s position. Both Jackson and Van Buren appeared to the public as the victims of political bullying and nonsense. Jackson won the election against Calhoun, becoming president for a second term. Calhoun resigned as Vice President before his term was even up, and returned to South Carolina.

Martin Van Buren’s political career gained a huge boost, to the point that he was seen as Jackson’s natural successor to the presidency–which he was.

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Utagawa Yoshitora

I was recently alerted to the existence of the Japanese artist Utagawa Yoshitora, who I cannot believe has escaped my notice for so long. He was an artist in the ukiyo-e genre, and he specifically made woodblock artwork.

He was active in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, prolifically producing art from the lat 1840s through the 1880s, including doing about 60 print series and illustrating over 100 books. He used to art to (possibly) critique Japanese authority figures (at least that’s how the censors interpreted it) and it landed him in manacles for 50 days and got him expelled from his master’s art studio.

The coolest thing about Utagawa Yoshitora, though, is his pictures of foreigners, which he started producing in the 1860s. He did loads of prints of Paris and London that are surprisingly accurate–surprising because he had apparently never traveled out of Japan.

Paris, France

The Port of London

The Thames

Bridge Over the Thames

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The Beggar’s Benison

I’ve just read Eric Berkowitz’s fabulous Sex and Punishment: 4000 Years of Judging Desire (2012), and found this rather magnificent passage in his section on masturbation in the eighteenth century.

All quotations are from his text, but I’ve supplemented it with some additional research of my own:

“Most eighteenth-century masturbators did their business when no one was looking, of course. Not so among the five-hundred-odd members of the secret Scottish Beggar’s Benison society. Strict custom in the centuries-old club required initiates to sit alone in a room and obtain an erection while society members stood in a circle in a nearby chamber.

“Upon the blowing of a penis-shaped horn, initiates walked into the main room and placed their penises on a pewter ‘test platter’ for the group to inspect and touch with their own genitalia. If all went well and the novitiate was approved, the group would welcome their new brother with the pledge: ‘May your prick and your purse never fail you‘ and enjoy an evening of bawdy fun with prostitutes. To further cement ties among group members, the test platter and various silver receptacles would be brought out for them all to masturbate upon.

“The men of the Beggar’s Benison society were respectable businessmen and magistrates. While they shared an interest in raucous drinking, whoring, and masturbating, their approach to their wives was quite another matter. Current mores encouraged their enjoyment of marital sex, but it was something to be managed along rational lines” (299).

For a little historical context, the full title of the club was: The Most Ancient and Most Puissant Order of the Beggar’s Benison and Merryland, Anstruther. This was a  Scottish gentleman’s club, the purpose of which was to create a space for “the convivial celebration of male sexuality”. The club was founded in 1732 not far from St Andrews, Scotland, and (according to Wikipedia) it quickly became a hallmark of libertine Britain. Its members included several aristocrats and notable historical figures.

In addition to their masturbation rituals, the men would drink, sing bawdy songs, do dramatic readings from Fanny Hilland amassed a large collection of pornography. The club lasted only about a hundred years, dissolving in 1836, which is unsurprising considering that libertinism fell out of fashion not only as the nineteenth century progressed, but also due to the waning popularity of the Hanoverian monarchs. George IV was immensely unpopular, and his successor, William IV wasn’t much better; William IV died the year after the club was dissolved, and this made way for a certain degree of middle-class sexual conservatism (at least on the surface) during the reign of Queen Victoria.

There was an attempt to revive the club in 1921,  but it didn’t take. All the relics from the club are now held by the University of St Andrew.

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HMS Birkenhead

I heard this rather grim story about the 1852 sinking of the HMS Birkenhead off the coast of South Africa.

It was one of the first iron-hulled ships built for the British royal navy. It was originally going to be called the HMS Vulcan, which is obviously a better name, but it ended up being renamed to Birkenhead after the town in England where it was built.

In 1852, was transporting troops around South Africa to participate in the 8th Xhosa War. In order to make good time, the captain decided to hug the South African coast; the ship struck an uncharted rock near the aptly named “Danger Point” around the Western Cape.

As with all great sinking ship stories, there were not enough lifeboats for all of the passengers. It was all very calm and one survivor later recalled, “Almost everybody kept silent, indeed nothing was heard, but the kicking of the horses and the orders of [Captain] Salmond, all given in a clear firm voice”.

All the women and children were loaded in the few boats available, which were quickly launched. The ship then sank incredibly quickly–in about ten minutes–due to it striking the rock a second time in the chaos. The ship’s captain said to the remaining soldiers that everyone who was able to swim should jump overboard and attempt to make for the lifeboats.

However, a Colonel Seton realised that the high number of soldiers making for the lifeboats would endanger swamping them and would lead to everyone drowning. He ordered the men to stand to attention. They stood to attention as the ship sank around them, leading to more than two-thirds of all passengers dying. The soldiers’ chivalry led to the unofficial “women and children first” rule at sea.

Only three soldiers broke ranks and swam for it before the ship fully sank. The other soldiers only swam for it once the ship was fully out from under them, with a few of them making it the full two miles to shore.

Most of the soldiers were killed, harrowingly, by sharks, to the point that in South Africa Great White sharks are still referred to as “Tommys”, with “Tommy” being a slang term for British soldier at the time.

The incident gained international attention and led to several sailors being court-martialled. However, no one was found to be at fault. It took them more than forty more years for a lighthouse to be established at Danger Point. Some of the surviving sailors stayed and created a brewery that they named Birkenhead Brewery.

There is also a legend about a treasure, stemming from the rumor that the ship was carrying a military payroll of £240,000 in gold. Many treasure hunters have attempted to salvage it, with no results so far. However, the British and South African governments agreed in 1989 that if any gold was recovered through their salvaging work, they would share the money.

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