Monday, 20 July 2015

Endings and beginnings

Regular readers may have noticed that my posts have been thin on the ground during the past academic year. This is because I was preparing for my Finals exams at Oxford and had lamentably little time for extra-curricular history, as it were. I finished Finals in June, but the intervening time has been a whirlwind of travelling and waiting for my results.

I will soon take up a job abroad, teaching history, and hope to devote more time to Dance's Historical Miscellany. I am keen to write more frequently and on a wide range of subjects.

In this, I remain inspired by the pleasure I derive in writing for this blog, and by the encouragement I receive from my wonderful readership, whom I thank wholeheartedly.


Me, just after my last exam. (I am  wearing a gown over
sub fusc, the traditional garb for Oxford exams)

Monday, 8 June 2015

How to find a Georgian heiress

Marriages for money, although they had been criticised on moral and practical grounds for centuries, were still very common in eighteenth-century European society, particularly among the wealthy and landed classes. Even in Jane Austen's supposedly romantic novels, money is always a consideration when deciding whom to marry, to the point that some of her characters contract entirely loveless matches in order to escape the horrors of penurious spinsterhood.

Mercenary marriages were, however, bound to continue so long as ladies were financially dependent on men and so long as gentlemen, idle or otherwise, felt that their present income was not enough to fulfill their social ambitions. Marrying a wealthy woman was simply one of the easiest ways for cash-strapped gentlemen to indulge their expensive tastes, given that in almost all cases the wife's money would become her husband's to spend as he wished. This matrimonial strategy was particularly necessary for the younger sons of peers and landowners, as they were often financially short-changed by the inheritance system which favoured older brothers. Marrying an heiress might have seemed more palatable than a career in the law, the military or the Church, which were the standard options for men in their position.
Yet how were men supposed to work out how much money a potential wife really had? There was, after all, no point in wasting time and effort courting a lady who might turn out to have little or nothing to her name. Word of mouth on this matter could be unreliable. In fact, the plots of not a few contemporary novels turn on the realisation that a lady has less money than her suitor believed, thus placing the match in jeopardy (see, for instance, Catherine and the younger Tilney brother in Austen's Northanger Abbey).


William Hogarth mocked mercenary marriages in his series Marriage à
la Mode. 
Here, in the first painting, a marriage is arranged between the
bankrupt son of 
Earl Squanderfield and the daughter of a wealthy merchant. 

But lo! help was at hand to save fortune-hunting men from confusion and misery, in the shape of a 1742 pamphlet entitled A master-key to the rich ladies treasury. Or, the widower and batchelor's directory. Compiled by a Mr B. M--n (who, tellingly, signs himself as "a younger brother"), its purpose is made abundantly clear in the prefatory address 'To all Widowers and Batchelors':
"There are undeniably several Widowers, but many more Batchelors in the perplexed Situation [of finding a wife]; some want Acquaintance among the Ladies, others want Introduction; and hence it is that the poor Maidens themselves often sympathise; for I make no Manner of doubt, but Numbers are willing to meet either Widower or Batchelor half Way; now could any Method have been found more expedient to remove these Stumbling-blocks in the Road to Fortune and Matrimony than the following? [...] 
"Thus Gentlemen, have I in the following sheets I think, opened a fair Field for Action for you; a fine Choice, and a fine Collection of Ladies; - Open the Campaign directly then yourselves, that my next [publication] may be a new Sett. I heartily wish you all Success".


This handy document is essentially a list of the wealthiest women in Britain, listing their names, places of abode, reputed fortunes and the amount they had in the stocks. The main body of the text is charmingly divided into 'widows' and 'spinsters', the latter category covering young unmarried women as well as old ladies. Many distinguished family names are to be seen in the lists - Byron, Cecil, Cavendish, Howard, Seymour, Walpole, Grosvenor and Curzon, among others. Even the Prime Minister's daughter, Maria Walpole, is listed; her address is given as Downing Street, and her reputed fortune as £80,000 (circa £7,000,000 in today's money).

Most fortunes in this list are in the thousands to tens of thousands of pounds, with the exception of the Dowager Duchess of Marlborough, to whom the author assigns a reputed fortune of 'Millions' - an absolutely staggering amount of money at the time. Incidentally, this would have been referring to the first Duchess of Marlborough, Sarah Churchill, who was 82 years old at the time this pamphlet was published. Not a conquest for the fainthearted, then.

In the case of there being more than one daughter, aristocratic sisters are listed separately. For commoners, the author merely inserts the number of sisters beside the family name to indicate that an address contains multiple marital targets. Thus we see the Misses Mabbott of Ormond Street, who had £15,000 apiece, listed simply as 'Mabbott (2)'. Picking a family with many daughters might increase the odds of finding a beauty among them, but these young ladies were also less attractive to fortune-hunters as the parental inheritance was generally spread more thinly. Witness for instance the eight Misses Barker of Chiswick, or the seven Corbett sisters living in Mayfair, each of whom had the misfortune to come with only £5,000, as opposed to some of their contemporaries with tens of thousands of pounds. Indeed, having a large number of daughters posed quite a financial problem for all but the wealthiest parents, as each young lady was expected to provide a dowry and perhaps be entitled to some inheritance upon the deaths of her dear mamma and papa. Their families often got little in return, unless they managed to contract politically or socially useful alliances.

One might think, faced with all this, that A master-key is a cynical, even callous production, aiming shamelessly at the financial and emotional exploitation of women. While this is true, its author was at least more honest about the sordid material concerns which lay behind many contemporary marriages than the many sentimental novels of the time.




~ Caecilia Dance

Saturday, 28 March 2015

The 'Corsican Monster' in British propaganda

While British troops were away fighting the French during the Napoleonic Wars, a concerted war effort was being carried out on the home front. These years saw a proliferation of anti-Napoleonic propaganda in many forms. The government needed to whip up patriotic fervour not only to promote a general spirit of resistance against the French, but also to inspire volunteer recruits for the army and navy, and to persuade people that raised taxes were necessary for Britain's very preservation.

The genuine popular demand for anti-Napoleonic propaganda gave lyricists, dramatists and others a rich fund of material to work with. This was a good time in particular to be a talented caricaturist. Napoleon (also known as 'Boney' and 'the Corsican Monster') was lampooned in prints by all the leading illustrators of the day, including Gillray and Cruikshank. By all accounts, the publishers of these satirical prints did a roaring trade. One Frencémigré wrote to the journalist Jacques Mallet du Pan of the enthusiasm surrounding a new print, describing the 'madness' as 'people box their way through the crowd' to the print shop. Towards the end of the Napoleonic Wars, another French observer described 'a large crowd that had gathered in front of a shop on the Strand. The meeting was a noisy one and the agitation suggested that some people were actually boxing. We soon learned that a new caricature was the reason for all the upheaval. What a triumph for the artist!'

The caricatures themselves veered between bold assertions of Britain's superiority, staunchly supporting the regime, to personal attacks on Napoleon, condemning everything from his short stature (a complete myth, incidentally), to the colour of his skin (suspiciously dark), to his troubled private life. For the personal attacks, nothing was considered too vulgar, as the following few caricatures show.


The first night of my wedding, or, little Boney no match for an Arch Dutchess (1810)
Marie Louise: Still says sly old Hodge, says he, Great talkers do the least d'ye see. Well well there's one hope left - I shall quickly carry him to his Journeys end 
Napoleon: Mort de ma Vie I must I must brush off to Compiegne and order seperate Beds
This cartoon is clearly about Napoleon's alleged impotence. Marie-Louise, Napoleon's second wife, quotes from Charles Dibdin's comic opera, The Wives Revenged, while using a crown-shaped chamberpot as a footstoolNapoleon, looking rather the worse for wear, drinks some sort of reviving potion, has a bowl of 'cock-broth' on the table and plans to buy separate beds as soon as possible, presumably to save himself from the rampant sexual demands of his new wife.

 
The Arch Dutchess Maria Louisa going to take her Nap  
Marie-Louise: My dear Nap. your bed accommodations are very indifferent! Too short by a Yard! I wonder how Josephine put up with such things over as long as she did!!! 
Napoleon: Indeed, Maria I do not well understand you: the Empress Josephine who knew things better than I hope you do, never grumbled - Le Diable! I see I never will be able to get what I want after all!!!
This print mocks both Napoleon's alleged stature and the fact that his first wife, Josephine, was sexually experienced when he met her, whereas Marie-Louise was meant to be the blushing virgin who would give him a healthy heir, a role she fulfilled admirably.

More politically-oriented cartoons spanned a broad spectrum, ranging from the brash trumpeting of British superiority to more subtle takes on Napoleonic foreign policy.

TIDDY-DOLL the great French Gingerbread-Baker, drawing out a new Batch of Kings. - his Man, Hopping Talley, mixing the dough (before 1806)
This 1806 cartoon mocks Napoleon's political re-shaping of Europe. In the 'New French Oven for Imperial Gingerbread', Napoleon is baking three new rulers for the German states of Bavaria, Württemberg and Baden. Below the oven lies an 'Ash-Hole for broken Gingerbread', which includes Holland and Italy; they have been swept there by the 'Corsican Beson of Destruction'. The basket to the left contains 'true Corsican kinglings', referring to the family members Napoleon put on the thrones of other countries. The cupboard on the right contains drawers for 'Kings & Queens', 'Crowns & Sceptres' and even 'Suns and Moons', suggesting that Napoleon wants to reshape the universe itself.

Comparative anatomy or Bone-y's new Conscripts filling up the Skeletons of the Old Regiments (1813)

An accurate representation of the floating machine Invented by the French for invading England. and Acts on the principals of both Wind & Water Mills, carries 60-000 Men & 600 Cannon (c. 1805)

Little Boney gone to Pot (1814)
This caricature was drawn towards the end of Napoleon's career. It shows the defeated emperor exiled on the island of Elba with no-one to keep him company except the Devil. He sits on a chamberpot, the toy cannon is all that remains of his military ambitions, and he seems ready to commit suicide with the gun offered to him by his satanic tormentor.

Caricatures were, of course, not the only form of anti-Napoleonic propaganda in Britain. Handbills denouncing Napoleon and containing gruesome accounts of supposed French atrocities were manufactured almost daily and distributed throughout the kingdom, probably reaching even the illiterate sections of the population. Patriotic plays were put on to whip up national sentiment, and anti-French broadside ballads were common. Clergy thundered against the Corsican Monster from the pulpit, and millenarian preachers warned that Napoleon's evil empire was surely a sign of the end time.

Eighteenth-century English men and women were characterised as 'a polite and commercial people' in Paul Langford's contribution to the New Oxford History of England. When it came to anti-Napoleonic propaganda, the English were hardly polite, but some of them were certainly commercially-minded. Canny manufacturers took advantage of popular sentiment and produced all sorts of anti-French memorabilia. Perhaps the most remarkable example I have seen is a chamber-pot featuring a small bust of Napoleon in the middle. How edifying it must have been for those consumers who were now able to express patriotic sentiment even when exercising their most basic functions!

A chamberpot featuring a bust of Napoleon, c. 1805
(Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove)

~ By Caecilia Dance