Tag Archives: 18th century

A Tenuous Relationship

It has always been the case. Before I can take in the rest of the painting – the child’s scarlet suit, the zoological arrangement of pets at his feet, his lineage of names printed at the border – I can see only one thing: his fleeting yet arresting similarity to my brother. This simpatico of youth resides, I think, in the eyes: round and expansive; their gaze roaming like colts beneath a wide, pure forehead.

Goya

The child in this painting carries the weighty name of Don Manuel Rosario de Zuñiga. Pink cheeks and a face dusted with arsenic powder obscure his Mediterranean prettiness. He wears a short jacket buttoned to his trousers, for he has recently been “breeched”: graduating from the children’s frock coat to a man’s sartorial estate. The wide collars, the silk sash wrapped around a nebulous waist, the rosettes on his slippers are all the color of melting silver daubed with pleats of lace.

Francisco de Goya painted this portrait in 1787. He would shortly become the official painter for Charles IV and his stilted, vacuous court. Goya’s brutality and honesty found its appetites sated with such bland meat. In a portrait of Charles IV and his family, he fearlessly portrays the family as he saw them: stupid, bulky and foolish. But the gowns of golden thread, the coats embroidered in lace and diamonds were painted with great accuracy. They were delighted with the work and gave Goya many commissions – encouraging the viper in their midst.

But when faced with this unknowing child – not to blame for his aristocracy – the coiled snake became subdued, its fangs swallowed, choking on its venom. My brother’s lookalike is portrayed as an innocent staring into his future adulthood: confused and stunned, but not necessarily afraid. We’re unable to perceive the abyss he sees; but it is perhaps reflected in the vaguely frightening playroom in which he stands. Full of shadow, lacking furniture, it is a lonely equation of geometric planes and shapes. Even his pets are delicately disturbing: the magpie (holding a card bearing the artist’s name) is fettered by a leash; the trapped finches are ogled by three Cheshire cat lookalikes – well-fed and emerging from the depths like savage ghosts.

But perhaps Goya took pity on the child for another reason. He might have had an inkling that Don Manuel would shortly become a ghost himself – he would be dead in five years.

Her Neck

It is a small picture, full of small incidents:  fragrant of pastel and powder; a vessel of delicacy and uselessness.  Chaotic yet elegant, secretive yet coyly voyeuristic it is a view into a lady’s room as she prepares to spend her day as decoration and distraction.   Part salon, part dressing room, part breakfast room, part bedroom, it is where she concocts her toilette:  and indeed, that is the name of the painting, ‘La Toilette’.

la toilette

Painted by Francois Boucher – no stranger to illustrating the foibles of pretty ladies – in 1742, it is a reflection of French society within the warmth of a lady’s aristocratic home.  It was a time of Louis XV and Pompadour, Lyons silk and red heels, Voltaire and Versailles:  a time of languid enlightenment and sleepy elegance.  Clocks, fountains and fireplaces were carved into masses of baroque coils that seemed to writhe and curl despite their foundations of wood and stone.  And the dainty chaos of a lady’s dressing room was a fit subject for an artist’s roving eye.

‘La Toilette’ lets us view this aristocratic anarchy.  Everything here is of the finest quality:  pink silk ribbons, china tea settings, velvet chairs, a carved and gilded fireplace, a painted screen.  But all is in disarray:  the ribbons are tangled, tea is ignored, chairs are covered by fur-lined cloaks, the fire is smoking and the painted eyes of a saucy youth peer over the screen.

There is a charming disorder to the lady herself:  she has not yet finished tying the garter around her knee; her skirts surround her in a blue labyrinth, her bodice is unlaced – referencing perhaps to the unused ribbon tantalizingly draped across the fireplace.  Her flawlessly painted face, accented by the patch tickling the corner of her eye (in the language of 18th century fashion, a patch placed thus indicates the wearer’s status as ‘mistress’), turns to her maid to inspect a cap she has brought her.

Yet amidst the indolence and confusion, there is a still center within this feminine storm.  And to discover it we too look to the maidservant, but it is not to pass judgement on a scrap of linen and its garland of silk.  She provides us with the painting’s saving grace:  its lonely composure.  Like any condemned prisoner, she gives us her neck.

From her slender shoulders, it rises like an ivory column in a slow, gentle curve.  Poised and serene, its motion is quieter by far than the maniacal rococo decorations that fill the room.  It is a stance out of ballet – echoed by the placement of her dainty feet, making her mistress look almost slovenly.

Her lightly powdered hair is pulled up; extending the delicate sweep that began with the tiny, fluttering muscles of shoulders and neck.   Curls that have escaped the comb lie along the neck’s subtle twist, further highlighting its sculptural movement.

We don’t see her face – only a tantalizing glimpse of a rouged cheek, the drapery of her Robe à la française and the curved neck that brings the dizzying room to a standstill.  As dainty as a minuet, it is the oblique step between the straight line of the shoulders and the coy tilt of the head.   With the serene bend of her neck, it is the lady’s maid who brings refinement to the noise and lavish temptation of La Toilette:  its quiet, silken focus – its genteel heart.

Caged Women

In the late 18th century there was certain stratum of the male population that was referred to as ‘gentlemen of intrigue’.  Their dark, conspiratorial life took them not amongst a world of subversion and politics, but a world of women.

These were the women leaning out of windows on plump, ivory forearms, the ones that waited in dank bedrooms, the ones that loitered in broken doorways.  London in the 1790’s was crowded with these strays, and the gentlemen in need of entertainment needed a guide to the newest, the jolliest, the cheapest, the most reliable ladies.

Happily, there was such a guide:  “Harris’ List of Covent Garden Ladies or Man of Pleasure’s Kalender “.

Harris' List of Covent Garden Ladies, p_ 2

Initially, it makes for an oddly amusing read.  It is an anthology of profiles, written with rude enthusiasm, dwelling on qualities both vulgar and admiring (“as delightful a female that ever graced the Cyprian train”).

The author is obligated, whenever he can, to mention a lady’s “fine set of teeth”.  There will be those given to swearing, or drinking overmuch – so the reader must take warning. There are those so skilled in the arts of love and deceit that “many of the most knowing rakes of the town would be easily deceived”.   A special few “are very dexterous at the game of the birch rod”.  Many ladies listed in the calendar are “finely” or “genteely” shaped – Mrs. B. is known for her short petticoats, Miss S. for the nosegay of flowers she tucks into her bosom.  Some frequent the theater, some follow officers, or barristers.  They ride in phaetons perched on open seats like flowers, or peer from the windows of their chariots, wrapped in ribbons and hidden like gifts.  A few are in their teens, most in their twenties, some in their thirties.

Each entry ends with a promise of satisfaction and the price each woman requests for her services. (“she never condescends to grant her favors for less than half a guinea”)

Regardless of age or quality, the enterprising writer has a story for each woman in his guide.  Some were unfortunately “debauched”, or widowed poor and early; they were disgraced, betrayed by “men of fortune”…and forced to accept a life “on the town”.  The phrase sounds blithe – almost amiable – an odd title for an existence these women accept only as a last resort.

Eventually, however, the initial amusement evaporates.   And the impression that remains becomes one of imprisonment – the false cheer, hidden abuse, “counterfeit passion” that is characteristic of the harlot’s progress.  As each page is turned, a new cage is discovered.  The prisoners appear to be genteel – some are even fashionable.  But beneath the skirts and bodices, the garters are torn, the wooden stays are soiled, their blouses are ripped as a result of too many business transactions, and their painted bodies are diseased and weary.

Under the control of their pimps and bawds, drunk and vulgar or fragile and enervated, these ladies wait.  If the List describes a girl as beautiful, without a doubt that freshness will fade from overuse and exploitation. If it dwells on a girl’s drunkenness and swearing she will surely end her days mocked for her blotched profanity.

But no matter what qualities these inmates possess, the bars of their parlors will swing open unceasingly until they are found inert on their couches – unresponsive and useless.   This ‘Pleasure Kalendar’ – like all calendars – is a finite listing, where the seasons are born, become rich and golden, yielding beautiful harvests and where they are doomed to die in a barren frost.

Beauty And Scandal

She stands, elongated and slender, before a sky that combines a soft storm with a lurid light. Leaning forward gently, she resembles a glistening tree that bends in a mild and fragile breeze.  Everything about her is lengthy:  limbs that ripple under lace and silk, a neck that extends from sloping shoulders in a white, dizzying curve, powdered hair that is curled and piled – swept away from a sad, thoughtful forehead.

One arm is extended to grasp a length of taffeta – gold and melting – the other arm is bent, pressing the fabric to a pale, chaste breast.  Gilded rosettes bloom and descend down the edges of her overskirt, they huddle in an embroidered bower at her elbows.  Her shoes are tiny and painful, their dainty heels made for the refined tapping on polished, elegant floors:  the elegant language of comings and goings.

Thomas Gainsborough painted this portrait in 1778, when his subject was 20 years old.  A portrait with a dark and thunderous background circulating around a still, luminous center, it is a portrayal of a quiet beauty wrapped in arsenic-colored skin and metallic cloth.

Dally

She has all the outward modesty and grace of a girl who has spent her childhood in a convent. Serene and aristocratic, she seems to be made for quietude.  Snowy skin, discreet roses strewn across her cheekbones, dark and poignant brows that overshadow languorous eyes…she is Mrs. Grace Elliott Dalrymple.

Nicknamed ‘Dally The Tall’ with typical 18th century familiarity – the equivalent to a boisterous slap on the rump – she was one of the most renown courtesans of late 18th century London.  Dally ruled with her fellow ‘impures’ over a city teeming with disease and debauchery.  The demimonde of England’s greatest city was a nest of snakes – horrible and beautiful – and they rose above the writhing half-world like indulgent, immoral goddesses.

Four years before this portrait was painted Dally was a young adulteress, running away from a marriage she entered into as a pale, 13 year-old bride.  Four years after this portrait was painted Dally was the mistress of the lush and improvident Prince of Wales (later George IV).  The daughter she bore soon after the beginning of this affair could have been fathered by any one of an assortment of men who were her ‘benefactors’ at the time.   The child was baptized Georgina Frederica Augusta Elliott Daughter of His Royal Highness George Prince of Wales & Grace Elliott – but whether out of audacity or accuracy no one ever knew.

Her adventures took her to Paris a few years before the storming of the Bastille; and no patrician loveliness could save her from a population that was threatened and therefore dangerous.  British, a known royalist, former lover of the Duke of Orleans (the Prince had introduced her to him), she was imprisoned in late 1793, shortly after the Reign of Terror had begun.  When she was released in October of 1794, Robespierre was dead , many of her noble friends were dead…but Dally was alive and free.

As with all women of beauty and scandal, rumors surrounded them like clouds of powder and blush, creating graceful, perfumed enigmas.  Rumor, for instance, had it that Dally was the mistress of Napoleon Bonaparte:  two warriors in their own chosen fields.  But what is surely known is that Grace Elliott Dalrymple, aka ‘Dally The Tall’, died in 1823.  She was sixty-five years old.

Gainsborough had no idea of the tumultuous life Dally still had before her once she stepped out his studio.   But perhaps through his earthy, intuitive genius he sensed her stormy future when he decided to paint her, a floating light, before a distant – yet impending – tempest.

A Rebel In An Ugly World

I bought her because I thought she was pretty.  I liked her solemn eyebrows, the shade of dark intelligence.  I liked the pensive tilt of her head, the eyes that strayed beyond the postcard’s borders that held her melancholy image captive for over 100 years.  She dressed like a society artist:  feminine, excessive, slightly off-kilter.  She tied the bow of her hat to the side of her face.  Her jacket was a mad pattern of lace and buttons.  Finally – possibly best of all – she had placed her hands, one covering the other, atop a wooden cane.  This was no passive woman – this was a lady so overcome by insight that she had to pause:  to take the time to scrutinize her marvelous thoughts.

elsie_NEW

But I had much more to learn about her.  She was Elsie de Wolfe: an actress, and a most inventive society hostess, delighting the polite elite in New York, Paris and London.  She was also a famed decorator, literally creating the occupation of Interior Designer. Never before had it achieved the stature of a profession: and it was commandeered by a woman.

Since she was a young girl, Elsie was repelled by the muddy colors and dusty rooms of her Victorian childhood.  The heavy shroud-like curtains, the tables obscured by photographs and scattered memorabilia:  her sensibilities cringed at such late-century relics. Her sensibilities were light and feminine, and she yearned for surroundings that were nimble and Baroque:  expressing the brightness of a new world.  Even then she described herself as ‘a rebel in an ugly world’.

As a designer, Elsie was inspired by the 18th century, creating rooms that were elegant and luminous. She painted the walls with pastels, replaced suffocating carpets with tile, painful, wooden chairs with gentle upholstery.  Her languid rooms had delicate writing tables, gilded mirrors, chintz curtains, exotic rugs:  the sentimental trinkets of the Louis XVI style.  Her rococo chic appealed to clients with names like Vanderbilt, Morgan, Frick and Windsor.

Elsie’s rooms encouraged confidences.  They were made to echo sound – the clicking of heels, clouds of laughter, the rapturous tangle of jewelry – not to muffle it.  These were playful, intimate rooms, made for small groups of people:  arrangements that introduced society to the cocktail party.  Some say that Elsie invented that most feminine of cocktails, The Pink Lady.

She made the news when she married Sir Charles Mendl in 1926.  Soon after, French diplomatic society got an idea of whom they had just acquired when Elsie attended a masquerade ball dressed as a dancer from the Moulin Rouge:  entering the room turning handsprings.  A fellow guest felt compelled to inquire, “do you think it is in perfect taste for the wife of a diplomat to perform acrobatics in a ballroom?”

Her marriage raised eyebrows even before this topsy-turvy entrance.  Since 1892 – when she was 27 – Else had been in what had then been called a ‘Boston Marriage’ with Elizabeth Marbury, a successful literary agent and business representative for talents such as Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Sarah Bernhardt and Edmund Rostand.  This type of marriage was usually between two women living together for financial reasons.  But in this case, a sexual motive was assumed as well.  Society referred to them as ‘the Bachelors’.

Elsie de Wolfe, Lady Mendl, made history in her weightless, elegant world.  She took interior decoration away from the upholsterer and gave it to the artist.  She appeared in newspapers and magazines.  Cole Porter was suitably impressed by her:

“When you hear that Lady Mendl, standing up/Now turns a handspring landing up/On her toes/Anything goes!

And when she was young, she appeared on a postcard, whimsical, contemplative and dedicated only to beauty.

The Wandering Alchemist

I’ve always felt an affinity to alchemy.  Not for the practice, or the ingredients, or its somewhat doubtful practitioners.  I’ve always appreciated what it represented:  the path that it chose between magic and science for thousands of years.  It paused between the two arts – borrowing from each one, twisting logic, assembling the mathematics of dreaming.

I could imagine the alchemist in his undefined hospice, surrounded by plates of dragons’ scales – their fires caught in jars, burning like imprisoned galaxies.  Flowers harvested from hidden countrysides hung from the rafters, their scent only a dusky memory, their colors confused and in transition.  Charts of odd symbols and obscure equations covered the walls, creating an endless map of nonsense and wishful thinking.

But in the 18th century, science put its fist down, frightening its whimsical intruder  into hiding – clouds of powdered bones and jewels rising from its trembling shoulders.  Science, bearing a quiver of rationale and common sense, made its presence known with such authority that this time became its own, and was called the Age of Reason.

The laboratories of scientists and chemists were as thrilling as those of the alchemists’.  Sinewy arms of smoke embraced those small rooms:  from the furnaces and fire-places used to burn elements down to their fundamental DNA, from the crucibles and Balneum Mariaes filled with metals reduced to lava.  They reeked with the brimstone smell of flowers of sulphur and hartshorn – the rutting scent of the deer’s antlers and hooves melted into a dark oil.  Ceramic gallipots populated the shelves, full of medicines and chemicals powdered into the consistency of deserts.  A network of glass tubing circulated around the scientist’s dank offices, creating an anatomy of desire and discovery.

The laboratory of Richard Siddall, at the Golden Head in Panton Street, near the Haymarket, London contained even more legitimate wonders:

All Sorts of Druggs

Hanging from the ceiling and braced against walls was a zoological garden of taxidermy:  a crocodile, the head of an elephant and of a rhinoceros; there were fish and shells – their glow of ocean life long lost.  Stoves and instruments, jars and clocks cluttered this sanctum of discovery – elements were boiled and split, their physical coil pulled apart and rebraided.  And overseeing this chemical mischief was a bust of Galen, surgeon to gladiators, vivisector, dissector, theorist, anatomist, philosopher – antiquity’s greatist physician and herald to a new type of scientific thought.

Buoyed by natural law and Galen’s benign profile, Mr. Siddall could make his claim, “Makes and sells all manner of chymical and Galenical medicines, with all sorts of druggs; wholesale & retail, at very reasonable rates. N.B. the elixir for the asthma, as also for the gout and rheumatism”

And alchemy’s defeat seemed absolute.   But during a century littered with the corpses of myth, a legend lived.

The Count of St. Germain was born in the early 18th century.  Descriptions of him were curious and tempting:  courtier, adventurer, charlatan, inventor, alchemist, musician, composer.  His mind was confused and courageous, buzzing into mysticism, occultism, secret societies and conspiracies like a foolish bee.  European society was charmed with this charming new toy, and gave him many titles:  Wonderman, The Wandering Jew, The Wandering Alchemist.

To Believe Or Not Believe

Details about the Count are scarce.  Some said he was the son of the Prince of Transylvania, or of Sultan Mustapha II – others claimed he was the illegitimate son of the widow of Charles II of Spain.  There were other theories too, storied vines twisting around a family tree that had long become obscured.

Horace Walpole was wryly impressed:  “he sings, plays on the violin wonderfully, composes, is mad, and not very sensible”.  The peeress Lady Jemima Yorke with a flutter of fingertips and diamonds, was fascinated by this “Odd Creature… I can’t but fancy he is a great Pretender in All kinds of Science, as well as that he really has acquired an uncommon Share in some”.  Casanova dined with him and wrote at length about “This extraordinary man, intended by nature to be the king of impostors and quacks, would say in an easy, assured manner that he was three hundred years old, that he knew the secret of the Universal Medicine, that he possessed a mastery over nature, that he could melt diamonds… I thought him an astonishing man as he was always astonishing me.”

Salons – bored and rarefied – purred with gossip about his fabulous stories: and wished that every word was true. For this was as much the time of Cagliostro and Muchausen as it was of Rousseau and Schiller.

The Count had gained the favour of Madame de Pompadour and Louis XV.  Their jaded approval found him a suite of rooms in Chambord château, the filigreed jewel of the Loire Valley.  A laboratory was constructed for him, where – it was said – he invented dyes of new, subtle colors, melted and created jewels, and was seen to convert “iron into a metal as beautiful as gold”.  Within the depths of chemistry, the dreams of alchemy re-asserted themselves as he continued the search for eternal life and the Philosopher’s Stone.

The Count de St. Germain dared to make many claims:  he spoke many languages and possessed several identities.   He also asserted that he had lived many lives.  And the aristocracy devoured the proof he offered,  that life spanned for centuries until it disappeared beneath the horizons like a distant sun and that for thousands of years he had wandered across the sky, gathering histories – holding them like stars in his hands.

He said he was part of the legend of the Wandering Jew, a Christian tale first printed in 1223.  He had met Cleopatra and the Queen of Sheba.  He had anecdotes of life at the Valois court, the 16th century pit of politics and despair.  He had known Jesus Christ.  He had lived for thousands of years.

Voltaire described him as a “man who never dies, and who knows everything”.  He himself didn’t believe the Count…yet he knew that many did.

The Count of St. Germain died on February 27, 1784.  He was buried in a private grave.  There were no jewels left behind, or gold, or gallipots full of fabulous color.  There were no manuscripts or letters.  Perhaps they never existed.  Perhaps he took them with him, on another journey.

Yet he might have left something after all, an odd kind of hope – a faith in wonder.  He had once confided to Madame de Pompadour,   “Sometimes I amuse myself, not by making people believe, but by letting them believe, that I have lived in the most remote period”.  Anything could have happened, Count; it is just up to us to believe.

Pretty Stupid

If history was a piece of fruit, perhaps there was one slice that was the sweetest, the most sublime.

The 18th century was a time when a person did not only measure his or her success in terms of wealth, beauty or possessions.  For if one was not clever, these other things became meek and useless:  and the person in question became the victim of a jaded, cruel  – albeit entertaining – society.

Catherine-Rosalie Duthé was a convent student, a courtesan, a companion to royalty and a dancer – moving like a puppet made of satin – at the Paris Opera Ballet.  The 3rd Earl of Egremont gave her a gilded coach, before he moved on to other mistresses and other gifts.  Her friend Jean-Frederic Perregaux commissioned a portrait of her and is said to have contemplated her image on his death-bed.  With her skin tinted rose and arsenic, and her blonde hair raising like a dusted cloud behind her, she was a much requested subject for such portraits.  She appeared many times  in Fragonard’s silvery garden parties and Prud’hon’s dark forests. 

A Blank Canvas

Frothy and immoderate, childish and infamous, she destroyed the reputations of Parisian noblemen and “broke in” 15-year old French princes.  She offended the aristocracy by riding in the royal carriage, an honor set aside for the rich and blue bloods of the king’s family – not for a plump horizontale, a languid queen of her trade.  It was then that she became the subject of a popular tune, “La Duthé a dû téter”, (“La Duthé must have suckled royally.”)

thinking...thinking...

But for all her popularity, Mlle. Duthé was not a clever girl.  Her answers were not quick.  She paused unbearably before speaking – her silences were a labyrinth of vacuity and confusion.  She did not possess the twisting logic and humor of a wit.  She was stupid.  In 1775 she inspired a satire, Les Curiosites de la Foire (“Curiosities of the Fair”):  that “kept Paris laughing for weeks”. 

But it was her foolishness, not her intellect, that kept such a subtle capital amused.  A courtesan was not expected to be a nocturnal creature.  She did not entertain solely in the dark, living beneah the sheets, soft and patient.  She was expected to be diverting in the daytime as well, when, Geisha-like, she would embrace all of a hostess’ virtues.  A pretty girl who lacked intelligence might  earn a king’s bed, but she earned society’s mockery, as well.

Catherine-Rosalie Duthé was blonde.  And she was dumb.

Blondie

Historians of society and culture have long analyzed the origin of the “dumb blonde” stereotype and all have agreed that its first representative was Catherine-Rosalie.   Women before her time were expected to be ignorant…but the demanding 18th century expected a little more from a lady. 

Mlle. Duthé died in 1830, never realizing her dubious fame.  She was saved from knowing the path of ignominy she had paved for her pale sisters.

The Finest Kill I Have Ever Seen

It was not a true one.  The blood was not thick and full of escaping life.  The body did not remain on the ground, finite and still.  It was not a real death.  Yet it was the finest kill I have ever seen.

I saw it in a movie.  Now, I don't discuss movies very oftten.  But this act of destruction was so unexpected, so grand, so sweeping, so shrouded in unanticipated grace, oh and by the way, so deserving, that I applaud it ever time I see it, which I do often.

The name of the movie is 'The Brotherhood of the Wolf', ('Le Pacte des Loups').  Any attempt to describe the plot would, I fear, induce a chain of seizures in either speaker of listener, so I will refrain.  Suffice it to say, it is an irresponsible combination of lust, violence, fear and elegance.  It is a horrible, beautiful painting.

Now – this thrilling kill.  It came at the end of the film.  A woman, a howling gypsy – earthy and snarling with a feral femininity – is finally on the run, after making a complete annoyance of herself for almost two hours.  And it looks like she is going to escape.  What a bother!

Until she is stopped by another woman.  This woman is the most exclusive, most artistic, most dramatic of ladies.  She is a mystic.  She is dangerous.  She is also an employee of a most inspired brothel – structured like a decadent, naughty poem.  She knows the landscape of darkness as well as that of light.  She is not to be trifled with.

Oh, and did I mention that this all took place during the 18th century?  Wow!

Anyway, both women face each other.  The first pulls a dagger from her filthy corset and brandishes it, sneering like a wolf.  Suddenly she staggers back, with several slim, red stripes running across her throat.  The divine whore stands still, and then slowly folds the dark, lace leaves of her fan.  Each rib of the fan is a black stiletto knife, delicately tipped with her opponent's blood.

And that, my friends, was the finest kill I have ever seen.

 

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A Joyous Color

I found her in a darkened hallway of a museum that was new to me.  There was no marquee of adoring lights to surround her.  Yet she glowed with a froth of color that mocked like the sun frolicking across the ocean's surface, picking out the jeweled lights on Neptune's brow.

There were no benches placed before her; those that would visit her, proclaim their ardor and admiration, would have to stand, as they would before a princess.  But her glance, full of shallow youth and pride, would have to insist:  You will stay, and you will wait.  Her coral smile, a faint dimpling on soft, dangerous country, added:  And you will enjoy it.

There was nothing coy about the mischievous creature I found in the shadows.  She was lush and bold.  Pearls, translucent marbles that rolled from the mouths of oysters, wrapped around her neck and cascaded down her breast.  The thick, nacreous ropes were arranged with careful abandon over skin that was white and suffocating with arsenic.  Her hair melted into auburn coils, its henna exuberance held back by a pink ribbon which happily admitted its silken defeat.

Liquid colors flowed about her, swift-moving pastel rivers of blue, white and pink.  The currents of a spring sky – delicate, willful prisms – rushed through the fabric of her gown and gave it stormy life.  Her sapphire plumage was matched only by the parrot balanced on her lithe fingers, cautiously pulling her gown open.

Who was she?  I read the portrait's title:  'Young Lady With A Parrot'.  Frustrating!  She would have to remain a mystery – her dainty secrets locked away.  She might have been a lady-in-waiting, a royal daughter or a courtier's sin.  All I had was her beguiling light and joyous color.

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A Young Lady’s Book

Many years ago – apparently 'a few' has been forever replaced by the 'many' – I bought a book on a whim.  Whim purchasing is not a thing I indulge in often, but this was such a charming thing, I couldn't pass it by, leaving it open to the desires of another, lesser buyer.

This book made no attempt to save space or material – the margins are wide, woodsy spaces.  The print is deep and black, the tiny indentation of words creating dimensions of thought beneath my fingers.  The edges of the pages are thick and rough, presenting a gentle confrontation as I turn each page.  It has been said that the essence of the aristocracy was waste and languor.  If that is so, than my little book is an aristocrat.

It is titled, 'The Diary of a Young Lady of Fashion in the Year 1764-1765'.  The writer's name is Cleone Knox, a 19 year-old Irish girl:  romantic, flippant, shallow, delightful.  Fortunately there is no portrait of her, leaving me free to imagine a dimpled, rounded girl with pink cheeks and a snowy skin.  Her hair is piled high with a white frosting, contrasting prettily with her dark eyebrows.  She wears lace at her elbows.  Her dainty hands are endearing and expressive.  She is like scented power, ready to be blown away by the next ill-advised breath.

Cleone, not surprisingly, is in love - with Mr. Ancaster, bold and irresponsible, "the indiscreetest young man alive".  Her father disapproves of the affair, and she argues with lively, teen-aged dramatics.  She is spirited away from Mr. Ancaster's dark temptations, and taken on a 'tour' of England and Europe.  And there commence her adventures – flirtations with young men who gaze at her with superficial admiration.  She receives lively compliments ("Pert little Miss", "Sly little Cat", "Dear sweet adorable little monster!"), and is pulled onto more than one knee, but this is an amorous age ("he touched my shoe softly under the table with his foot"), and Miss Cleone is very patient with these foolish men.

This book is full of secret languages, fluttering fans, raised eyebrows, scandal, gossip, parties and fashion ("Tried on my new striped silk gown which becomes me excessively well").  Cleone misses her Mr. Ancaster, but she still can't resist a comely young man who takes her hand – lightly, significantly – this little girl is a light-hearted coquette.

I really did want to believe this story.  But unfortunately Miss Cleone Knox was the creation of another 19 year-old.  Magdalen King-Hall, no doubt possessing an imagination that strayed great distances and many decades, was bored one summer in 1925, "living at a select seaside resort, the inhabitants of which seemed…to consist mainly of formidable old ladies being dragged along the 'front' in bath chairs by ancient men…".  She sought to rectify this problem with this vicarious 18th century romp.

Very often one is displeased with the century in which one was born.  But while there is fantasy, there is never a need to despair. 

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