Dreams of Love: Franz Liszt and la Dame aux Camélias

Marie Duplessis in 1845. J.C. Olivier

The archetype of the beautiful, doomed courtesan has appeared so often in media over the past two centuries that it has become a cliché. Think of La Traviata, Carmen, Les Misérables, even Moulin Rouge—their stories have become tragedies that titillate while serving as precautionary tales about the dangers of sex work. People live vicariously through these stories while condemning the heroines they want to emulate and their real-life counterparts. Real life isn’t like an opera.

Except for when it is. Though there have been countless sex workers in history living extraordinary lives, this archetype in popular media can be traced back to just one: Marie Duplessis (1824 – 1847), known by her contemporaries and immortalized by Alexandre Dumas fils as la Dame aux Camélias.

Though much of what people know about her today comes from Dumas’s fictionalized version of her life, there’s more to the story of the woman who inspired so much art—and possibly music—during her short life. Today, we’re going to look at the real story of Marie Duplessis and the romance that inspired Liszt’s Liebesträume.

Marie Duplessis was born Alphonsine Plessis in Saint-Germain-de-Clairfeuille on January 15th, 1824. Her father, Marin Plessis, was the son of a sex worker and a country priest. Marin Plessis was far from a model father—Alphonsine was his second daughter, and he was apparently so disappointed she wasn’t a boy that he abused his wife until she left the family to seek out work as a maid in Paris, where she died when Alphonsine was eight.

Neglected and unwanted, Alphonsine was sent to live with her mother’s cousin, Madame Boisard, who raised her with her own daughters until Alphonsine was raped by a farmhand at age twelve. Blaming Alphonsine for her own attack, Boisard sent Alphonsine back to her father, who promptly sold her to a man in his seventies who lived in the middle of nowhere.

Although Alphonsine had no idea where she was, she escaped a number of times and attempted to find work in laundries or shops in the surrounding villages. Eventually she made it Exmes, where she worked as a maid until her father reappeared, briefly sold her to an umbrella manufacturer, then took her to Paris. Marin Plessis died later that year.

Paris is where the legend of la Dame aux Camélias really begins. At fifteen, Alphonsine was an orphan temporarily staying with poor relations in the Rue des Deux-Écus. Later, it was claimed that she became a courtesan because she had expensive tastes, but the truth was probably less glamorous. Abandoned, raped, or abused by everyone who was supposed to care for her, she was alone again, and she was hungry. Nestor Roqueplan, the director of the Théâtre des Variétés, later remembered meeting her before she changed her name. Dressed in rags, she was “gazing longingly at a friend potato stall” on the Pont-Neuf. Feeling sorry for her, he bought her a cornet of pommes frites.

Not a year later, Roqueplan was stunned to see that same starving girl on the arm of a nobleman in the Ranelagh Gardens. Marie Duplessis had arrived.

She named herself Marie after the Virgin, and she claimed she added “du” to her surname because she wanted to buy the Plessis estate at Nonant. It wasn’t the new name that made her a success, however. As Gustave Claudin describes her in Mes Souvenirs:

Her distinction, grace, and charm were sure to make her a star in the world of gallantry…Marie Duplessis was thin and pale, and had magnificent hair which came down to the ground. She was wayward, capricious, and wild, adoring today what she had hated yesterday, and vice versa. She possessed the art of elegance to the highest degree. You could certainly say of Marie Duplessis that she had style. No one tried to copy her inimitable originality. As long as the florists could provide them, she carried bouquets of white camellias.

She was charming and tirelessly kind in a way that endeared her to polite society, gaining her access to places other courtesans could never hope to enter. Still in her teens, Marie had seen too much, but it wasn’t her past that gave her the melancholy that was noted to interrupt her joyful moods—it was her lack of future. From Albert Vandam, An Englishman in Paris:

She had a natural tact and an instinctive refinement which no education could have enhanced. She never made grammatical mistakes, no coarse expression ever passed her lips. Lola Montes could not make friends; Alphonsine Plessis could not make enemies. She never became riotous like the others, not even boisterous; for amidst the more animated scenes she was haunted by the sure knowledge that she would die young, and life, but for that knowledge, would have been very sweet to her. 

At some point during her short life, Marie had contracted tuberculosis. It was both common and very contagious, though it was still not widely known how it was spread. Though many people were able to live with it, Marie’s case was already advanced. She knew she was dying, and so did everyone else.

Marie Duplessis, by Édouard Viénot

It didn’t detract from her popularity, however. She was widely regarded as a great beauty, with actress Judith Bernat gushing, “She had an angelic oval face, black eyes caressing in their melancholy, a dazzling complexion and, above all, splendid hair. Oh, that beautiful black silk hair!” Her considerable beauty was made all the more poignant by the knowledge that it wouldn’t last forever.

Still, Marie lived an exciting life. After learning to read with the help of one of her lovers’ grandmothers, she read the papers every morning, played piano, and attended the theater religiously, where she was a favorite patron and given box seats to the opening night of every show. She collected art and artists in equal measure, hosting literary salons at her museum-like apartment, where she impressed Honoré de Balzac, Eugène Sue, and Théophile Gauthier with her wit.

At the height of her popularity, she was said to have one lover for every day of the week. She chose each one, and she was so in demand that they were obliged to accept the arrangement and settle for sharing a wardrobe in her room. Still very childlike in many ways—by 1845, she was only twenty-one and still went to expensive restaurants just to fill up on sweets and macarons—she didn’t spend all of her money on frivolities; while she lived, she donated twenty thousand francs to the church every year.

Lisztomania

Exhibit A: Liszt in 1837. Ary Scheffer. I mean–

By 1845, the only person in Paris with more of a following than Marie was composer Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886). Liszt was a Hungarian piano virtuoso who had shown such promise as a child, he’d been sent to study piano in Vienna at nine, gave his first formal concert there at eleven, and published his first piece of music in an anthology with adult experts at age twelve. By sixteen, he was living in Paris with his mother, who he supported by teaching piano lessons while drinking and smoking heavily, a habit that made him so ill that a Paris newspaper ran an obituary on him in error when he was seventeen. Needless to say, he didn’t have much of a childhood either. Like Marie, he made up for his lack of traditional schooling by reading as widely as he could in what little spare time he had.

Women liked Liszt. So much so, in fact, that Countess Marie d’Agoult left her husband and family to live with Liszt in Geneva when he was still in his early twenties. They had three children—Blandine, Cosima, and Daniel—but had more or less called it quits by 1840, when Liszt returned to touring.

When Lisztomania struck Paris shortly thereafter, Liszt was thirty-three and, by all accounts, a total smokeshow. It wasn’t only that he was considered handsome, which he absolutely was, but his skill and stage presence made his audiences crazy—particularly the women. His music was exciting, avant-garde, and technically challenging, and he threw himself into it, regularly adding or changing things as he went to play up to the crowd. They ate it up in a way that wouldn’t be seen until Elvis entered the building a century later.

Exhibit B: Liszt in 1843

Women literally climbed over each other to touch him, fighting over his discarded handkerchiefs and gloves. Broken piano strings were turned into keepsake bracelets, stolen coffee dregs were preserved in tiny glass bottles, and one woman even saved one of his cigar butts from the gutter and had his initials embedded into it with diamonds.

Lisztomania was viewed as a serious and likely contagious condition by medical professionals at the time, who warned of its ability to cause mass hysteria—his audiences were rowdy in a way other classical audiences weren’t—and asphyxia, given how many ladies fainted in his presence.

Liszt wasn’t immune to the attention, but he must have loved his work—throughout the 1840s, he toured constantly, regularly giving four concerts a week.

He met Marie Duplessis in the foyer of a theater in 1845. He was there with drama critic Jules Janin, who described their first conversation:

Head held high, she made her way through the astonished throng, and we were surprised, Liszt and I, when she came and sat down familiarly on the bench beside us, for neither of us had ever spoken to her. She was a woman of wit and taste and good sense. She began by addressing herself to the great musician; she told him that she had recently heard him, and that he had made her dream…and so they talked throughout the third act of the melodrama…

As different as their backgrounds were, they had a lot in common. Though he was still touring Europe and playing several nights a week, he gave her piano lessons in her apartment. They were lovers while he was in town, and though she continued to see others, her love for Liszt endured.

While he was away, Alexandre Dumas fils, the son of the author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, convinced her to move to the country with him so her tuberculosis might be helped by the fresh air away from the city. When her condition did not improve and her patience with Dumas wore thin, she returned to Paris.

There, Marie surprised everyone by quickly marrying the Comte de Perregaux, becoming a countess in 1846. It ended as quickly as it began. With Marie’s tuberculosis worsening, Perregaux grew tired of her and left her at her Paris apartment, refusing her money for maintenance or medical bills. Marie’s time was running out.

When Liszt returned to Paris, they stayed together once again. He later wrote about this visit and what she’d said that had haunted him:

“I shall not live; I’m a strange woman, I shan’t be able to cling to this life that I cannot live and I cannot bear. Take me with you, take me away wherever you want; I shan’t be in your way, I sleep all day, in the evening you’ll let me go to the theater, and at night you can do what you like with me!” 

In the same letter, Liszt continued:

I’ve never told you how strangely attached I became to that charming creature during my last stay in Paris. I’d told her that I would take her to Constantinople, because it was really the only possible journey I could take with her.

Although Liszt had wanted to take her away, Marie didn’t make it to Constantinople. Desperate to extend her short life, Marie spent the rest of her money visiting health spas around Europe, but it was no use. At the end of January, she went to her last play, Les Pommes de Terre Malades, a vaudeville act at the Palais-Royal. She died at three o’clock in the morning on February 3rd. She was 23.

Her grave today. Note the lipstick hearts and kisses.

Marie was buried at the Cimetière de Montmartre. She had asked to be buried in a quiet place at dawn with no fuss, but her funeral became a public event, after which her apartment was opened up and all of her possessions and carefully curated treasures were sold off. Like Liszt’s fans, everyone wanted a piece of her, some souvenir to help them emulate the timeless, haunting beauty of la Dame aux Camélias. A year later, Dumas published his story, setting himself up as the romantic hero in the tragedy of her life.

The real romantic hero, however, was on tour when it happened, but he was rather quieter about it. “Poor Mariette Duplessis. She was the first woman with whom I was in love,” Liszt wrote to the Countess d’Agoult, the mother of his children and still a friend. “Some unknown, mysterious chord from an antique elegy echoes in my heart when I recall her.”

Liszt lived another forty years after Marie’s death. By the late 1850s, he had made so much money from touring that, like Marie, he gave most of his income to charity. He continued to tour and taught free piano classes, and though he had a few other affairs, none of them lasted. After two of his children, Blandine and Daniel, died in the early 1860s, he entered the church, where he became an abbé and was ordained as an exorcist in 1865. He continued teaching, performing, and working with the church until he died of pneumonia at 74.

La Dame aux Camélias

The advertisement for La Dame aux Camelias starring Sarah Bernhardt, by Alphonse Mucha

Barely a year after Marie passed away, Alexandre Dumas fils published La Dame aux Camélias, a thinly veiled dramatization of her life. Because he had been one of her lovers and was young enough that no one believed he could have made it up, it was mostly taken at face value and became a runaway success when it was adapted into a play. In spite of his famous father, Dumas was illegitimate and had no fortune of his own, so he must have been delighted to make his while cashing in on the death of the woman who broke his heart.

Because his depiction of her is flattering if sensational, readers assumed he was in love with her; if he had been, he wasn’t anymore, only playing to the public’s adoration of her. They loved her, and they were the ones buying the book. On opening night of the play years later, he took his final act of strange revenge on Marie by giving Sarah Bernhardt, the actress playing her onstage, the last letter he had written to Marie, denouncing her and ending the relationship she had already given up on by returning to Liszt in Paris.

If he had loved her in life, Dumas hated her in death, so it’s ironic that it was his book made her immortal. Marie’s beauty made tuberculosis a fashionable disease, the symptoms of which are still held up to be beauty standards to this day. La Dame aux Camélias was later adapted into La Traviata, which became the template for every tragic romance about young, beautiful, doomed sex workers ever since, up to and including Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge.

But we haven’t come all this way to let Dumas have the last word. A key hint to Marie’s true nature might have been in plain sight all along. In the Victorian language of flowers, camellias stood for longing. In Marie’s own words, spoken to actress Judith Bernat not long before she died:

“Why did I sell myself? Because honest work would never have brought me the luxury I craved for, irresistibly. Whatever I may seem to be, I promise you I’m not covetous or debauched. I wanted to know the refinements and pleasures of artistic taste, the joy of living in elegant and cultivated society…I’ve always chosen my friends. And I’ve loved, oh, yes, I’ve really loved, but no one has ever responded to my love. That is the real horror of my life.”

Although Dumas’s book remains the most widely known memorial to Marie Duplessis, it wasn’t the only one. In 1850, Liszt completed Liebesträume (Dreams of Love), the title echoing the first conversation he had with Marie. It was a three-part series of piano solos based on poems by Ludwig Uhland and Ferdinand Freiligrath. It has been argued that he chose these to illustrate three different types of love, but read together, they are also three stages of one great one, played out in his brief yet monumental romance with Marie—love at first sight, erotic love, and love after loss. You can see (and listen) for yourself here:

Liebesträume No 1.
Hohe Liebe (Holy Love) by Ludwig Uhland

In the arms of your love you lie intoxicated,
The fruits of life beckon to you;
Only one glance has fallen upon me,
But I am richer than all of you.

I gladly do without earthly joy
And, a martyr, I gaze ahead,
For over me in the golden distance
Heaven has opened.

Liebesträume No 2.
Seliger Tod (Blessed Death) by Ludwig Uhland

I died
From the delight of love;
I was buried
In her arms;
I was awakened
From their kisses;
I saw the sky
In her eyes.

Liebesträume No 3. [excerpt]
O Lieb, so lang du lieben kannst (O Love, As Long As You Can) by Ferdinand Freliligrath

O love, as long as you can,
O love, as long as you may,
The time will come, the time will come
When you will stand at a grave and mourn!

You will kneel alongside the grave
And your eyes will be sorrowful and moist
Never will you see the beloved again
Only the churchyard’s tall, wet grass.

You will say: Look at me from below,
I who mourn here alongside your grave!
Forgive my slights!
Dear God, I meant no harm!

Yet the beloved does not see or hear you,
He lies beyond your comfort;
The lips you kissed so often speak
Not again: I forgave you long ago!

Jessica Cale

Sources
Baxter, John. Montmartre: Paris’s Village of Art and Sin
Ollivier, D. (ed): Correspondance de Liszt et de la Comtesse d’Agoult
Richardson, Joanna. The Courtesans: The Demi-Monde in 19th Century France
Walker, Alan. Franz Liszt, The Virtuoso Years (1811–1847)

Deadly Euphoria: A Short History of Erotic Asphyxiation in England

1 CRIMINAL CONVERSATION BON TON 1791

Bon-Ton Magazine, 1791

When Frantisek Kotzwara died in September of 1791, he was an accomplished man of only forty-one. A notable Czech composer famous for his sonata “The Battle of Prague,” he was working in London as a multi-instrumentalist for the King’s Theatre Orchestra. In spite of his successes in life, today he is better known for the manner of his death.

Standing trial for murder at the Old Bailey, Susannah Hill explained what happened. Hill was a sex worker, and Kotzwara was a client. On the 2nd of September, they had dinner and drinks together, then she took him back to her room, “where a number of most indecent acts took place.” So far so normal, but Kotzwara had a special request. He wanted Hill to hang him.

Claiming it would add to his pleasure, he asked to be hanged for five minutes, then released. He gave her money and sent her out to get rope, and she came back with two thin cords, placing them around his neck at his request. He hanged himself off her door, but when she cut him down after five minutes as he had told her to do, Kotzwara collapsed and died.

Although the jury returned a verdict of “wilful murder” with the intention of discouraging other young women from attempting the practice, the judge refused to make an example of Hill for her part in the tragic accident. He ultimately ruled Kotzwara’s death manslaughter, and Hill was free to go. Due to the sensitive nature of the case, the judge ordered all of its documents destroyed to protect the public.

That went about as well as you’d expect. In spite of his best efforts to bury it, the story got out. Hill’s full testimony was printed in the pamphlet Modern Propensities, not unlike a tell-all gossip magazine today. Bon-Ton magazine took it further, detailing the Kotzwara case and discussing the appeal of strangulation. It would have been on people’s minds. In 1791, the same year Kotzwara died, the Marquis de Sade had also published Justine, which featured a lurid scene depicting erotic asphyxiation.

Kotzwara was not the first to experiment with asphyxiation in Britain, and he certainly wasn’t the last. Erotic asphyxiation—or autoerotic if practiced alone—had been used in several cultures around the world as a spiritual as well as sexual practice. In England, it was recommended as a cure for erectile dysfunction from the early 17th century. Public hangings were routine and well-attended, with crowds of sometimes thousands watching the condemned slowly strangle to death over a period of several minutes. That the men often became erect or even ejaculated before death would not have been missed. This effect was caused by damage to the spinal cord or brain rather than actual sexual pleasure, but many were still curious enough to try it.

Two years after Kotzwara’s death, Bon-Ton reported that the well-known dangers of erotic asphyxiation had not dissuaded people from attempting it. They detailed the experience of a gentleman from Bristol with erectile dysfunction, which they referred to rather euphemistically as “(requiring) assistance in the secret affairs of Venus.” During a visit to London, the gentleman repeated Kotzwara’s experience with another sex worker on Charlotte Street. Well aware of the case, the young woman only reluctantly agreed, and cut him down the moment he started to have “alarming symptoms,” well within the first minute of suspension. Because of her quick thinking, the gentleman survived and wrote favorably of the experiment.

Not everyone was so lucky. Cutting off oxygen or blood flow to the brain is incredibly dangerous, and it can result in cardiac arrest, sudden loss of consciousness, suffocation, and brain damage. Even with partners or safety measures in place, death can occur so quickly that there is no way to do it safely. Because of its taboo nature, accidental deaths due to erotic or autoerotic asphyxiation have always been under-reported or misinterpreted as suicide, so outside of a few high-profile cases, it is impossible to know how many people have died in this way. Statistics have never been recorded in Britain, but a recent study estimated that as many as 1,000 deaths occur every year in the United States from autoerotic asphyxiation.*

In spite of the serious and well-publicized dangers, interest in erotic asphyxiation endured in no small part because of its effects on the mind. Kotzwara did it for the dream state it induced. In addition to heightened physical sensations, depriving the brain of oxygen could produce a hallucinogenic effect that, as Modern Propensities put it, would help people to “ascend the upper sphere of conjunctive transports.” The aim was not only to orgasm, but to straddle the boundary between life and death to see what was on the other side.

As dangerous as it was, the high produced by the combination of hypoxia and orgasm could prove addictive, so demand for it continued. Throughout the nineteenth century, a number of Hanged Men’s Clubs opened for the purpose in London, staffed with sex workers who claimed to be able to do it safely every time. It was an impossible guarantee, and medical professionals continued to make the risks known to the public. With these warnings, its use as a cure for impotence was eclipsed by its ability to help one transcend physical reality into a euphoric dream state. It was a specific, dangerous high not unlike opium or laudanum, but with the added promise of orgasm as well.

For some, interest in it might not have been in spite of its close association with death but because of it. Throughout the nineteenth century, the dead or dying were often fetishized, and a lot of popular literature depicted death in a romantic light. As interest in spiritualism and seances took off, asphyxiation may have felt like the next logical step for some—a way to not only contact the other side, but to see it for oneself.

Jessica Cale

Further Reading

Bloch, Ivan. Sexual Life in England Past and Present.

Ober, William B. The Sticky End of Frantisek Koczwara, composer of “The Battle of Prague.” The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology: June 1984. Volume 5, Issue 2, 145-150

Seidl, Stephen. Accidental Autoerotic Death: A Review on the Lethal Paraphiliac Syndrome. Forensic Pathology Reviews, Vol 1. Edited by Michael Tsokos.

Tarr, Clayton Carlton. Pleasurable Suspension: Erotic Asphyxiation in the Nineteenth Century. Nineteenth Century Contexts, 2016. Vol 38, No 1, 55-68.

*Really, really, REALLY do not try this at home

 

Agony Uncles: Advice From The Anthenian Oracle (Part 1)

Athenian_Mercury_Feb_28_1693Most people today would probably consider Dear Abby, with her origins in the 1950s, as the archetypal advice columnist, but this brand of casuistical journalism actually has its roots nearly three hundred years earlier. Usually credited with producing the first English-language advice column, John Dunton (1659–1733) first published his Athenian Mercury in London in 1690.

Although the Mercury answered questions on topics which are still modern advice column stalwarts, such as love dilemmas and health complaints, it also addressed a bewilderingly wide range of other topics from history, to science, to mathematics, and philosophy. Despite the claim to virtual omniscience inherent in setting up as an advice columnist, this might have been a tall order for just one man. Dunton, therefore, answered his readers’ queries with the aid of an expert panel: the Athenian Society, comprising Dunton, a mathematician, a discretely anonymous and genteelly uncompensated physician, and a poetic clergyman, as well as several non-existent alter-egos.

The questions asked demonstrate the enduring nature of certain human fascinations, whilst the answers given read like little populist summaries of the zeitgeist of later Stuart London. This is the first in a series of posts drawing from The Athenian Oracle, an edited collection of highlights from the periodical, available in the public domain, here.

The Oracle divides its selections from the writings of the Athenian Society under three main headings: History and Philosophy, Divinity, and, of course, Love and Marriage. This post will be the first of several drawing on the selections classified as History and Philosophy, a fascinating amalgamation of casuistry on subjects we might describe variously as natural history, human and Church history, legal history, science, psychology, astronomy, astrology, mathematics, medicine, philosophy, and more.

Here are three of my favorites:

HookeFlea01

Schem. XXXIV – Of a Flea. Robert Hooke, Micrographia.

1. Why the anatomy of the flea is like the cruelty of a beautiful lady.
It’s okay to be curious about the World around you, as long as you don’t mind a hefty dose of condescension, flirtation, and misogynistic leg-pulling with your edification.

Quest. —A lady desires to know whether Fleas have stings, or whether they only suck or bite, when they draw blood from the body?

Ans.—Not to trouble you, Madam, with the Hebrew or Arabic name of a flea, or to transcribe Bochart’s learned dissertations on the little animal, we shall, for your satisfaction, give such a description thereof as we have yet been able to discover. Its skin is of a lovely deep red colour, most neatly polished, and armed with scales, which can resist anything but fate and your ladyship’s unmerciful fingers; the neck of it is exactly like the tail of a lobster, and, by the assistance of those strong scales it is covered with, springs backwards and forwards much in the same manner, and with equal violence; it has two eyes on each side of its head, so pretty, that I would prefer them to any, Madam, but yours; and which it makes use of to avoid its fate, and fly its enemies, with as much nimbleness and success as your sex manage those fatal weapons, lovely basilisks as you are, for the ruin of your adorers. Nature has provided it six substantial legs, of great strength, and incomparable agility jointed like a cane, covered with large hairs, and armed each of them with two claws, which appear of a horny substance, more sharp than lancets, or the finest needle you have in all your needle-book. It was a long while before we could discover its mouth, which, we confess, we have not yet so exactly done as we could wish, the little bashful creature always holding up its two fore feet before it, which it uses instead of a fan, or mask, when it has no mind to be known; and we were forced to be guilty of an act both uncivil and cruel, without which we could never have resolved your question. We were obliged to unmask this modest one, and cut off its two forelegs to get to the face; which being performed, though it makes our tender hearts as well as yours almost bleed to think of it, we immediately discovered what your Ladyship desired, and found Nature had given it a strong proboscis, or trunk, as a gnat or muschetto, though much thicker and stouter, with which we may very well suppose it penetrates your fair hand, feasts itself on the nectar of your blood, and then, Like a Little faithless fugitive of a lover, skips away, almost invisibly, nobody knows whither.

2. Is ignorance bliss, or is it hard to tell because everyone is stupid?

Quest.—Who are the most happy in the world, wise men or fools?

Ans. — Much may be said of either, but the manner very different. If the fool be the happier, the world is a very desirable place, there being such a quantity of happy men in it. The Supreme Being is essential happiness; those, therefore, that act the most like him are happiest. There is but one right line, and infinite crooked ones; one wisdom, but follies innumerable; one real goodness, but divers appearances of it; and but one best way to every thing, and to judge of everything that is reason, or understanding. Here only is the paradox; the fool’s happiness consists in a privation of grief, and the happiness of a wise man in possession of good; which, being a little considered, the result of this next question will answer the first; namely, which would be more miserable, a wise man that wanted his good, or a fool that had a sense of his grief? In this reverse the wise man would be more miserable; because he that wants his happiness wants every thing, but he that has a sense of grief may have a sense of happiness. Now this reverse, or contrary to the reverse, must necessarily make him happy; namely, his possession of good is preferable to the fool’s privation of grief.

Fashionable_contrasts_james_gillray

Fashionable Contrasts; – or – the Duchess’s little shoe yielding to the magnitude of the Duke’s foot. James Gillray, 1792.

3. I hope you weren’t expecting medical advice from our in-house doctor…
…unless misogyny be the cure for corns.

Quest. — A lady who is extremely troubled with corns desires to know the reason?

Ans. —Alas, poor lady! There may be many weighty reasons assigned for this sore calamity. Perhaps her hard heart has infected her toes, and made them as obdurate as herself; or else the little wag Cupid is taking his vengeance upon her for having murdered some of his humble servants, and is turning her into stone for a flinty-hearted creature, as his cousin Apollo served Niobe; and she is now dying upwards as Daphne’s poor toes rooted in the ground, and if she appeases not the little angry god quickly, she must in a few days expect to be perfect plaster of Paris.

Had the Society set their conviction that all women were responsible for broken hearts over twelve bars of music, the blues might have been born somewhat earlier and in a very different place. Nevertheless, they attempted to curry favor with the sex they so mercilessly teased, and the Ladies’ Mercury became the first periodical to be aimed at women alone in 1693. Perhaps the constant jibes were not appreciated as the publication only lasted four issues.

What are the clouds-The above extracts have been selected for their entertainment value but the philosophical and historical questions most typically sent to the Mercury resemble most closely, to modern eyes, the whimsical wonderings of a stoner. In my mind, I can’t help but imagine them being read by Keanu Reeves: What are the clouds? How is the dew produced? How does a nettle sting? What is the reason that, by applying the empty shells of some shell-fishes to your ear, you may therein perceive a noise like the roaring of the sea? Whether birds have any government? Whether the sky be of any colour? What think you of the Milky Way in the heavens? Wherefore is it that, having two eyes, we see nevertheless but one … image of the objects? Why men dream of things they never thought of? What is melancholy? What is death? Is it not better to die than to live? What becomes of smoke? How is the fire made betwixt the flint and the steel? And, of course, Whence have we our Opium?

Despite how these questions may sound to me, they are more accurately viewed in the context of the Scientific Revolution. Late seventeenth century London was a place where people were feeling their way towards a confidence that empirical observation and experiment (something like what we might call the scientific method) could increase their knowledge of the natural world and that such knowledge could be used for invention and innovation which might improve the material and spiritual lot of mankind.

This was a more radical way of feeling than we might imagine. The medieval sense of living in the ‘dark ages’, where man clung to scraps of wisdom from the ancients which could not be improved upon, had been gradually eroded by discoveries of new lands, their people flora and fauna, their technologies. Scholarship flourished, partially out of the simple need to catalogue and process all this new information. London, the seat of a monarch sympathetic to learning, presiding over a court where natural philosophy was fashionable, was near the forefront of European scholarship for the first time. The men of the Royal Society, giants like Boyle and Robert Hooke, were the Mercury’s heroes and a large part of the Athenian Society’s purpose was to make their discoveries accessible to the layman. In the case of the flea, a new-ish and fashionable technology was used to reveal a previously unknown microscopic world. The Athenians make their observations, laced with humor and divested of Latin. This was popular science for people who did not want to wade through Hooke’s Micrographia, a sort of seventeenth century Bill Nye, or Neil deGrasse Tyson, or, for my older, British readers, Johnny Ball.

Quest. — Whether the common notion of the world be true, that these latter ages, for some centuries past, have a less share of learning, judgment, and invention, than those which have preceded, because we find them deficient in finding out such advantageous arts as their forefathers have done?

Ans. — …See the inventions and experiments of the Royal Society, which will abundantly convince anyone that our age has as active and busy spirits for invention as any former age in the world.

Dr. John V.P. Jenkins

Source

The Athenian Oracle, available online here. 

On The Famous Voyage: Finding London’s Lost River

the fleet by samuel scott

The Fleet River. Samuel Scott, 1750.

London’s major river is, of course, the Thames but, as the capital’s antiquarians will tell you, there are more than a dozen ancient tributaries hidden beneath the surface of the modern metropolis. The largest of these smaller rivers is the River Fleet, which flows from the largest stretch of common green in London, at Hampstead Heath, to Blackfriars Bridge, where it enters the Thames. This is a journey, not just from North London to the River, but also through the history of the City from Ancient to Modern times, marking some colourful characters and encompassing some bewildering changes along the way.

Cities are typically built along rivers to provide drinking water, transport, defense, and sewage removal. The Fleet has served all of these functions over London’s long history. As place-names along its banks (Brideswell, Clerkenwell) suggest, many wells were built along the Fleet in Roman and Saxon times, although, as we shall see, the purity of its waters were not set to be a defining feature as London grew.

The Fleet (‘tidal inlet’ in Anglo-Saxon) initially provided a waterway which served London from the North and, in a later incarnation as the New Canal, was part of the network which brought coal from the North of England to fuel the rapidly industrializing London of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Even after the canals were superseded by road and rail and entirely covered over in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the valley carved by the Fleet continued to form the basis for some of London’s modern arteries, such as Farringdon Road and the Metropolitan Railway line (although it resisted having an underground railway line–that which would become the Jubilee Line–lain beneath it by repeatedly flooding tunnels).

Defensively, the Fleet has a rather inglorious history. It is unclear how the Fleet was utilized by the Romans and it seems rarely to have been called upon subsequently. A second century boat carrying ragstone (possibly intended for building the city wall) was discovered in 1962, sunk at the mouth of the river.

Much later, the Fleet’s banks were built up into earthworks during the Civil War, when London was very much a Parliamentarian (‘Roundhead’) stronghold. The Royalist armies, however, never threatened the capital, with Charles II’s return to the City being by invitation rather than by conquest. During one of the great crises of the restored king’s reign in 1666, desperate Londoners were hopeful that the Fleet would provide an effective break against the Great Fire as it reached its third day. Here the Fleet proved as ineffective as the civic defenses and the Fire jumped the Fleet ditch, ultimately allowing it to claim St Paul’s Cathedral.

Of course, the most serious modern military threat to London came from the air in the form of the Luftwaffe. The old river beneath Fleet Street could offer no protection when Serjeant’s Inn, one of the oldest legal precincts in England, was destroyed during the Blitz.

It is with the removal of sewage and other waste, or at least with its failure to do so effectively, with which the Fleet is most famously associated. As London grew, the Fleet increasingly became a repository for whatever the city’s inhabitants wanted to get rid of. The medieval meat markets which grew up to feed the expanding population soon became problematic and in 1290 the Carmelite monks complained that the offal deposited in the river by butchers at a nearby market (the delightfully-named Shambles, at Newgate) was constantly blocking what was, at this point, a stream.

Copperplate_map_Fleet

The southern end of the Fleet, 1550s.

Although all manner of industries poured waste into the Fleet, it was the offal and dead animals in various forms which seemed to catch the imagination of early modern satirists of the capital. Ben Jonson’s (c. 1612) mock-epic poem which lends its title to this article was a litany of classical references intertwined with toilet humour and social satire and described the diverse pollutants of the river with considerable gusto:

Your Fleet Lane Furies; and hot cooks do dwell,
That, with still-scalding steams, make the place hell.
The sinks ran grease, and hair of measled hogs,
The heads, houghs, entrails, and the hides of dogs:
For, to say truth, what scullion is so nasty,
To put the skins, and offal in a pasty?
Cats there lay divers had been flayed and roasted,
And, after mouldy grown, again were toasted,
Then, selling not, a dish was ta’en to mince them,
But still, it seemed, the rankness did convince them.
For, here they were thrown in with the melted pewter,
Yet drowned they not. They had five lives in future.

Jonson’s influence and the continued assault of the Fleet upon the senses continued into the eighteenth century: Jonathan Swift’s “Drown’d Puppies” and “Dead Cats” of 1710’s A Description of a City Shower, floating amongst the offal and turnip-tops, were echoed by Alexander Pope’s “large tribute of dead dogs to the Thames” in 1728’s Dunciad.

The enthusiasm of these men for describing the sewage, of which the Fleet’s waters seemed largely comprised, was hardly less. Jonson’s ‘voyage’ was taken down a river where “Arses were heard to croak, instead of frogs”. His Fleet contained the contents of every ‘night-tub’ from an overcrowded metropolis, where “each privy’s seat/ Is filled with buttock” and the very “walls do sweat Urine”. This state of affairs is compounded by the diet of a city where “every clerk eats artichokes, and peason, Laxative lettuce, and such windy meat”. In 1700, Thomas Brown has his narrator, an ‘Indian’ revealing the strange “Manners, Customs, and Religions” practiced by the various “Nations” of London to his readers, shove an impudent rag-seller into the kennel [1] in the centre of the street with the words:

Tho’ I want nothing out of your Shops, methinks you all want good Manners and Civility, that are ready to tear a New Sute (suit) from my Back, under pretence of selling me an Olde one; Avant Vermin, your Cloaths smell as rankly of Newgate and Tyburn, as the bedding to be sold at the Ditch-side near Fleet-Bridge, smells of Bawdy-House and Brandy.

Brown’s tone is lighthearted and playful, but some of the associations he makes are telling. The visceral nature of these accounts certainly reflected a literal reality but they also had a metaphorical dimension in which it was the excesses and vices of London itself which were clogging up its abused waterways. The writers were playing, not just on the Fleet’s role in waste disposal, but also on the reputation of those who occupied its banks. In Jonathan Swift’s A Description of a City Shower, in particular, a storm washing through London links the different areas and strata of the city together through its flow.

The Fleet flowed past Bridewell and the Fleet prisons and through areas such as Clerkenwell, notorious for sheltering heretics, thieves, and prostitutes from the arms of the law. Here the bodies floating downstream alongside the unfortunate cats and dogs might be human. The industries around the river were messy and disease was known to cling to its slums. The Dunciad plays on the Fleet’s use as an open sewer by having the hack-writers, who are one of the principal subjects of Pope’s ire, swim in it. The implication was as clear as Pope’s Fleet was ‘muddy’. Much later, Charles Dickens’ child-warping pick-pocket, Fagin, would have his den alongside the Fleet.

From the early attempts by the Carmelites to keep the river unblocked to the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century attempt to make it serve as a canal, the smell and the constant need for dredging could not be overcome. So impossible was it to contain the flood of effluent that, even after the river was paved over during the later part of the eighteenth and early part of the nineteenth centuries, the build-up of trapped gas exploded near Blackfriars in 1846, taking out three posthouses and a steamboat in the process. It must have seemed as though the truth would not be hidden beneath the streets. Eventually, however, the Great Stink of 1858 preceded a concerted effort to enclose the city’s sewers and a London more familiar to us today emerged.

Dr. J.V.P. Jenkins is a historian and freelance editor from London. He earned his BA, Master’s, and Doctorate at Swansea University. He is the new co-editor of Dirty, Sexy History and sometimes tweets @JVPolsomJenkins.

Sources

Brown, Thomas. Amusements serious and comical, calculated for the meridian of London (1700)
Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist (1839)
Jonson, Ben. On The Famous Voyage (c.1612)
Pope, Alexander. Dunciad (1728)
Swift, Jonathan. A Description of a City Shower (1710)
Ackroyd, Peter. London: The Biography (Anchor; New York, 2003)
Brown, Laura. Fables of Modernity: Literature and Culture in the English Eighteenth Century (Cornell U.P., 2003)
Gray, Robert. A History of London (Taplinger; New York, 1979)

[1] An open gutter, running down the middle of the street. The 1671 Sewage and Paving Act had prescribed moving the kennel from the center of the street to an open side drain set off by a raised pavement. The main thoroughfares were also to be cambered (built up in middle for drainage and paved) but these measures were not instantly applied to all streets.

Love and Hate in the 19th Century: Say It With Flowers

language_of_flowers_by_alphonse_mucha

Language of Flowers. Aphonse Mucha, 1900.

Although floriography existed in the ancient world and throughout the Renaissance, it hit its height of popularity in the nineteenth century. Mary Wartley Montagu is credited with bringing it to England in the early eighteenth century from her travels to the Ottoman Empire, where the court was fascinated with tulips. Tulipomania had come and gone a hundred years before, but European interest in botany was just beginning, contributing in no small part to the success of guides to the language of flowers.

Several such guides were available throughout the nineteenth century, many of them embellished with illustrations or even poetry. Hundreds of editions were sold around the world, and the craze influenced popular culture, with floriography appearing in books by Austen and the Brontes. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood used it extensively in many of their paintings, using the symbolism of the flowers to communicate themes to their audience in a language they would understand.

In a society as relatively repressed as Victorian Britain, floriography must have presented tantalizing possibility. One could say anything without saying anything at all. Rather involved love affairs could take place almost entirely with flowers. Whole conversations could be had in a single bouquet. It had the added benefit that it would have been a hobby for the genteel; it required a certain degree of literacy, knowledge of botany, and means with which to obtain the plants necessary to communicate one’s message. While one might pass daisies (“I share your sentiment”) every day, African Marigolds (“vulgar minds”) or Helmet Flowers (“knight-errantry”) might present a greater challenge.

Interestingly enough, for every plant with a positive meaning, there is at least one more with a severely negative one. Reading Kate Greenaway’s The Language of Flowers (1884), it is reassuring that those courted by people they didn’t fancy could put them off without being outwardly rude, from Red Balsam (“touch me not”) to the rather frightening Wild Tansy (“I declare war against you”).

Whether you’re researching a book, decoding a painting, or just looking for a Valentine’s idea for your loved one (or worst enemy), floriography is good fun. Here are some lists of my favorites. Scroll to the bottom for links to some nineteenth century guides you can read in full online or download for your e-reader. Have fun!

A Beginner’s Guide to the Language of Flowers

“When nature laughs out in all the triumph of Spring, it may be said, without a metaphor, that, in her thousand varieties of flowers, we see the sweetest of her smiles; that, through them, we comprehend the exultation of her joys; and that, by them, she wafts her songs of thanksgiving to the heaven above her, which repays her tribute of gratitude with looks of love. Yes, flowers have their language. Theirs is an oratory that speaks in perfumed silence, and there is tenderness, and passion, and even light-heartedness of mirth, in the variegated beauty of their vocabularly.” – Frederic Schoberl, 1834.

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Positive

Almond (flowering) Hope
Ambrosia Love returned
Arbor Vitae* Unchanging Friendship. Live for me.
Cloves Dignity
Clover, four-leaved Be mine
Coreopsis Arkansa Love at first sight
Coriander Hidden worth
Corn Riches
Daffodil Regard
Daisy, Garden I share your sentiments
Forget Me Not Forget Me Not
Ivy Fidelity. Marriage.
Lemon blossoms Fidelity
Mallow, Syrian Consumed by love
Oak Tree Hospitality
Oak Leaves Bravery
Pine-apple You are perfect
Potato Benevolence
Ranunculus You are radiant with charms
Snowdrop Hope
Strawberry Tree Esteem and Love
Tulip, Red Declaration of love
Tulip, Variegated Beautiful eyes
Tulip, Yellow Hopeless love
Venice Sumach Intellectual excellence
Walnut Intellect. Strategem.
Water Lily Purity of heart
1870s_vinegar_valentine_snake_proposal_declined

A “Vinegar Valentine” from the 1870s

Negative

Achillea Millefolia War
Aconite (Wolfsbane) Misanthropy
Adonis, Flos Painful recollections
Agnus Castus Coldness. Indifference.
Almond (common) Stupidity. Indiscretion.
Amaranth (cockscomb) Foppery
Apple, Thorn Deceitful charms
Asphodel My regrets follow you to the grave.
Bachelor’s Buttons Celibacy
Balsam, Red Touch me not
Barberry Sourness of temper
Basil Hatred
Bay leaf I change but in death.
Bay (Rose) Rhododendron Danger. Beware.
Belladonna Silence
Belvedere I declare against you
Bilberry Treachery
Birdsfoot Trefoil Revenge
Blue-flowered Green Valerian Rupture
Burdock Touch me not.
Butterfly Weed Let me go.
Carnation, Striped Refusal
Carnation, Yellow Disdain
Chequered Fritillary Persecution
China or Indian Pink Aversion
Citron Ill-natured beauty
Clotbur Rudeness. Pertinacity.
Coltsfood Justice shall be done
Columbine Folly
Convulvulus, Major Extinguished hopes
Creeping Cereus Horror
Crowfoot Ingratitude
Cypress Death. Mourning.
Dragonwort Horror
Enchanter’s Nightshade Witchcraft. Sorcery.
Flytrap Deceit
Fool’s Parsley Silliness
Frog Ophrys Disgust
Fuller’s Teasel Misanthropy
Fumitory Spleen
Garden Anemone Forsaken
Hand Flower Tree Warning
Hellebore Scandal
Hemlock You will be my death
Hydrangea Heartlessness
Japan Rose Beauty is your only attraction
Leaves (dead) Melancholy
Lavender Distrust
Lily, Yellow Falsehood
Licorice, Wild I declare against you
Lobelia Malevolence
Mandrake Horror
Milfoil War
Mosses Ennui
Mourning Bride Unfortunate attachment
Moving Plant Agitation
Mushroom Suspicion
Nettle, Burning Slander
Pennyroyal Flee away
Raspberry Remorse
Rose, York and Lancaster War
Rue Disdain
Saint John’s Wort Animosity
Spiked Willow Herb Pretension
Tamarisk Crime
Tansy (Wild) I declare war against you
Thistle, Scotch Retaliation
Trefoil Revenge
White Rose (dried) Death preferable to loss of innocence
Whortleberry Treason
Wormwood Absence
My love in her garden. Victorian Valentine card

Victorian Valentine by Kate Greenaway

Sexy

African Marigold Vulgar minds
Darnel (ray grass) Vice
Dittany of Crete, White Passion
Dragon Plant Snare
Everlasting Pea Lasting Pleasure
Fleur-de-Lis Flame. I burn.
Geranium, Lemon Unexpected meeting
Geranium, Nutmeg Expected meeting
Grass Submission
Jasmine, Spanish Sensuality
Linden or Lime Trees Conjugal Love
Orange Flowers Bridal festivities
Peach Blossom I am your captive
Quince Temptation
Rose, Carolina Love is dangerous
Rose, Dog Pleasure and pain
Tuberose Dangerous pleasures
Vine Intoxication

 

mechanical_valentine_06

Weird

Aloe Grief. Religious superstition
Cereus (Creeping) Modest genius
Christmas Rose Relieve my anxiety.
Cistus, Gum I shall die to-morrow
Colchicum, of Meadow Saffron My best days are past.
Dandelion Rustic Oracle
Helmet Flower (Monkshood) Knight-errantry
Houseleek Domestic industry
Indian Cress Warlike trophy
Lady’s Slipper Win me and wear me
Lint I feel my obligations
Oats The witching soul of music
Passion Flower Religious superstition
Persimon Bury me amid Nature’s beauties
Poppy, White. Sleep. My bane. My antidote.
Prickly Pear Satire
Violet, Yellow Rural happiness

Jessica Cale

Further Reading

Greenaway, Kate. The Language of Flowers (1884)

Schoberl, Frederic. The Language of Flowers; With Illustrative Poetry (1834)

Tyas, Robert. The Sentiment of Flowers; or, Language of Flora (1836)

*Arbor Vitae was also slang for penis at this time.

 

English Horrors Through the Eyes of a French Romantic

Not long ago a fellow Historical Novel Society member was lamenting the fact that the Stuart dynasty does not get enough exposure. I see the tide turning. More and more English history novels are set during the English Civil War and the Cromwellian era. Let’s not forget some of the 19th century classics who drew inspiration from that time period. Everyone knows Blackmore’s Lorna Doone. However, not as many readers are familiar with Victor Hugo’s L’homme qui rit.

The Man Who Laughs is Victor Hugo’s last exile novel written over the course of fifteen months. This novel did not receive nearly as much fame as Notre-Dame de Paris or Les Misérables did. “Serious” critics condemn The Man Who Laughs for its brutalities and absurdities. Ordinary readers often brand this novel as a Two-Beauties-and-the-Beast story.

The protagonist, Gwynplaine, is a disfigured sideshow performer whose face had been carved into a perpetual grin by an amoral surgeon who made a fortune creating monsters. Gwynplaine is coveted by two beauties, one of which is Dea, a blind actress and a childhood friend who only perceives his noble soul while remaining oblivious to his outward deformity, and the other Josiana, a spoiled duchess who yearns to escape the stagnant routine of the royal court by taking a hideous mountebank for a lover.
hugo-gwynplaine

This bizarre love triangle is what most readers remember from the novel. There is a lengthy and graphic seduction scene that many readers revisit time after time. Although disturbing, this scene is a stunning segment of extremely articulate and sensual prose. However, there are equally articulate, if less arousing, passages that deal with English history and politics.

Unfortunately, many readers skip over those passages. The political component in the novel is just as significant as the romantic one. Hugo did not include politics and history to divert the story line. Politics and romance were not intended to rival but to complement each other.

The protagonist’s pseudo-Celtic name, presumably derived from the Welsh word “gwyn” for “white,” connotes innocence and purity. The Celtic origin of the name also suggests estrangement from the English culture.

Very few readers remember the reason why the protagonist was disfigured in the first place. Gwynplaine’s natural father remained a supporter of the Republic even after the Restoration. The hapless child and his father are both depicted as victims of monarchy. First Charles II exiles the father, and later James II sanctions the kidnapping and the disfigurement of the child.

In the novel, Cromwell himself never makes a personal appearance. We learn about him by examining the lives of those who had outlived him. The action takes place well after Cromwell’s death, from 1690 to 1705.

Hugo devotes an entire chapter to the protagonist’s natural father, a fictitious rebel lord by the name of Lord Linnaeus Clancharlie, Baron Clancharlie and Hunkerville, one of the few lords who remained loyal to the Republic even after the fall of Cromwell. Refusing to accept the return of Stuarts to the throne, Lord Clancharlie flees to Switzerland and marries Anne Bradshaw, a fictitious daughter of John Bradshaw, one of the key regicides.

Gwynplaine, whose real name is Fermain, is the fruit of this marriage and the only legitimate heir to his father’s estates. Back in England Lord Clancharlie also has an illegitimate son David with Lady Dirry-Moir, a Scottish noblewoman who refused to follow him to Switzerland and chose to give herself to Charles II.

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Lord Chancharlie in the 1928 film adaptation

Hugo goes to great lengths describing the plight of Lord Clancharlie and the utter lack of sympathy from his former friends who pledged allegiance to the Stuart dynasty after the Restoration.

Linnaeus Baron Clancharlie, a contemporary of Cromwell, was one of the peers of England — few in number, be it said — who accepted the republic. It was a matter of course that Lord Clancharlie should adhere to the republic, as long as the republic had the upper hand; but after the close of the revolution and the fall of the parliamentary government, Lord Clancharlie had persisted in his fidelity to it.

Hugo describes the euphoria that engulfed England after the Restoration:

England was happy; a restoration is as the reconciliation of husband and wife, prince and nation return to each other, no state can be more graceful or more pleasant. Great Britain beamed with joy; to have a king at all was a good deal — but furthermore, the king was a charming one. Charles II was amiable — a man of pleasure, yet able to govern; and great, if not after the fashion of Louis XIV. He was essentially a gentleman.

Lord Clancharlie, who refuses to partake in this jubilation, is regarded as a madman by his contemporaries.

Plainly a dupe and traitor in one. Let a man be as great a fool as he likes, so that he does not set a bad example. Fools need only be civil, and in consideration thereof they may aim at being the basis of monarchies. The narrowness of Clancharlie’s mind was incomprehensible. His eyes were still dazzled by the phantasmagoria of the revolution. He had allowed himself to be taken in by the republic — yes; and cast out. He was an affront to his country.

Hugo mentions George Monk, 1st Duke of Albemarle (1608-1669), the “prodigal son” of English monarchy, who originally supported Richard Cromwell but then was instrumental in restoring the Stuarts to the throne. Linnaeus Clancharlie’s “madness” and treachery are juxtaposed to Monk’s “wisdom”:

Take Monk’s case. He commands the republican army. Charles II, having been informed of his honesty, writes to him. Monk, who combines virtue with tact, dissimulates at first, then suddenly at the head of his troops dissolves the rebel parliament, and re-establishes the king on the throne. Monk is created Duke of Albemarle, has the honour of having saved society, becomes very rich, sheds a glory over his own time, is created Knight of the Garter, and has the prospect of being buried in Westminster Abbey. Such glory is the reward of British fidelity!

mjneary

Ursus, illustration from 1870 edition

It is important to stress that it is the post-Restoration society that views Linnaeus Clancharlie as a madman. Hugo himself views his hero as a martyr. Hugo’s loyalties invariably lie on the side of the outcast. He had always sympathized with those who were ridiculed by the masses. Because Hugo himself was living in exile while writing The Man Who Laughs, it is obvious that Lord Clancharlie’s fate parallels his own. Hugo presents Linnaeus Clancharlie as a man of principle, someone who chose exile and ridicule over communion with those whose political views he did not share.

Ursus, the foster-father of the protagonist, claims to be as a supporter of monarchy throughout the novel, but does so for unique reasons. Being a self-proclaimed misanthrope, he cannot possibly be a patriot. He accepts monarchy and overall social hierarchy as status quo, as a natural state of things. Inside his caravan, Ursus keeps a roster with the names of English aristocrats and detailed description of their respective estates. Next to Lord Clancharlie’s name he has a handwritten note: “Rebel; in exile; houses, lands, and chattels sequestrated. It is well.”

man-who-laughs-baclanova

Josiana in Paul Leni’s 1928 adaptation

When Gwynplaine makes a comment about the image of Queen Anne on a coin representing oppression, Ursus scolds him for insolence. “Watch over your abominable jaws. There is a rule for the great — to do nothing; and a rule for the small — to say nothing. The poor man has but one friend, silence.” It is apparent from this passage that it is not patriotism that compels Ursus to defend the Queen. The old man promotes silence and humility merely for the sake of one’s safety.

Later, when Lady Josiana attends a performance of Chaos Vanquished, an amateur play in which Gwynplaine plays the leading role, Ursus exclaims: “She is more than a goddess. She is a duchess.” This statement implies that, in Ursus’ understanding, secular hierarchy overrides divine laws. This very statement awakens suspicion and insecurity in Dea, whose name incidentally means “goddess” in Latin. The blind girl becomes aware of her inferiority to the brilliant socialite.

gwynplaine-at-the-chamber-of-lords-illustration-from-l-homme-qui-rit-19th-century

Gwynplaine’s speech at the House of Lords. 19th century illustration

When Gwynplaine learns about his aristocratic origin and enters the House of Lords, he expresses his indignation with monarchy before his peers. In his speech addressed to the lords, Gwynplaine speaks rather unfavorably of the two kings who came after Cromwell. He also condemns, quite brazenly, Lady Dirry-Moir, his father’s former mistress who chose to take the side of Charles II:

How I execrate kings! And how shameless are the women! I have been told a sad story. How I hate Charles II! A woman whom my father loved gave herself to that king whilst my father was dying in exile. The prostitute! Charles II, James II! After a scamp, a scoundrel. What is there in a king? A man, feeble and contemptible, subject to wants and infirmities. Of what good is a king? You cultivate that parasite royalty; you make a serpent of that worm, a dragon of that insect.

Furthermore, Gwynplaine expresses nostalgia for the era he had not lived through himself but one that his father had witnessed. He brings up the Republic as a form of earthly paradise:

There will come an hour when convulsion shall break down your oppression; when an angry roar will reply to your jeers. Nay, that hour did come! Thou wert of it, O my father! That hour of God did come, and was called the Republic! It was destroyed, but it will return. Meanwhile, remember that the line of kings armed with the sword was broken by Cromwell, armed with the axe. Tremble!

Gwynplaine’s reference to Cromwell amuses the lords, because in 1705 monarchy was not in danger. Revolution was not a realistic menace. Cromwell was but a distant memory. A significant component of Gwynplaine tragedy is that he is fighting for a hopeless cause. The lords whom he addresses with such passion and indignation realize the security of their situation. Like his natural father, Lord Clancharlie, Gwynplaine is just a madman in the eyes of the English aristocracy.

The novel ends tragically. After being ridiculed and insulted by the lords, Gwynplaine flees the Parliament in hopes to return to his old life as an entertainer. For a brief moment he reunites with his old family, Ursus and Dea, only to find that the girl is deadly ill. When Dea dies in his arms, Gwynplaine throws themanwholaughsposterhimself in the Thames and drowns.

There have been several theatrical and cinematic adaptations of The Man Who Laughs of varying success and quality. Not all of them highlight the political nuances of the original novel. Two screen adaptations particularly stand out: the 1928 silent film by Paul Leni and the 1971 French miniseries by Jean Kerchbron.

The 1928 version opens with a scene of Lord Clancharlie’s execution that is not described in the novel, but the rest of the film focuses primarily on the love story and the concept of universal justice. The English monarchy is ridiculed rather than criticized. To please the audience, the director chooses a happy ending. The young lovers, their aging foster-father and the pet wolf all reunite and sail off to France.

The 1971 version is a less known but more thorough and faithful adaptation. There are several graphic torture scenes that are taken directly from the novel.

Gwynplaine’s speech in the Parliament is also taken from the original text almost word for word. All historical references to Cromwell and the Republic were included. Kerchbron believed it important to preserve the political context, without which much of Hugo’s message would be lost. Taking republican politics out of The Man Who Laughs is like taking Gothic architecture out of Notre-Dame de Paris. Kerchbron’s faithfulness to the original text is commendable.

M. J. Neary 

16958_321447571977_6886780_nAn only child of classical musicians, M.J. Neary is an award-winning, internationally acclaimed expert on military and social disasters, from the Charge of the Light Brigade, to the Irish Famine, to the Easter Rising in Dublin, to the nuclear explosion in Chernobyl. Notable achievements include a trilogy revolving the Anglo-Irish conflict, including Never Be at Peace, a novel of Irish rebels. She continues to explore the topic of ethnic tension in her autobiographical satire Saved by the Bang: a Nuclear Comedy.

Her latest release is a cyber mystery Trench Coat Pal set in Westport, CT at the dawn of the internet era. Colored with the same dark misanthropic humor as the rest of Neary’s works, Trench Coat Pal features a cast of delusional and forlorn New Englanders who become pawns in an impromptu revenge scheme devised by a self-proclaimed Robin Hood. A revised edition of Wynfield’s Kingdom, her debut Neo-Victorian thriller, was recently released through Crossroad Press. Wynfield’s War is the sequel following the volatile protagonist to the Crimea. Set in 1910 Ireland, Big Hero of a Small Country is a tragic and violent tale of a family ravaged by an ideological conflict. You can visit her blog here.

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