Those Gorgeous Georgians

I’ve been drafting my next blog post in my head for what seems like weeks now, so I’ll try to keep it short so I don’t keep putting it off! (I have made it up with British literature, if you’re wondering. I reread North & South by Elizabeth Gaskell for the third time, after my brief dip into Chinese books.) After that, I ended up watching Ballet Shoes one night on Netflix after feeling rather down and thoroughly enjoyed it (I so wish I’d seen it or read the book by Noel Streatfeild when I was younger as it encourages girls to have ambition and to work hard to do what they love, whatever that may be and also has so many great strong female characters in it, who like a lot of different things, from dancing and acting to math and flying airplanes), which got me thinking that instead of feeling I must only ever strive to read the most difficult and punishing books so I can prove what a smart person I am, I could try to read what I love for a bit. And by that I didn’t mean the recent British comfort books I’ve discovered this past year through blogging, I meant my first book love, stories with ‘romance and adventure’ as I’ve always thought of it, or what they mostly were, historical fiction.

I got a stack of books from the library and ended up finally reading my first Georgette Heyer (The Corinthian) and there it was again: that romance and adventure. I was so teased by my brother for reading what he called ‘soppy romance novels’ when I was a teenager and later after taking advanced English in high school and then studying English in university I wanted to learn more about the classics that I often regretted ‘wasting’ my teenage reading years on these christian historical novels, when I could have been reading Austen or the Brontes or Dickens or even Dostoevsky as I’ve heard others brag of. But the thing is, much as the classics truly are great books and profoundly worth attention… I also like what I like. My experiences have shaped me and it seems foolish to ignore that, to deny myself the type of books and reading experiences I still yearn for (and the kind of books I’ve always secretly wanted to write, which is historical fiction, with romance and adventure!). I’m tired of the elitism which seems to go on, where ‘thinking women’s fiction’ is judged better than ‘feeling and emotional women’s fiction’ — why do women put other women down at all? This was the only problem I had with the Heyer novel, the heroine who’s particularly boyish puts down a more girly romantic character. Is this necessary in books or real life? Why is acting more like the male stereotype, being less emotional and focusing more on the intellect, automatically better? Why is it I’ve always felt ashamed of being romantic and emotional and tried to hide it behind proving I was smarter than the boys (not that difficult since smart boys are often just giant nerds who like having fun and don’t feel bad about it, much more difficult are all the other girls trying to seriously prove themselves too)? Why not feel ok reading both types of books (if that is one’s inclination), blending thought and emotion, and not like I have to justify myself like this?

Georgiana, with her crazy fashion hat

Anyways, past all that, I discovered something. The Regency era, which I’d previously viewed with some distaste due to all those crazy Jane Austen fans (so not like me, I’d tell myself, since I like her for her great writing not just the romance and the spin-offs and movies!), was actually quite fun to read about. There was lots of wit and humour in Heyer, which is also one of the things I like most about Jane Austen and there was an emphasis on fancy clothes, which I’ve realized I have a weakness for in books. I also thought the 18th century might be worth checking out, since I’ve always thought Jane Austen was most a product of the rationalism and satire of that time and not of the romanticism of the early 19th century. I ended up reading the biography Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman (which the movie The Duchess was based on) and now I really want to learn more about the 18th century. The Georgians are a bit crazy and many of them gambled horribly (Georgiana was never able to clear all her debts in her lifetime or to fully stop gambling for decades, if ever), but they’re just more interesting and colourful to me than the Victorians. Their clothes are prettier! I may have found something I like for myself and not just because others like it. My interests in Jane Austen, Marie Antoinette and the age of sail all collide at the end of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th in a way I hadn’t considered before.

So I’ll see what comes of this but hopefully I can finally settle down with a time period long enough to be able to research and write about it. The interesting thing about Georgiana’s biography was how much the movie had made her life only about sex (cold Ralph Fiennes of a husband scares her in bed, she meets sad friend who then sleeps with cold husband, but cold husband must produce an heir and then she finds true love Dominic Cooper only to have to…) when really, she was a remarkable woman in so many other ways, mostly for her involvement in the Whig (liberal) party politics. She kept the party together by hosting many meetings at her house and through close friendships with different leaders when male rivalry and ambition threatened to destroy it. Not only did she set fashions for decades, but she used her popularity for what she believed in, canvassing strenuously for the Whig leader, Charles Fox and as Foreman says, “should be credited with being one of the first to refine political messages for mass communication. She was an image-maker who understood the necessity of public relations, and she became adept at the manipulation of political symbols and the dissemination of party propaganda.” She was a very close friend of the Prince of Wales and often tried to keep him from doing anything too stupid. She was also a writer who published an anonymous novel as well as some popular poetry and songs and she even experimented in chemistry and mineralogy later in life. She also lived in Europe for a year or so during the French Revolution (while giving birth to an illegitimate child), not an easy feat!

I’ve now jumped into Fanny Burney’s Evelina and understanding the time period more (it’s an epistolary novel and as Georgiana herself wrote hundreds or thousands of letters to many friends which are quoted throughout the biography, it becomes easy to see the popularity of that form for many early novels then — with no phones or telegraphs the communication between friends seems to be much richer for all the letters written — could blogging now be a way to recapture that?) finally helps me to get past the first few slightly dull pages to what inspired Jane Austen herself.

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