History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

19 January 2007

The Lady -- and the Era -- in the Picture

Like Colleen Gleason, I get a lot of my history from period art and literature.

And like all historical writers, sometimes I just plain get lucky. As with all the stuff I've been learning about the cynical "silver fork" society of the later Regency, from the painting on the cover of The Slightest Provocation.

It actually isn't the painting NAL first suggested. But their initial choice just didn't seem right to me. That lady was blondish, and I thought she looked too French.

OK, my editor countered, do you have any suggestions, Pam?

Something by Sir Thomas Lawrence, I replied. Not that I knew much about the Georgian/Regency society painter, except that he was good at making things look English and that I supposed he must have have done some wide-eyed, brown-haired girls. I found a few on the web and emailed the jpgs to my editor.

This one was my second choice, but luckily the folks at the NAL art department know their business and chose it: Margaret, Countess of Blessington, now hanging in the Wallace Collection in London.

Here's the original. Didn't the cover artist do a canny job of cropping it? It's also been used for one of those Darcy's Daughters books, but I don't think the covers will be mistaken for each other.

In any case, after I got an advance copy of the book itself - and after I could stop myself from staring at it, stroking it, and almost rubbing the lavender foil off the lettering - here's what I've learned: about the painter, the painting, and the woman.

Lawrence was the most fashionable painter of his day; his portraits commanded a price of seven hundred guineas and there was a waiting list for those wishing to be immortalized, and for those needing a little help the way to eternity (according to historian Venetia Murray, Lawrence "specialized in flattering 'improvements).'"

Lady Blessington's portrait was the most talked-about piece at the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1821 - perhaps, as a (male) reader of mine recently suggested, because of the angle from which the artist chose to survey his subject. I can see his point; sometimes there's something refreshingly direct about the blunt masculine take on reality.

Reportedly, Margaret didn't need any of Lawrence's celebrated "improvements." One journalist's account of the 1821 Exhibition tells us that the original "fairly 'killed' the copy" when she stood beside it.

As the second wife of the indecently wealthy and spendthift Earl of Blessington, she lived a life of erotic scandal and outrageous luxury; after the Earl's death she became a noted literary hostess. Silver fork novelists Bulwer and Disraeli, as well as the young Dickens and Thackeray, were frequent dinner guests. From beyond England's shores came Byron's last mistress Teresa Guiccioli; Hans Christian Anderson came to meet Dickens. The décor was splendid, as were the dinners (at least up until the end). To pay the bills, Margaret became a minor writer herself.

For although she'd inherited enough to live quite well, she lived far better than she could afford to. At the end of her life, she beat a hasty retreat to France to escape her creditors. When her possessions went up at auction (this objet had belonged to Marie Antoinette; that one to the Empress Josephine), the gavel was wielded by the same auctioneer who'd disposed of Beau Brummell's stuff a generation before.

But enough about the chatchkes, I hear you saying. Tell about the erotic scandal.

Don't mind if I do. Historical erotica writers please take note: Like Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and Emma Hamilton before her, Lady Blessington was part of a much talked-about threesome.

In Margaret's case, the third party was the French Comte d'Orsay, as much the pre-eminent dandy of the late Regency as Brummell was of the period's early years. During the Earl and Countess of Blessington's seven-year-long vacation on the continent, the Earl not only bought Josephine's firescreen and Marie-Antoinette's clock, but a dashing young French aristocrat, the epicenely handsome Comte D'Orsay.

OK, bought does sound cynical, but there's really no other way to put it. Members of the Comte's family had been ministers and mistresses to the ancien regime, Napoleon's arriviste aristocracy, and the restored post-Waterloo Bourbon monarchy, not to speak of the "bourgeois king" Louis-Philippe who'd come to power in 1830. (I'm only beginning to get the succession of French governments straight myself, by following the fortunes of this tough breed of political survivors.)

Anyway, when the rich, generous, good-humored if not-the-brightest-jewel-in-the-coronet Lord Blessington took a liking to D'Orsay, the young man's father drew a hard bargain. The Earl rewrote his will to leave a lot of money to D'Orsay, provided he agreed to marry either of the Earl's daughters from his earlier marriage (Margaret didn't have any children). That's right, either daughter, sight unseen - in case you need proof that the very very very rich are different from you and me.

Where do I sign, the Comte D'Orsay asked. (The marriage did happen a few years later; needless to say it ended in separation after four unhappy years.)

While as to exactly who had bought whom for whom (love those pronouns) - the facts aren't clear and the on-dits had it every which way, so historical erotica writers can have it any way they like - or all ways - and be within the accepted bounds of theorizing. Suffice it to say that D'Orsay and Lady Blessington lived together for some twenty years after the Earl's death - though convention demanded that he live in a separate "cottage ornée" on the grounds of her house in London for some of these - and they're buried in the same tomb in France.

I'm not sure what to make of all this, but I do find it somehow different from late Georgian or early Regency biographies. Flashier, perhaps a bit tackier. From an era grown tired, overripe... Or have I simply internalized a romantic vision of those earlier years. What do you think?



Blogger Unknown said...

I don't think people change. I think the focus of scandal and what titillated the people of the time shifts around, though. One of the daughters of the famed Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire married her aunt's lover and raised her two young cousins as, and with, her own children. This seems outrageous to me, but I never see it pointed out as scandalous. I also think as the 19th century marched on you begin to see the glimmer of Victorian prudishness rearing its head, as well as the era’s obvious obsession with incest (just look at the whole Byron thing).

9:18 AM  
Blogger Kristi Cook said...

I agree--human nature is constant. I've always thought the Georgian and Regency eras were likely FAR more scandalous than Jane Austen would lead us to believe.

But I have to say...I think Pam's cover for The Slightest Provocation is one of the most beautiful covers ever. I love the use of period art in romance covers. When my editor asked what kind of cover I'd love to have for my upcoming book, I pretty much said, "One like Pam Rosenthal's." Of course, I ended up with a cover nothing like it, but still....

2:51 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

People don't change, but styles do. And one of the things I've learned from my research is how outrageously style- and celebrity-conscious the Regency was. And styles tend to get exhausted... hence my sense of over-ripeness.

6:30 PM  
Blogger Maggie Robinson/Margaret Rowe said...

Your cover is exquisite. I'm so glad to see a developing trend to use "real" art, as opposed to the infamous clinch scene where very frequently neither model bears any resemblance to the couple described within the book.

And yup, I think people have always "sinned." It's much more fun.

6:39 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Thanks for the kind words about my cover, Kristina and Maggie. I think what does it (besides the more obvious aspects) is that small, ambigous smile -- which I really didn't notice until the cover artists cropped the pic to draw attention to it.

I'm not a fan of clinch covers myself, and consider myself lucky not to have had one. Though the mass release of ALMOST A GENTLEMAN (next December) will have a photo on it -- he's got great bedroom eyes and she's got juicy lips (her face is cut off above the mouth). Subtle as that sort of thing goes -- Perhaps I'll get a bit of a different readership.

10:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pam, I really love your cover. I am not a fan of clinch covers and it is refreshing to see a move away from that.

11:21 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Ok, I've made it to Chicago! I dragged my copy of TSP with me on the plane for a second read, and I'm loving it all over again!!!

1:47 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Thanks, Kalen, and oh gosh, I love to think of you reading it on a plane. I always look at what people are reading on planes, don't you?

6:53 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Pam, a question for you...do you know how publishers go about getting the rights to use historical art on covers? Aren't the rights to the images owned by museums, the collector's collection, etc?

I looked into writing a non-fiction book once, with lots of pictures and good grief, the rights to reproduce the fine art images were sooo expensive! Your cover is unique and classy and I just wondered about if you knew more about how it came to be?

10:33 AM  
Blogger Kristi Cook said...

LOL, Pam, about the planes comment! I always say, that's how I'll know I've 'made it big'--one day I'll be walking down the aisle of a plane, headed to the lavatory, and see someone reading one of my books! Ahh, the fantasy....

I bet Nora sees it EVERY time she travels!

7:56 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

*I* see somebody reading Nora every time *I* travel ;-}. Another measure of success(?!) I think, is to see your books for sale in places that sell snack food.

8:23 AM  
Blogger Regencyresearcher said...

The cover and portrait are beautiful. I am not an admirer of Lady Blessington but must clarify a couple of points. I think she made every effort to pay her debts. Her jointure was based on income from an estate in Ireland. The income dried up during the potato famine. She had been receiving £2000 a year and it was reduced to zero. I doubt she and D'orsay were lovers. She was probably frigid and he had been the favorite of Lord Blessington.Ld. Blessington didn't turn a blind eye to their romance because there was none. If Ldy. B could have influenced her husband she would have received more of his fortune when he died . He actually reduced her jointure in order to leave more money to D'Orsay. Well according to several biographies, anyway.
Lord Blessington had two daughters but only one was legitimate.
Lady Blessington turned to writing and being the editor of a magazine to earn money.

8:31 AM  

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