Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Channeling Harriette in Barque of Frailty

Alright, I admit it: there's something of the bodice-ripper in the cover of this particular Jane Austen Mystery--but I love it all the same.  The extraordinary quality of light and movement, the combination of pearl and gold, and the Pauline de Borghese-like quality of the murdered woman's limbs--it all works for a book about sex, blackmail, and power.  And what does any of that have to do with Jane Austen, you ask?

Everything, my friends.

Thinking of Our Jane as a prudish spinster writing in peaceful retirement has always been something of a mistake.  In April, 1811, when Jane and the Barque of Frailty begins, the London Season is in full swing--and Jane Austen is paying an extended visit to her banker-brother Henry and glamorous sister-in-law, Eliza, Comtesse de Feuillide.  Jane is in London to proof the first typeset pages of Sense and Sensibility, publication of which Henry and Eliza have generously underwritten.  Impossible, however, for Jane to escape intrigue--given the nature of the Sloane Street neighborhood the Henry Austens inhabit, and the wildly variable nature of their social acquaintance.  Nearby in Hans Crescent, actress Dolly Jordan--the comic genius of her age, the Duke of Clarence's deserted mistress and mother of his ten children--has set up housekeeping; Lord Moira, one of Henry's banking clients and a member of the dangerous Carlton House Set, is enamored of Eliza; and among their friends are the French emigre Comte d'Entraigues and his opera-singer wife--whose curious political activities would destroy them the following year.  Jane refers to all of these people in her letters from London, and describes the whirl of activity she experienced during the Season, with drollery and satisfaction.  She might have been laboring over her page proofs, but she was also having a darn good time.

The year 1811 was pivotal in British history, ushering in the Prince Regent's nine years of caretaker monarchy and the exit in a straitjacket of his father, George III.  The protracted war in the Peninsula was ending in victory for England, and politicians were squaring off to support or oppose the new Regent.  Against this backdrop of political change London pursued its dissipations with abandon--chief among them, the patronage of powerful men for a class of women known variously as lightskirts, fair Cyprians, the Muslin Company, or Barques of Frailty: courtesans of the demimonde offered carte blanche--full funding--in exchange for their favors.

Jane had long been aware of the proclivity of powerful men for entertaining young women of easy virtue--she touches on the theme in Sense and Sensibility through the saga of Willoughby, a young buck on the Town blessed with handsome looks, charming manners, complete freedom and the prospect of future inheritance, who thinks nothing of seducing the ward of his acquaintance, Colonel Brandon, and abandoning her once she is with child.  In Mansfield Park, she gives the charming Crawfords a naval uncle who insists upon his mistress living with him--which drives his worldly and fashionable young niece out of his home.  As Jane knew, such affairs were not limited to Town life--she refers to the Fowle family's patron, Lord Craven, in a letter dated as early as 8 January 1801, as "having a Mistress now living with him at Ashdown Park...the only unpleasing circumstance about him." Lord Craven was the man responsible for sending Cassandra Austen's fiance, Tom Fowle, to the West Indies in 1792, where he died of yellow fever; in 1801, Craven was created 1st Earl Craven (second creation).  He was quite the dashing figure: a military man, an aide-de-camp to the King, Lord Lieutenant of Berkshire, and eventually the husband of a  famous actress, Louisa Brunton, after whom he named his yacht.  When Jane mentions him, he was about thirty-one years old; his Mistress, we now know, was fifteen--and detested Craven's "ugly white nightcap" as much as Marianne Dashwood deplored flannel.  She ran away from Ashdown Park and embarked upon a storied career preserved forever in one of the Great Reads of the Regency Period: Harriette Wilson's Memoirs.

"The debauched coterie": A depiction of some of the famous members of the ton Wilson named in her Memoirs

Harriette was my guide through the demimondaine's world as I set out to write Barque of Frailty.  Never mind that she's a notoriously unreliable witness--she mailed copies of her manuscript to every client mentioned in its pages, offering to remove them for an exorbitant sum of money, which means the public figures she cheerfully pillories are the ones who stiffed her (no pun intended).  However vicious her portrait of the Duke of Wellington, for example--who famously told her to "publish and be damned!"--her depiction of courtesan life is vivid, entertaining, revelatory, and unsparing.  She was a smart woman living by her wits without much sentimentality, determined to present herself and her friends as victims of Tragic Love.  She made money hand over fist, and was as famous when she ventured into Hyde Park as any of the Society ladies who offered her the Cut Direct.  After publishing her Memoirs, however, she seems to have found it expedient to quit London for the Continent.

Barque of Frailty closes with a scene Harriette would have recognized: The Cyprian's Ball at the Argyle Rooms.  I offer here Cruikshank's lampoon of the event, which was as famous among a certain set as anything Almack's Assembly could offer--and much more enthusiastically patronized.




  1. Thanks for the background on Harriet Wilson and her connection to your story.

  2. If you love this period, her book makes interesting reading--and it's available in paperback from Amazon! A classic in the genre...

  3. Fun! Thank you for sharing. I also read the short story in Jane Austen Made Me Do It...well done!

  4. Glad to hear you got the anthology. It's a before-bedtime treat, without a doubt. I had fun revisiting Lord Harold; it seems a long time since Jane was rambling around Bath with the Rogue.

  5. Oh, you mention the captivating the cover, among the four (by the same artist?) from Wool House through Barque that are beautiful enough for me to wish to display on their own (which I would do did it not seem contemptuous to so adulterate a book by forever stripping it of its cover). I'm quite curious about the process of negotiating a cover by which we know a book, as well as people, may so often be (mis)judged. Yours convey differing subjects (were not the first five or six--perhaps the eighth--our Jane, though I never imagined her clothing so apparently costly), moods, and tones with the last being the only one without a live figure (sadly foreshadowing Jane's soon to be neglected writing desk and quill). Happily, what's to be found on the pages between your book covers does not disappoint.

  6. Actually, I have no input whatsoever on covers. I loved the pictorial ones commissioned for the hardcover Janes, but they were quite expensive and were abandoned for the trade paper editions. The current cover is so dark as to be unnoticeable on a bookshelf, which is a decided drawback.

  7. Agree completely about the cover of, Jane and the Canterbury Tale! It was a wonderful book, but whomever decided on the cover had no imagination, never seen your previous covers, and decidedly had not read the book.