A Comparison of Adaptations: Mansfield Park

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As a costume drama junkie with a fondness for comparing different adaptations of the same novel, I have decided to do just this in the hope that some may enjoy the same.  Jane Austen adaptations seemed a good place to start as they are amongst some of the most popular.

There are three television adaptations, of which I am aware, of Austen’s lesser-read novel, Mansfield Park.  I am going to begin with the most recent.  In 2007, ITV showed three new Jane Austen adaptations, each with something new to add to the stories they retold.  Mansfield Park starred Billie Piper as perhaps Austen’s least popular heroine, Fanny Price, and Blake Ritson as Edmund Bertram – possibly the wettest of Austen’s heroes.  In compensation for Fanny’s reputation as an intensely annoying, saccharine character, Piper played her as someone much more wilful and sharp witted.  Ritson’s Edmund was still wet but a little more endearing than other portrayals I have seen.  Those of you who have read Mansfield Park will know that it is a long novel, which, somewhat unusually for Austen, subtly addresses several key controversial issues of the regency period in England.  Of course, there is the usual satire and social commentary.  Through her forthright and outspoken anti-heroine, Mary Crawford, she pokes fun at the customs and rules surrounding the idea of a young lady being ‘out’ or ‘not out’*, she makes fun of the clergy, and questions the idea that people of the upper class are really any more refined or sophisticated than anyone else.  However, she also explores marital infidelity, the perils of gambling and drinking to excess and a huge amount of literature to date has explored the issues surrounding the head of the Bertram family, Sir Thomas, and his sugar plantations.  This is, therefore, a big novel to adapt for screen and each version I have seen has focused on a slightly different area.  In this version, Sir Thomas appears as a rather dark and unpleasant character for much of the time, though there are some interesting scenes between him and his children which show a softer, more understanding side to his nature.

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Image from janeaustenfilmclub.blogspot.co.uk

The first half of this adaptation is largely true to the novel, save for the slight alterations in Fanny’s character, but I was disappointed that rather than including scenes of Fanny’s return to her family in Portsmouth (for me one of the most poignant and emotional parts of this story) it instead has the Bertram family leaving Fanny behind to be alone at Mansfield Park so that she can see what it would be like to live a life of loneliness if she does not marry Henry Crawford.

The ending of this adaptation was, again, different to the novel, but rather more romantic and not without charm.  Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram are shown as being very much in favour of the match between Edmund and Fanny after all the drama they have previously faced, and Fanny becomes a lot more grown up and even more carnal in this final part – something that I feel is needed in this romance between two cousins who have grown up together almost as brother and sister.  I have always found it slightly difficult to understand how Edmund comes to see Fanny in this light – how does someone go from seeing someone almost as a sister to seeing them as a lover?  But this drama handles the transition as well as possible, and in the end, it is easy to be happy for Fanny and Edmund and to believe that they should be together.

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Image from youtube.com

The second adaptation that I am going to discuss is the 1999 film, starring Frances O’Conner and Jonny Lee Miller as the lead characters.  This is an unusual adaption in that it merges scenes and writing from Jane Austen’s own life with that of her heroine’s.  In one early scene, when we are being introduced to the character of Fanny, we see her writing her own History of England, a work which Austen herself produced when she was fifteen.  This version is the fastest paced and most dramatic of the adaptations.  Fanny is, again, updated for a modern audience and is presented as feisty and self-assured.  There is a strong strain of comedy running throughout this film presented through Fanny’s own interpretation of events, and this is an interesting aspect to add to what is arguably the darkest of Austen’s novels.  Perhaps the writer, Patricia Rozema, felt it would be needed as this version does tend to emphasise these baser subjects – I am thinking particularly of the moment when Fanny discovers a sketch book of Tom Bertram’s filled with horrific drawings depicting the cruelty faced by the slaves on his father’s plantation.  This is used as the reason behind his difficult relationship with his father.  Another difference between this adaptation and the book is the slightly bizarre decision to turn Fanny’s beloved brother from the novel into a beloved sister, or rather, to elevate the relationship between Fanny and Susan and to completely omit the character of William Price.  Although this allows for some more intimate conversations to take place between the two sisters, it is a shame, as this is one of more important relationships in the novel, not to mention the role it plays in teasing the readers about the integrity and morality of Henry Crawford’s character. Mary Crawford, played by Embeth Davidtz is almost completely unlikable in this film and, as in the novel, it is when she speaks her mind once too often and reveals her hopes of marriage to Edmund only when he has been elevated to Sir Edmund upon the untimely death of his older brother that Edmund begins to notice Fanny and to see her as a potential wife.  What this film has going for it is a lovely soundtrack, a much more modern focus, and lead characters who feel somehow more tangible than in other versions, not to mention the odd laugh here and there.

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Image from austenefforts.blogspot.co.uk

The final version I am going to discuss is my favourite.  The BBC mini-series was made in 1983 and starred Sylvestra Le Touzel and Nicholas Farrell as Fanny and Edmund.  This is by far the most faithful to the novel and due to its length, it is able to reproduce the story almost chapter for chapter.  It is very much of its time in that many of its scenes are devoted to dialogue rather than action, Georgian phrases with which a modern audience may not be familiar are repeated by the actors, and the costumes are historically accurate rather than necessarily attractive or flattering.  However, for all these things, I love it and find it rather comforting and engaging to watch.  One feels that when Austen wrote this novel, this is what she saw in her head.

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Image from theassemblyrooms.blogspot.co.uk

As in the novel, the mini-series glosses over much of the darker subject matter which more modern adaptations have brought to the fore, and instead the characters and their interactions with one another are what matter.  Sir Thomas Bertram is played by the wonderful Bernard Hepton and although still authoritative, this is probably the gentlest portrayal of the different adaptations.  The same can be said Angela Pleasance’s Lady Bertram.  Mary Crawford (played by Jackie Smith-Wood) is very likable in this version but, of course, deeply floored.  I find it an interesting decision of the writer’s to included so many conversations between Edmund and Fanny in which he tries to understand Mary’s character, and more importantly to explain away her faults due to the people to whom she has been exposed.  Farrell’s Edmund is unavoidably feeble in some scenes but he also shows a lot of tenderness towards Fanny which helps to explain the attraction she feels towards her cousin.  Le Touzel’s Fanny Price is possibly the closest to the heroine of the novel.  She is always good and moral, shy and steadfast.  She is also incredibly awkward at times and full to the brim of unexpressed passion and emotion.  Perhaps I am alone in not actually finding Fanny Price as insipid as some others seem to, and perhaps this is why I prefer Le Touzel’s portrayal.  The final declaration of love in this version is quiet and matter of fact, as it is in Austen’s novel.  It could be somewhat disappointing and understated for a modern audience but it is faithful and so, for some, could be just what one wants from a Jane Austen adaptation.

A review of Poldark (contains spoilers)

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Image from The Independent Times

Poldark combines two of my greatest loves – Cornwall and, of course, period drama.  This second series was long awaited, as it had been over a year since the end of series one when the first episode was finally aired.

The first series saw the return of Captain Ross Poldark to his home in Cornwall after three years of fighting in the American War of Independence.  Here, he is dismayed to find that his father has died, his home is neglected and his former love, Elizabeth, has become engaged to his cousin, Francis.  He nevertheless picks himself up and between marrying his kitchen maid, Demelza and re-establishing his home, also becomes a figurehead to the people of his land by helping them to regain control of their homes and their tin mines from the greedy aristocratic Warleggan family.

When, in 2013, it was first announced that there was to be a remake of the classic and hugely popular Poldark (first shown in the 1970s) there was outrage from fans who believed that nothing could be better than the 1975 BBC version.  However, since then, this modern version has also enjoyed great success, fetching in an audience of 5.1 million viewers for the first episode of series two.

I cannot comment on the comparison between the two productions, as I have never seen the 1975 version.  Nor can I comment on whether Aidan Turner’s Poldark is true to the original character in Winston Graham’s series of novels.  However, I can review the series simply as I have seen it.

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Image from BBC website

The music and the scenery in this drama are both stunning.  The opening sequence gives me goose pimples each time it is shown, and I particularly liked the way that folk songs, usually sung by Demelza are woven into the soundtrack of many of the episodes.  This drama celebrates its location as much time is devoted to showing the breath-taking beauty of Cornwall –  its rugged, untamed cliffs, the glittering sea, the grand, elegant houses…they all combine to make this programme a pleasure to watch –  a treat for the eyes.  Let’s not forget the stunningly good looking cast too; they’re equally as indulgent to watch.  Aidan Turner, who has now become almost as famous for his topless Poldark scenes as Colin Firth became for his ‘wet shirt scene’ in the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice, plays a character who is very human and full of faults, despite being the hero of the piece.  In series two, I think we see more of this than in the first when, as far as I can remember, his good-guy status was pretty well fixed.  Now that he has been married to Demelza for some years, this series switches focus somewhat to examine Ross’ relationship with Elizabeth and those feelings which we cannot shake that he has never completely gotten over her.  This is, of course, is what lead to the controversial episode which caused all the outrage – the one in which he finally seduces Elizabeth, or perhaps it was the other way around.  Whichever it was, the only outrage I felt was at Ross’s betrayal of Demelza and I think the emotional fallout was played superbly by all the actors involved, particularly Eleanor Tomlinson.  The scenes in which Demelza toys with taking revenge on her unfaithful husband by sleeping with Captain McNeil were horribly believable to watch, but luckily her character was restored to form for any viewer who loves Demelza for her loyalty and innate goodness.

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Image from Daily Express website

There is also the relationship between Poldark and George Warleggan which takes precedence in this series.  After George effectively tries to get Poldark hanged in episode one, the tension understandably grows between the two, to the extent that George seems to be after everything that Ross holds dear – his mine, his family and even the supposed love of his life, Elizabeth.  This enmity between the two provides a gripping narrative for the second series that sees many of the other characters harmed or sometimes elevated in the viewers’ eyes.

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Image from BBC website

Poldark is not a cosy, reassuring period drama to watch on a Sunday night as, for example, a Jane Austen adaptation might be.  But it is exciting, visually stunning, passionate and engrossing.  This second series has certainly persuaded me to go back and re-watch the first series (which did not capture my imagination quite as much) and I am looking forward to series three.  Let’s hope it’s not such a long wait this time!

A Review of Victoria

 

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Image from ITV.com

A couple of weeks ago, ITV’s lavish period drama, Victoria finished and this has left many people with an empty void in their late Sunday evenings.  These people are, of course, missing the crucial point that Poldark is still showing on BBC One, nevertheless, the fact remains that in losing our weekly dose of Victoria, we have lost a very entertaining, very visually appealing, very engaging piece of drama.  The good news is that it is already set to return for another series in 2017, thus continuing the story of Queen Victoria’s life.

I was not sure what I would make of Victoria before it was shown.  Regular readers might remember that I mentioned it before in another post, along with my concerns that there already exists a very good drama about Queen Victoria’s life starring Victoria Hamilton and Jonathan Firth.  However, this drama, starring Jenna Coleman had a very different feel to it, and I could appreciate it in its own right.

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Image from radiotimes website

The first episode dealt mainly with Victoria’s life before she became queen, with Catherine Flemming doing a wonderful job of representing the loving but ambitious Duchess of Kent and Paul Rhys playing the notoriously unpleasant Sir John Conroy.  And there was Rufus Sewell.  He featured heavily in the first few episodes, which was highly pleasing, and then pretty much seemed to completely disappear.  At first, I wondered if I had missed something.  Had Melbourne mentioned that he was going away?  Had he become ill, or had he died and had I simply zoned out at the relevant moment?  However, at the same time, I was reading A. N. Wilson’s Victoria: A Life, and this seems to actually be what happened.  After Victoria married Albert, Melbourne (with whom, contrary to what I had previously thought, she had shared a strange sort of unsuitable, undeclared romance) was frozen out and forgotten by Victoria so that it soon became painful for him even to ride in his carriage past Buckingham Palace (according to A.N. Wilson).  When he did eventually die, Victoria, who was by then the mother of six children seemed to regard the event so little, she gave it one short, sentence-long mention in her diary. So, the loss of Sewell’s character was great indeed, however, this is also when I felt the story line seemed to pick up the pace a little.  Tom Hughes, whose looks seem to match Queen Victoria’s own description of Prince Albert played a very convincing role and represented the prince as slightly more introverted and undemonstrative than in other dramas.  However, this too, chimes with the way in which history seems to view Victoria’s grounding and intelligent husband.  Coleman herself played a very youthful and emotional Victoria who, despite her impulsiveness and at times, her carelessness of other people’s feelings, was easy to warm to.  It was the scenes which involved the royal couple that were my favourite to watch.  It was refreshing and comforting to watch a drama which, at this stage of the series at least, shows two young people falling in love and making their start in life, and seems to celebrate this.  The parts which showed the servants and their story lines were less appealing to me, simply because I was watching this drama to find out about the life of Victoria.  To me, their scenes felt like an interruption to the main story line; it felt almost as if the servants should have had their own series, something akin to ITV’s Downton Abbey or the BBC’s Servants.

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Image from ITV.com

All in all, I really enjoyed this series.  Yes, some events were exaggerated or changed slightly for dramatic effect, but if we’re not too bothered about the historical accuracy and desire instead something that is easy to follow and weaves a strong narrative to the early life of this much-analysed queen, then this drama certainly provides that.  I am already looking forward to the next series.

A few things I learnt on a V&A Study Day…

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A few weeks ago, a good friend and I treated ourselves to a V and A study day on costume design for costume drama. I wasn’t sure what to expect and as the date drew nearer I did have some forebodings, fearing I might actually have signed myself up for something like hard work during my precious free time. However, what followed was actually a thoroughly pleasant way to spend a Saturday – a chance to be talked at by some real experts about something I adore.  If you’re reading this, then I’m assuming you may adore it too and so here are a few gems I’d like to share:

  1. The day began with an introduction to the costume house, COSPROP. This was set up by John Bright 50 years ago and is widely used by costume designers. It also includes a number of real costumes which date, I believe, back to the Georgian era.
  2. Several costume dramas use pieces that are actually from the era being portrayed. This is more common in earlier costume dramas due to the garments becoming more fragile with age. In Merchant Ivory’s A Room with a View, Helena Bonham Carter is wearing a real Edwardian gown in the famous fainting scene.
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Image from saxonhenry.com

3. One of the most interesting talks of the day was given by John Bloomfield, who amongst other things, designed the costumes for the 1970s BBC production of The Six Wives of Henry VIII. This is often held up as a hugely successful television show, which paved the way for other successful costume dramas to follow (Elizabeth R, Poldark, The Onedin Line). I’ve watched this series time and time again and never noticed how each important family had its own colour palette for their costumes – oranges, warm browns and reds for the Boleyns/Howards, Green for the Seymours and everyone else in either black and silver or black and gold.

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Image from pinterest.com

4. Each episode of The Six Wives had a budget of only £2000 for costumes. Therefore, many of the jewels that sparkle so magnificently on the costumes are actually painted bits of cardboard, screws, curtain rings, name plates and lots of PVA.

5. The costumes were designed to reflect the Tudor portraits of Hans Holbein.

6. Almost all historical costume that you see on screen begins with the underwear.  The actors and actresses do tend to wear full replica historical underwear to give their clothes the desired shape and structure.

7. Most actors and actresses are very involved in the costume design process. Their preferences and ideas about the characters they are playing are often taken largely into consideration. Jenny Beavan regaled us with stories about Vanessa Redgrave’s input on her character’s costume in Howard’s End, and how, in the end, her decisions worked for the best

8. During the final part of the day, the stage was filled with some of the designers and makers who worked on the costumes for Downton Abbey. Like many other productions, this too uses real pieces from the Edwardian era, mainly for the maids’ aprons.

9. Each Crawley sister has her own colour palette, meant to reflect the ways in which real people dress, i.e. we tend to find two or three colours that suit us and own several garments in these hues.

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Image from fanpop.com

10. For the last year, COSPROP has been working on conserving and consolidating its vast and wonderful collection of authentic historical costumes so that each one could be photographed and enjoyed by the likes of you and me on a website, which is currently underway. In the meantime, you can visit https://www.facebook.com/CostumeHeritage/ to see the updates and glimpses of what is to come.

My Cousin Rachel Review

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In recent years, I have been growing fonder and fonder of Daphne du Maurier as an author.  My first encounter with her work was, I fear, a little too early, when I was too young to appreciate it and I found the long, descriptive passages that introduce her novel, Frenchman’s Creek, impossible to get past.  However, in recent years, I have had another go, not with this particular novel, but with possibly her most famous work, Rebecca and then with Jamaica Inn.  I loved them both, especially Jamaica Inn which I now regard as one of my favourite novels.

My Cousin Rachel has been sitting on my shelf for quite some time now.  I was saving it for when I would at last have some proper time to really get stuck in to another exciting, gripping and romantic story.  I took it down and skimmed the blub on the back.  Certain phrases jumped out at me: ‘orphaned’, ‘resolutely single’, ‘mysterious woman’, ‘grand house’, it was already ticking all of the boxes.  The actual experience of reading this novel was, however, far from what I had expected.  First of all, this story is not a romance.  I did suspect it might be for a few pages when the aforementioned ‘resolutely single’ and sardonic protagonist and narrator, Philip Ashley first meets his cousin Rachel after weeks of hating the thought of her.  Such a plot structure is used in novels such as Pride and Prejudice, North and South, etc.  I thought that was where this was going.  But this idea was quickly extinguished by the rather stronger strain of mystery that runs through this book.

Just as with Rebecca, in My Cousin Rachel, we as readers are at the mercy of the narrator and the way that he perceives things.  Thus, we are drawn into his claustrophobic, old fashioned, male-dominated world from the start.  No matter how well we might know Florence in Italy, or how many pictures we might have seen of it looking just lovely, when we go with Philip, we want to leave as soon as possible, because there is something very sinister about it.  Back in his large, lonely, dusty house in Cornwall, we breathe a sigh of relief, for we are home. Du Maurier paints a vivid picture of her settings, just as she does in her other novels, yet all the while, we feel somehow detached, perhaps because we are never told specifically when this novel is set (references to Philip’s cravat and Rachel’s dresses would suggest that it is sometime during the nineteenth century).  We are never given the name of the Ashley estate or even the location.  And all we have to rely on for what is happening and how people are behaving is Philip’s account.  Even this is, at times such as when he becomes very ill, made blatantly untrustworthy.

Philip Ashley is a complex character and, as with Rachel, my opinion of him was tossed and turned about several times throughout the novel.  In general, because he is the protagonist and seemingly harmless, I was disposed to like him, or at least to sympathise with him when it looked like things were not going his way.  Rachel always seemed like a much more confident and controlled character.  She did not need my support.  Even in those moments of weakness that du Maurier allows her, I could never fully trust in her because of the seeds of doubt that Philip had already planted.

When one reflects on the plot of this book, not much actually happens.  After Philip’s trip to Florence in the first few chapters, the rest of the action all takes place in Cornwall, in and around his house.  So much of what is described is the characters’ day to day lives: their visits to church, their walks around the gardens, the occasional trip to the bank.  Nevertheless, this story is just as compelling as that of Rebecca, and just as mysterious.  It is the characters who engage our interest.  The ways in which they speak, the expressions which Philip perceives and reads into in Rachel’s face and movements, the emotions that he describes – these are the tools that du Maurier uses to keep us hooked and to keep us guessing as to who can really be trusted in this novel.

The ending felt very abrupt to me – I think that that is what du Maurier probably intended.  It was so abrupt that I had to re-read that final page at least three times before I could conjure up any emotions about what had happened.  Then, of course, I tried to unpick it.  Had there been any clues as to what was about to happen?  Were we meant to expect this?  Was it in fact an accident?  But in the end, I was left to keep on guessing.  Even the repetition of the opening two lines to the novel used so effectively to end it proved more to tantalise than to explain.  Perhaps that is why My Cousin Rachel, first published in 1951, continues to be such a successful and widely read mystery novel.  Du Maurier leaves it open to the reader to form their own opinions of Rachel, though everyone I have spoken to has come to the same conclusion as myself.  It will be interesting to see what spin the upcoming film adaptation (directed by Roger Michell and due for release in 2017) will put on it.

The Foundling Museum

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The Foundling Museum, image from artfund.org

Dear Reader,

Today, inspired by Wendy Moore’s How to Create the Perfect Wife, I decided to pay a visit to The Foundling Museum, in Brunswick Square, London.  This relatively small museum opened in 2004 and explores the history of the UK’s first children’s charity, the Foundling Hospital.

In 18th century London, 75% of children died before they reached their 5th birthday – this startling fact greets you as you step through the door to the first exhibition room and sets the tone for a moving experience that opens one’s eyes to why this charity (which is still in operation today in the form of   Coram) was so desperately important.

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                                  Thomas Coram                                                         Image from coram.org.uk

The Foundling hospital was first set up by a former sea captain called Thomas Coram.  Upon returning home from America, where he had been living for twenty years, he was shocked to see the terrible conditions in which London’s poorer people lived.  Most shocking of all, was the number of babies he saw being abandoned every day on the streets, on road sides and even on top of rubbish heaps.  He decided that something must be done to save these innocent children’s lives.  The problem was that, kind-hearted though he may have been, he lacked the financial means to bring his idea to fruition.  He campaigned relentlessly for seventeen years and planned strategically whom he would approach to ask for help.  The book in which he wrote this list of wealthy personages can be seen at the Foundling Museum with the names of several duchesses, dukes, countesses and so on, all written in neat little handwriting.  Important in providing substantial support for Coram was the famous artist, William Hogarth and the composer, George Frideric Handel.  Finally, in 1739, King George II granted permission for the scheme to go ahead and in 1741, the first babies were admitted to the hospital.  As a visitor, you can go into the room that mothers would have been taken to when they wanted to give their baby up to the charity.  The anguish that they must have felt and the miserable circumstances that may have brought them there; the heart-wrenching sense of their desperation seems still to hang in the air alongside the very clear understanding that this hospital was unquestionably a force for good.

Poverty, abandonment by the father, widowhood, the shame of illegitimacy and even crime were some of the reasons for why so many babies were abandoned in 18th century London.  The Foundling Hospital provided somewhere for the babies to be taken, where they would be safe.  Upon admission, every mother was questioned as to the reason for her bringing her baby there; if the reason was not deemed strong enough, then she was sent away still in possession of her baby.  If the baby was accepted, then he or she was given a number, a new name, and a token which the mother was expected to provide in case she should ever want to reclaim her child.  It would enable her to prove her identity.  This was often a scrap of fabric cut from the infant’s clothes, though in a large glass case on the wall, there can be seen several other examples of the sorts of things that parents left as tokens for their children.  This, to me, felt like the most tragic exhibit on display.  When you look at this, you get a sense of the real people who had to do this.  Some of the tokens are simple household items – thimbles, the arm of a doll, cards, a pot of rouge, coins – probably all that the mother could afford to give.  Some of them were more personalised and included pieces of jewellery or coins with one side rubbed smooth so that a message could be engraved.  These tokens suggest an intention of the parent to be reunited with their child should their circumstances ever change or at least, to let them know that they were loved.  Sadly, few children ever did see their parents again.  Most were apprenticed out when they were about nine years old – boys to the army and girls into service.  Thankfully, there are records on display of what happened to some of the children, having been taken care of, provided with adequate meals every day and medical care so that they could survive, be discharged by the hospital and make their way in the world.  In 1954, the Foundling Hospital placed their last pupil in foster care and, as I mentioned before, it remains today as a charity, continuing to help disadvantaged children in excess of the 25,000 it helped from the mid 1700s to the mid 1900s.

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‘The Foundling Restored to its Mother’ by Emma Brownlow ,     image from foundlingmuseum.org.uk

The Foundling Museum was Britain’s first public art gallery, to which artists have been donating their work in order to raise money for the cause since the 18th century.  This is still the case today, and on your visit, you can see works by Hogarth, portraits of various notable personages from the hospital’s early days, a bust of Handel, a series of sentimental Victorian oil paintings depicting scenes from foundling life and several modern installations.  One which I rather liked was called ‘Brontëan Abstracts’, by Cornelia Parker.  On the top floor, you can see items to do with George Fridreric Handel, including the will which he wrote in his own hand.

The museum is open every day apart from Mondays and costs £8.25 if you are an adult wishing to see the permanent collection, though if you are a member of the National Trust, it is worth bringing your card along as you can enter for £4.25.  It is a couple of pounds extra if you want to see the additional exhibition, which changes regularly.  I really wanted to make the most of my visit and it took me about an hour and a half to walk around.  I would thoroughly recommend this museum to anyone who is interested in historical social conditions, people’s personal stories from history, women’s history, art and of course, classical music.

For those who are interested, the web address from Coram is http://www.coram.org.uk/

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Coram logo

How to Create the Perfect Wife by Wendy Moore – A Review

 

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image from wendymoore.org

Firstly, I would like to say that the subtitle of this book: ‘The true story of one gentleman, two orphans and an experiment to create the ideal woman’, does not do the content of this work justice.  How to Create the Perfect Wife focuses on the socially awkward and eccentric Thomas Day, a gentleman who was born on 22nd June 1748 in the East end of London.  After his father’s death one year after he was born, he became the heir to a substantial fortune which would ensure that he would never have to work.  He was, it would seem, very intelligent and had a true desire to do good in the world.  In 1773, he and his friend, John Bicknell produced one of the earliest published attacks against slavery, a poem called  The Dying Negro, which opened readers’ eyes to the cruelty and injustice of slavery at a time when it was also very fashionable.  Day was not afraid to be unique and to stand up for what he believed in.  He did not care about fashionable clothes, or about leading a frivolous party lifestyle, though he could certainly have afforded to.  Instead, he wanted nothing more than to live a quiet, frugal and self-sufficient life, far away from the bustle and materialism of London society.  He took his inspiration from the popular philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and decided that to complete this idyllic dream, he would need a devoted, humble and hard-working wife by his side.  And here, we have to flaw in his character; the extraordinary experiment that Day set upon, with the full knowledge of his closest friends, to adopt two young orphans and raise them to be his future wives.  When one proved more suitable than the other, he would abandon the scheme for her and concentrate on the winner.

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Thomas Day by Joseph Wright image from wikipedia.org

The two girls that Thomas Day chose were Ann and Dorcas, or as he later named them, Sabrina and Lucretia.  Moore gives a very moving account of their early lives in the foundling hospital and of the lives of the women who had to give up their babies to such a fate at this time.  She goes to great lengths to explain the status of someone with no known parentage, which was essentially non-existent in 18th century Britain.  No doubt Day felt he was doing these girls a favour then, and perhaps in some ways he did.  Both were provided with an education and with money as Day had promised in a contract he drew up with a friend before the scheme went ahead.  The life of the girls under Day’s guardianship was extraordinary, as is the reaction of the people with whom they mixed.  Moore regularly draws comparisons with modern sensibilities and invites us to                                                                    question how such a man would be viewed today.

Yet this book focuses on so much more than this one social experiment.  In it can be found a wealth of information about 18th century society, the lives of the rich and the poor, the laws at the time, and an insight into the lives of some very interesting characters.  Day’s close friend, Richard Lovell Edgeworth should have a book all to himself.  Poignantly, each chapter is named after an important woman in Day’s life, and I cannot help but feel that this is a deliberate choice of Moore’s to give status to these second-class citizens, whom Day really did not seem able to understand or empathise with.  Moore delves into what their thoughts and feelings might have been.  This is difficult with the likes of Ann and Dorcas, whose early experiences were overshadowed by the way in which Day wished to portray them.  But Moore’s research is meticulous and they emerge from this book as full of life and as real as the men whose lives were so much more heavily documented.

The writing of this book is extremely compelling and after reading it, I felt that there was something tragic about the life of Thomas Day and indeed some of the women who featured.  That is what struck me – what Day did was undeniably wrong and at the very least, selfish, yet he did not intend to be a selfish person.  It was in his very nature and his province to help others.  So what we have here is a comprehensive account of a complex human being – one who seems to jump out of the pages at you as if he were flesh, and forces you to ask uncomfortable questions, to feel disgust at certain behaviour and to try to understand why it took place.   I think that’s all one can ask for from a biography.  It is simply fascinating.