Madeira Mondays: ‘For I will consider my cat, Jeoffry’

‘(Christopher Smart’s) poem about his cat is to all other poems about cats what The Illiad is to all other poems on war.’ – TS Eliot

These days, lots of people post pictures of their pets online. We can see these pictures as little tributes, little celebrations of these animals – their cuteness, their ridiculous quirks, their personalities. Back in 18th century London, Christopher Smart, a ‘mad’ poet living in an insane asylum, wrote a tribute to his feline companion, an orange cat called Jeoffry, in the form a poem. The lines that he wrote about Jeoffry became some of the most famous words ever written about a cat in all of English literature, and over the ages, Jeoffry has become a bit of a literary celebrity.

Oliver Soden’s delightful little gem of a book Jeoffry, The Poet’s Cat: A Biography (2020) imagines the life of Jeoffry the cat himself and his misadventures in Georgian London.

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Madeira Mondays: Bridgerton (TV Show Review)

Happy 2021, my friends! I wanted to kick off this year’s ‘Madeira Mondays’ series with a discussion on the hit TV drama set in the Georgian era: Bridgerton. But first…

a brief announcement regarding ‘Madeira Mondays’…

I’ve made the decision of switching these ‘Madeira Mondays’ posts from every Monday to every other Monday in 2021. I thought long and hard about this decision, especially considering that some of you have reached out to me and said that reading this series is something that you look forward to each and every week. I loved hearing that. I love writing them. But I’ve got a rather full spring ahead of me, and I just don’t think I can maintain the quality of these posts while still posting each week. And I’d rather cut down on the quantity than cut down on the quality. And I’ll be posting a little more this year about writing reflections and my life as an author, so those posts will take up some time too.

So I hope that’s all okay with you! There may be a time when I can go back to every Monday – we shall see! – but for now it’ll be every other week (or once a fortnight, for those in the UK and/or for those like myself who just enjoy using words like ‘fortnight’). And I’ve got so many posts I’m excited about planned for you – posts on 18th century medicine, more recipes, and hopefully some site visits whenever it’s possible to visit places again! If you find yourself missing the weekly posts, you can always have a look through the back catalogue of ‘Madeira Mondays’, which has now amassed around 70 posts (!), covering everything from historical fiction book reviews, to my historical cooking disasters. I hope you enjoy. Now, back to Bridgerton

What is Bridgerton?

So many people – friends, family – have asked me if I’ve seen this show. I totally get why they ask. I volunteer as a historical tour guide (and occasionally a costumed character) at a restored Georgian House in Edinburgh that depicts exactly the time period when Bridgerton is set. I have been known to enjoy frothy and fun TV shows, and I write about and study this period of history…I get it! However while Bridgerton has its charms – we’ll get to that in a sec – and ticks a lot of my boxes on paper, the first episode wasn’t my cup of tea.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. What is Bridgerton? It’s a TV series (apparently based on a series of 8 books by author Julia Quinn). It was released on Christmas day 2020 on Netflix and produced by TV titan Shonda Rhimes (who created Grey’s Anatomy). It’s basically a soapy drama following the lives of the elite ‘Bridgerton’ siblings as they make their way through Regency London, trying to find socially advantageous marriages (I only watched Episode 1, so perhaps it becomes about more than that, but I think that’s probably a fair synopsis!). I’ve broken my thoughts into different categories so let’s dive into the sumptuous world of the Bridgerton siblings…

Characters and acting

I gotta say that the tone of the acting was great. Maybe the best thing about the show. It’s mostly a set of hilarious and broad performances, which suits this cheeky and fun story just fine! It’s very lively and no-one seems to be taking it very seriously.

The young woman playing one of the daughters, Eloise, reminds me of young Carrie Mulligan. Her name is Claudia Jessie and she brings a very feisty energy and I always enjoyed it when she was on screen.

The hottie playing the Duke of Hastings, actor Regé-Jean Page, was particularly good too. He’s giving me a grumpy Duke Orsino vibe. He actually gave me very ‘Shakespearian actor’ vibes overall, and when I looked him up, I saw he began this career on stage in plays like Merchant of Venice! I knew it! (I did a lot of acting growing up and all through my uni days, including many Shakespeare plays, and I was happy my hunch proved correct!)

The characters are standard fare for this type of drama, nothing special there, but the actors all seem pretty top notch.

The look and sound

The costumes were also good to me. I’m not an expert here, of course, but most people were wearing period appropriate Empire waist dresses, while some of the queen’s ladies and the queen herself were wearing older styled gowns with stomachers etc. The gowns were VERY colorful, particularly for the comical Featherington family, and I got the sense that the costumer was leaning into the fantasy element and trying to almost make them look like costumes. Which I really liked.

Queen Charlotte (center) portrayed by Golda Rosheuvel, wearing a more ‘old fashioned’ gown, which would have been more fashionable in the late 1700’s, rather than the early 1800s, when this is set.

A lot of the score is from the Vitamin String Quartet, which I think says a lot about what they were going for with the show. I, for one, love Vitamin String Quartet: they do innovative musical versions of pop songs. I like their Regina Spektor covers myself! In Bridgerton, we hear instrumental versions of things like ‘Thank you, next’ by Ariana Grande. So instead of actual historical tunes we get pop songs reworked with a classical edge (straight out of the playbook of something like Reign). Good choice, again suggesting that this is a modern fantasy version of the Regency.

Historical accuracy

This is where we get into some trickier territory. Something notable about the series is the racial diversity of its cast. I have no idea if race becomes a theme in the series, which could be very interesting, but we see a lot of actors of color in episode one, portraying characters at all levels of society, from servants to the Queen herself. On the one hand, it’s good to see diversity in a period drama because of course people of various races populated a city like London in the early 19th century. And all too often period dramas don’t explore the lives of people of color in the historical past. Also, this is so clearly a fantasy in all respects and it isn’t striving for historical accuracy (for more of my thoughts on ‘historical accuracy’ in film and TV, see my review of Dickinson).

But there was an also unexpectedly sad edge, for me, to this casting. This drama is set in elite London society, the richest of the rich, at a time when racism would certainly have prevented most people of color from rising to this level of wealth and social influence.

I don’t like the idea that some viewers might be watching this show and thinking that racism didn’t exist in Georgian Britain because it absolutely did. And while sometimes extraordinary women like Dido Belle (who had an interesting film based on her life, called Belle) were able to exist in elite British society, despite their racial background, it sadly wasn’t the norm.

I’m hopeful that people watching the show understand that this is a fantasy in multiple ways and one of those ways is the idea that the color of your skin wouldn’t impact your life in elite British society – because it would have. Remember that even though this show isn’t set in the U.S, slavery was still alive and well over there, in Britain’s former colony, and the wealth that the Bridgerton siblings and their friends are enjoying is a wealth built from empire. 

ANYWAYS, I digress, but this choice which, initially, I quite liked, also had an unexpected sadness for me too. So…mixed feelings!

Plot/Story

This is where the show really fails for me. If you’ve seen this type of film before or read this type of book then you can guess what the plot will be. Thus far, there weren’t any surprises or unusual twists and turns regarding the story. It’s what you’d expect. This was the most disappointing element and probably the number one reason I don’t think I’ll be watching more of the series. (This is all just going off Episode 1 alone!). Nothing about the story felt fresh at all.

*

In conclusion, overall…Bridgerton is fine.

This is absolutely the type of show that you could easily pass a happy afternoon or evening ‘binge’ watching, especially if you enjoy Jane Austen novels. Or if you like, for lack of a better word, ‘marriage market’ stories where wealthy English people are trying to figure out who to marry and how to strike that balance of romantic happiness versus social security.

Those aren’t my favorite types of historical stories – I admire someone like Jane Austen though, for her cutting wit and understanding of human nature. But she was writing about her own society and her books provide a really unique (and critical!!) perspective on it – that is very different from a modern show like Bridgerton which romanticizes the historical past to this extent.

Basically, it just didn’t win me over. I found myself very bored halfway through the first episode. I’ve been watching a lot of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and I found myself wishing that I was watching that instead. I found myself wanting to check my email. I found myself feeling sad that this wasn’t floating my boat, because I often love silly and fluffy historical dramas, but ah well!

I’ve seen it compared to Downton Abbey, but I don’t think that’s fair. Downtown Abbey was a soapy drama, sure, but I’d argue that the writer and creator Julian Fellowes was deeply interested in the real societal changes happening at the time he’s writing about and often those themes are reflected in the storylines (whether that’s more women entering the work force or the breakdown of noble titled families and the selling of their estates, etc.). The writing was also full of surprises. Those surprises were often bonkers, yes, but they made for engaging viewing.

Sorry for the first ‘Madeira Mondays’ to be a bit of a ‘bad’ review, but I honestly expected to enjoy Bridgerton and was disappointed when I didn’t! It’s the number one thing viewed on UK Netflix at the moment right now, so evidently a lot of people are really enjoying and engaging with the show! And I get that. It’s fun! It just wasn’t for me.

What did you think of ‘Bridgerton’? Should I give it another try and watch Episode 2? What holiday viewing did you watch over the break?

Recommended Further Reading/Viewing:

  • Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (a novel published in 1847 and set in the same time period as Bridgerton, full of social climbing, dalliances at Vauxhall, hot rich people in late Georgian England!)
  • Vanity Fair, the 2018 TV series starring Olivia Cooke as Becky Sharp (I really enjoyed this adaptation and thought Cooke was brilliant. It was the first time I liked that character. Although I did watch this on a plane while exhausted and drinking a lot of complimentary wine – but still! I think it’s good!)
  • The BBC Pride and Prejudice from 1995 (A hugely enjoyable adaptation, full of wit and fun)

PS Today’s Featured image is:Tom and Jerry and Logic making the most of an Evening at Vauxhall: 1821, Etched by I.R. and G. Cruikshank, accessed via The Museum of London’s website

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

 

 

 

 

Madeira Mondays: Is A Tale of Two Cities worth reading?

Charles Dickens was very much a man of his time.  Much of his fiction (almost all) was inspired by the world around him: specifically, the plight of the London poor. One of his most famous works (which happens to be a favorite of mine!), A Christmas Carol, was partly inspired by a visit to the Field Lane Ragged School, one of several homes for London’s destitute children. He famously used to take long walks alone, all around London, and observe the world around him, getting inspiration for his books. Dickens and his characters – Oliver Twist, Ebenezer Scrooge, David Copperfield etc. – are basically synonymous with 19th century London. Which is why I think it’s so interesting that one of his most famous novels – A Tale of Two Cities – isn’t set in Dickens’ familiar stomping ground, but rather in the late 18th century, during the French Revolution and The Terror.

A Tale of Two Cities is a work of historical fiction, and it takes place between London and Paris (those are the titular ‘two cities’) in the 1780’s and 90’s. I was drawn to it because I love A Christmas Carol (the book) and also because I was curious to see what Dickens, a man writing in the 1850’s, had to say about the late 18th century. The equivalent would be someone now writing about the 1960’s. There’s still a removal of time, but a much smaller one than if it were me or you writing about the 18th century.

A Tale of Two Cities is also considered a ‘classic’ and while I think that one shouldn’t feel any pressure to read any book simply because it’s well-known and famous – that goes for ‘classic’ as well as contemporary lit – I do think Dickens (like Shakespeare) is an author whose work has endured for a reason. Or several. One reason, I think, is that Dickens (again, like Shakespeare) can be read on two levels – for entertainment value (if you purely want a rollicking good read!) and also on a more analytical, thematic level. His books are amusing but also rich and thought-provoking. He’s a bit over-the-top sometimes, but he also writes with so much empathy and with close observation of humor behavior. And his outage at societal inequalities is sadly still quite relevant, just as it was in the 19th century.

So now you know what I think of Dickens generally, but how was A Tale of Two Cities specificially? A ‘classic’ worth checking out, or one to skip?

Overall, I really liked this novel. No surprise, because I like Dickens’ writing and I like the 18th century (as you know!). But there’s a lot to like here even if you aren’t crazy about either of those things.

It tells the story of one family that is caught up in the events of the French Revolution, and it asks a lot of questions about justice and guilt. One man is basically asked to pay for the crimes committed by his cruel, aristocratic family on the Parisian poor. He has rejected his family long ago and deplores their actions, but the revolution is imminent and the oppressed want blood. How do we make amends, when our ancestors and sometimes even our close relatives, have committed atrocities or acts of oppression? And how far is ‘too far’ when it comes to gaining justice and retribution for the crimes of the past?

My copy had brilliant black and white illustrations – like this one.

These questions are always interesting and I think they’re especially interesting in Dickens’ hands because this is a man who really fought for the rights of the London poor and has a clear empathy for the oppressed French poor and makes it clear why they revolted. We see that, to certain aristocratic nobles, these poor people’s lives are meaningless and expendable  A boy is crushed to death under a nobleman’s cart wheel and the noble doesn’t bat an eye. A noble looks down at one of his tenant farmers, on the verge of death, ‘as if he were a wounded bird, or hare, or rabbit; not at all as if he were a fellow creature.’

Yet Dickens also condemns the violence of the Revolution fairly explicitly. The primary antagonist of the story, the sinister Madame Defarge, is an embodiment of the Revolutionaries’ desire for revenge and for heads to roll (quite literally). She is a ‘ruthless woman’ with an ‘inveterate hated of a class’ which has turned her into a ‘tigeress.’ She’s violent, excessive and without mercy, but we do see why she’s this way and how she personally has been abused by members of the upper class. So her behavior is, at least, understandable. It’s this keen sense of specifically class-based oppression throughout that makes Dickens a good writer for this subject, because he’s quite ambivalent – the violence is reprehensible, but he gets why it happened. And he’s aware that it could happen again.

Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms.

One of my favorite things about the book was Dickens’ descriptions of people. No surprise, the characters were super vivid and easy to visualize, down to the smallest player. A random jailer is described as: ‘so unwholesomely bloated, both in face and person, as to look like a man who had been drowned and filled with water.’ And all of the main characters are vivid, and relatively complex, except one: Lucie Manette. She’s worse than Mina in Dracula. She has no personality or life outside of her self-sacrificing devotion to her husband and father. Dickens seems to have no interest in either her bodily or intellectual reality – she has a child and it grows to the age of a toddler in the space of about a paragraph or two. (How do these events change her?!) She’s gorgeous, everyone loves her and would do anything for her – in short, she’s a very silly and unexamined character. With another author I’d let it slide but there’s no excuse for it when Dickens can create a character like Sydney Carton – the sarcastic, drunken, intelligent, self-loathing, spiteful yet surprisingly tender character who plays a central role in the novel’s climax.

Sydney Carton is great and, quite frankly, the whole book is pretty great too. It asks if a man, a family, even a society, can be redeemed. It isn’t spoiling much to say that, for Dickens, the answer is yes. I’m a bit more cynical, but even so, it’s nice to hope.

It would be perfect reading if you enjoy things like Poldark, or other dramas set in this period revolving around one family. I cried a lot at the end of the book, actually. Dickens can be a bit melodramatic, but his earnestness gets me every time.

Let me know what you think of A Tale of Two Cities: have you read it before? Did you read it in school? Do you plan on reading it in the future? I’d love to have any reading recommendations from you as well, particularly any spookier books as autumn approaches!

PS Today’s Featured Image is ‘Bonaparte aux Tuileries – 10 August 1792’, a painting depicting Napoleon (who would later become Emperor of France) witnessing a mob attack on the Tuileries Palace.

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: The Five by Hallie Rubenhold review

Several years ago, I went to visit a friend of mine who lived in London. I got off the train at Liverpool Street station and set off to find her flat amidst the many pubs and red brick buildings crowded around Spitalfields market. I was surprised to see a tour group, led by someone in a top hat and cane. Then a second tour group walked by. Why were there so many tours? Then I was handed a flyer and it all became clear: Jack the Ripper tour. This area was the site of the infamous White Chapel murders, back in the 1880’s.

800px-The_Illustrated_Police_News_-_20_October_1888_-_Jack_the_Ripper

The Police News from October 20, 1888, featuring the death of Elizabeth Stride (one of Jack the Ripper’s victims). The Illustrated Police News was an early British tabloid. Image accessed via the Wikimedia Commons.

You probably know this already, but for any who might not: in Victorian London there was a string of five brutal killings in the East End by a man whose identity is still unknown today. Jack the Ripper.

I didn’t end up going on any of these tours, however, and I found the whole idea of a Jack the Ripper tourism industry a little disquieting. I still do. Are we mythologizing and, in a way, celebrating this evil guy who butchered women?

I do understand the gothic Victorian allure of an unknown serial killer though and I totally get why people would be curious to learn more about the murders. But, even though I’m interested in history (as you know if you read this blog!) and especially 18th and 19th century history, I’m not a big fan of ‘true crime’ and I’ve never had any interest in learning more about the Jack the Ripper killings. That is: until I heard about Hallie Rubenhold’s book The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper

the five

This book is not about the grizzly details of the murders and it is not about Jack the Ripper at all. It’s about the five women whose lives were lost. What starts as a case study of their five lives, emerges as a fascinating social history of working class Victorian London itself. It is also an attempt to restore the humanity of five people who have been dismissed for a hundred and fifty years as ‘just prostitutes’ (By the way, Rubenhold’s research reveals that the majority of them were not sex workers at all).

It’s a fascinating and heart-breaking non-fiction account of how five very different women came to find themselves impoverished and vulnerable to attack. We follow the five victims – Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Kate and Mary Jane – who each get their own sections of the book. What becomes clear over the course of The Five is how precarious life was for working class women at the time. Many of them start out in relatively safe and stable situations, but through one or two twists of fate, find their fortunes reversed. While they were not all prostitutes, what Rubenhold does highlight is the fact that they were all alone when they were killed and sleeping outside. They were homeless. Throughout the book, Rubenhold reveals just how challenging their lives were:

The cards were stacked against Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Kate and Mary Jane from the day of their births. They began their lives in deficit. Not only were most of them born into working class families, but they were born female. Before they had even spoken their first words, they were regarded as less important than their brothers, and more of a burden on the world than their wealthier female counterparts. Their worth was compromised before they had even begun to prove it.

This book has been very hyped, but I think it lives up to the praise and popularity it has garnered. The research is detailed and it’s very well-written. And I agree with its mission of focusing on the forgotten lives of these women, tragically cut short by a brutal murderer. As this review in The Guardian points out: ‘Forests have been felled in the interests of unmasking the murderer, but until now no one has bothered to discover the identity of his victims.’ It is, quite frankly, appalling that it has taken us this long to bother looking into these women’s lives.

The Five is literally dedicated to the women who were killed by Jack the Ripper, but it’s figuratively dedicated to them as well. Dedicated to piecing together portraits of their lives and characters, dedicated to revealing how dangerous and unstable life was for London’s working poor, and dedicated to reminding the modern reader that no woman is deserving of violence. I was really impressed with it as a project and as an act of historical research, so I hope you’ll excuse the fact that it is technically about 19th century history (not 18th, like we would typically focus on for ‘Madeira Mondays’!). I was compelled to tell you about it, and hope that you will find it similarly interesting.

Let me know if you’ve heard of The Five in the comments below and if it sounds like something you might want to read! Next Monday, we’re going inside an 18th century home. I’ll be starting a string of ‘Madeira Mondays’ focused on different rooms in a Georgian household and what went on in each one: bedroom, parlor, kitchen etc.!

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!