Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Art and Drama of Bath: Jane and the Wandering Eye

Lord Harold Trowbridge, my dark angel of recent adventure--confidant of the Crown, adversary of whomever he is paid to oppose, and general Rogue-about-Town--is the Dowager Duchess of Wilborough's younger son.  He is also in the throes of some trouble with a lady--nothing unusual for Lord Harold, although in this instance, the novelty of the lady's being not only unmarried, but related to him, must give the mendacious pause.
When I wrote the third Jane Austen mystery, Jane and the Wandering Eye, I was in the throes of passion for a relic of late Georgian England known as the eye portrait.  This is a diminutive painting of a human eye, generally executed by an accomplished miniaturist, and worn as a locket or other piece of jewelry. 

Eye portraits are reputed to have come into fashion when the Prince of Wales commissioned Sir Richard Cosway to paint the eye of Maria Fitzherbert; by some accounts, he wore it next to his heart all his life, and was even buried with it--although this is probably unproved.  (Maria herself he certainly did not retain so long.)  The portraits became known as lovers' tokens--for only with the eye of love can one see truly.  Eye portraits were suggestive of hidden passion, illicit amour, and clandestine love, as well--for an eye is difficult to identify, when abstracted from a face.  It might be anybody's. 

What a perfect clue to drop at the scene of murder!

Jane and the Wandering Eye is set in Bath in 1804, during the Christmas Season.  This is an important time in Jane Austen's life, because it marks the high tide of her young womanhood.  A month later, in January 1805, her clergyman father would unexpectedly die, throwing his widow and two unmarried daughters into domestic upheaval.  Although Jane never loved Bath, she was soon to leave it, as the Austen ladies embarked upon a series of short-term lodgings and impermanent households throughout the south of England.  This, then, is Jane Before the Flood--able to enjoy the frivolities and absurdities of a watering-hole she describes so vividly in Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.  In depicting Bath  in 1804, I hoped to paint a town that was not yet a backwater, but a fashionable alternative to London and Brighton, the Prince of Wales's preferred escape.  To do that, I consciously tapped into the culture of painting and of the theatre--eye portraits and Shakespearean actors--to serve as backdrop to Jane's detective adventure.

On occasion, readers ask where I find my ideas for novels.  Invariably, I tell them that I stumble on a subject I wish to research--and build a story around it.  This was true of the portrait painting of the period, and also of the state of the theatre at the time.  Both were flourishing enterprises, and both served on occasion to elevate their foremost practitioners from the fringe of society to its heights.  The aforementioned Sir Richard Cosway received his title for services to the Crown; his estranged wife, the enchanting Maria Cosway, was a compelling painter herself whom Napoleon chose to catalogue his breathtaking collection of stolen paintings--which became the foundation of the Louvre Museum.  While in Paris on this errand, Maria Cosway fell in love with Thomas Jefferson.  As the fashion for Georgian styles of painting, exemplified by Sir Joshua Reynolds and Gainsborough, waned, however, the freer and clearly more "modern" hand of Thomas Lawrence came into vogue.  He emerges as a chief character in Jane and the Wandering Eye for several reasons: he had personal ties to principal acting families of the period, and his popularity as a portraitist among the wealthy and influential meant that he had access throughout late Georgian--early Regency Society.  His career reached its apogee--and he received his title--when he was commissioned to paint both the Regent and the heroes of Waterloo (including the Duke of Wellington, left) whose portraits now hang in the famous Waterloo Chamber at Windsor Castle.

Researching the theatre of the time was equally compelling, as plays fell broadly into two categories--tragedy and comedy--and most accomplished actors or actresses excelled at one or the other.  Sarah Siddons exemplified tragedy; her brothers, John and Charles Kemble, the ultimate in Shakespearean interpretation; and Dolly Jordan the comic muse.  Dolly Jordan embodies an actress who moved between two worlds--that of the stage, which was regarded as disreputable for a woman to grace in Austen's time, and that of the haute ton; as the Duke of Clarence's mistress, she bore ten children known as the FitzClarences.  For those interested in Dolly, I suggest Claire Tomalin's excellent biography and study of theatre in Austen's day, Mrs. Jordan's Profession.

The most successful transition from boards to bedroom, however, was effected by the comic beauty Elizabeth Farren--who, after years of hopeful passion for the Earl of Derby, became his second countess when his first wife finally died.  The connections between art, theatre, and the Great World come together in Sir Thomas Lawrence's famous portrait of Elizabeth Farren, seen here. 

Weaving all of these elements into a story for Jane and Lord Harold--whose wilfull niece, Desdemona, makes her first appearance in the series in Wandering Eye--was a delightful exercise.  Naturally, Mona would have her portrait painted by Lawrence...

Many readers have commented that this novel is reminiscent of a Georgette Heyer book; and I never argue the point.  Heyer, for those who have not yet read her, created what we think of as the Regency novel--and any portrait of Bath during Austen's lifetime must inevitably evoke the Heyer atmosphere.  If you enjoy Wandering Eye, have read Austen's novels set in Bath, and still want more of the place and period--by all means consult Heyer.  My favorite of her Bath novels include Bath Tangle and The Black Sheep.