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.



  1. Hi Stephanie!

    I loved the eye portraits. I actually got to see some of Richard Cosway's work in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The miniatures are part of the permanent collection. In the gift shop, they used to sell a bracelet with eye portraits as charms. It was interesting.

  2. Gee, I wonder if I could buy one of those online...I'll have to check it out! Thanks for the tip, Brooke--

  3. Thank you for posting pictures of the eye portraits; as I read the novel, I tried to picture what it would look like. It is not what I expected; I like how it is not a straighway gaze, but a sideways view. Delicate, soft and likely painstakingly painted. I can see how they would be kept by one close to the heart. Thank you!

  4. Naj/darcykwentworthMarch 20, 2011 at 3:48 PM

    Once again, a pleasure to tour Georgian/Regency England via these books--I'm sorry to say my one trip to Bath was when I hardly knew Jane Austen, now I can only recall the horrid water in the pump room, the greenish water of the Roman Bath, and wondering who lives now in the Crescent. I'm curious, Ms. Barron, whether first-hand tours of Bath today or only extensive research allowed this vivid depiction of Bath in Wandering Eye, a title especially clever with the both lovers' eyes wandering and the miniature painting that moved from owner to owner.

    Jane's relationship with her father is all the more poignant for us considering his coming death. Your depiction of Mr. and Mrs. Austen is not unlike Jane's of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet; you have basis for this, do you not, in some of her letters? Somewhere or other I recall encountering such a connection.

    Finally, bravo on the tension between Jane and Lord Harold. Of course we wish so much that two such clever minds depicted with an evident attraction could have Lady Desdemona's happy ending, but alas, we know Jane died with her sister rather than a lover by her side. Your speculative writing brings Jane as close to Sidmouth and Lord Harold as possible without crossing factual lines as we know them. Well done, Cassandra, for preserving your sister's privacy, well done, Ms. Barron, for letting us imagine...

  5. Hi Stephanie~
    Just finished Wandering Eye - very delightful and captivating like the first 2!! Enjoyed every minute of it! I just had a quick question about the letter frome James to Jane in the last chapter. James, in this letter, appears to be very condescending, superiour, distainful and even sarcastic to Jane - was your composition of this letter based on actual evidence of the relationship between James and Jane, or just the way you wanted to portray it for this story? Just curious..... Thanks again for your superb stories! Angela Traubel

  6. To Naj/darcykentworth--Yes, I toured Bath prior to writing Wandering Eye, and as you know it's one of the few places that is relatively similar to the town Jane knew, despite the passage of years. As for my manner of depicting her parents, I admit to part-caricature, part truth. Jane often references her mother in letters to Cassandra in ways that suggest frustration with her invalidism and--as she once noted--her vulgarity. Now, vulgarity was rather broadly defined in Jane's day, and she herself was accused of it by some readers who found Pride and Prejudice "common." So I wouldn't make too strident a case for Mrs. Austen-as-Mrs. Bennet. I suppose, in the end, I just couldn't resist suggesting that Jane derived her character from examples close to home.

  7. To Angela-
    Your question is an interesting one. Jane's letters reveal a great deal about her affections and relationships with the various members of her family. She unquestionably loved Henry and his wife Eliza; she felt similarly about her brother Frank, with whom she lived in Southampton for a while; her brother Edward and his children were a lifelong source of interest--but she wastes little time on her brother James. When she describes his visits to Chawton, it is invariably in a tone of annoyance at his manner; he comes across as irritable, demanding, and prone to slamming doors. Jane suggests he pontificated a good deal and was deeply impressed with his own opinions. I cannot think of a recorded instance when SHE visited HIS household for any length of time, although she was frequently in and out of the homes of her other brothers--and James's was closest to Chawton. This coolness may have begun with his second marriage to Mary Lloyd, whom Jane disliked; I suspect she was the model for Mary Musgrove in Persuasion--always fancying herself ill and victimized by the world in general, and her husband in particular. Jane's distance from James may have been partly the result of his inheritance of the parsonage at Steventon--her childhood home--which resulted in her banishment to Bath; her disinclination to visit him may have sprung from a desire to avoid the changed atmosphere of a place she'd loved. And finally, in Jane's childhood it was her brother James whom the family considered the REAL writer. He had an Oxford education and a successful student periodical to prove his worth; Jane was just a girl, writing stories to share in the dressing room upstairs. Her sidelong references suggest he patronized her writing when he happened to see it. Regardless, she usually sent a set of bound volumes to his household--probably more for her niece Anna than anyone else. Or perhaps for the satisfaction of thrusting yet another published work under brother's James' disapproving nose.