Tag Archives: romance

When sex goes wrong: Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Donmar Warehouse

Well, that didn’t disappoint. I booked Les Liaisons Dangereuses in some trepidation, though: not only is it up there amongst my favourite novels, but for anyone of my generation, a revival will always evoke memories of the 1985 production with Lindsay Duncan and the late, lamented Alan Rickman, and the celebrated Stephen Frears film starring John Malkovich and Glenn Close.

Happily, Josie Rourke’s production at the Donmar Warehouse measures up.

The plot is gloriously serpentine: it centres on the Marquise de Merteuil (Janet McTeer) and the Vicomte de Valmont (Dominic West), former lovers whose favourite sport is sexual intrigue. Valmont wants to seduce the upright Madame de Tourvel (Elaine Cassidy); Merteuil wants him to corrupt Cécile de Volanges (Morfydd Clark), in order to take revenge on her former lover, who has left her to marry Cecéile, who is in love with the callow Chevalier Danceny (Edward Holcroft). Cécile succumbs to Valmont. Merteuil agrees that she will spend another night with Valmont, but only if he provides written proof of his seduction of Madame de Tourvel. And then the intrigues unravel when despite himself, Valmont falls in love with Tourvel and is forced by a furious Merteuil to break with her. It ends with Valmont killed in a duel with Danceny, the exposure of their letters to the public gaze, and the pervading sense of a doomed aristocratic class on the eve of the Revolution.

Janet McTeer, Dominic West as Merteuil and Valmont

Janet McTeer, Dominic West as Merteuil and Valmont

Valmont and Merteuil exist in a series of masks, though their dissoluteness is tempered by self-knowledge and wit. But this is not just a play of surfaces; both are taken by surprise by their own emotions. Christopher Hampton’s superb adaptation, in which every line contains a dagger, more than does justice to Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ epistolary masterpiece, condensing four volumes into a couple of hours of theatre.

With such an eventful narrative there’s a danger it can tip into melodrama, so the casting is key. The leads have good chemistry. Dominic West’s Valmont is commanding and charismatic (though a couple of his lines are surprisingly shaky), while Janet McTeer is the right blend of deadly and charming, adept at playing the virtuous matron and counsellor who is trusted by Madame de Volanges (Adjoa Andoh) while at the same time helping to corrupt Cécile. Elaine Cassidy, in the difficult virtuous role as Madame de Tourvel, delicately articulates her inner struggle. The scene in which, confronted with her own desire for Valmont, she faints into his arms laces pathos with comedy and is particularly well done. There’s plenty of excellent work in the smaller parts, too: Jennifer Saayeng (last seen in City of Angels at the Donmar) as the courtesan Émilie, Una Stubbs as Madame de Rosemonde and Theo Barklem-Biggs as Valmont’s valet are all strong, though as Danceny Edward Holcroft is not so convincing.

Merteuil and Cécile

Merteuil and Cécile

Sex as a weapon, deceit as strategy, seduction as social practice: Les Liaisons Dangereuses is all about the perils of pleasure. There’s pleasure for the viewer, too in the gorgeous costumes and the candles, and we merrily go along with the intrigue – with the exception of the uncomfortable scene of Valmont’s rape of Cécile. Valmont’s letters present it as a seduction, but the Donmar production allows us to see it through her eyes and therefore neatly wrongfoots the audience, since we’ve all been rooting for the sexy villains.

There’s one oddity about the Donmar production. The ending of Laclos’ novel sees Merteuil exposed; Valmont’s last act of revenge is to have their correspondence published. In Stephen Frears’ 1988 film, Glenn Close is booed at the opera and the last scene sees her savagely removing her face-paint, suggesting the disfigurement of smallpox she suffers in the novel. In the Howard Davies staging in 1985 the last scene was played out against a projection of a guillotine, suggesting how libertine aristocrats will soon be swept away (and perhaps uncomfortably suggesting the Terror as a moral broom). Here, though, the final scene, in which Cécile’s fate is decided by the three older women, hangs ambiguously. There’s a shadow in McTeer’s eyes at that point, as if she realises she’s tiring of the power games, but there’s no overt suggestion that Merteuil will be disgraced. It’s almost as if the whole cycle will begin again with a new set of lovers.

Madame de Tourvel

Madame de Tourvel

I’d forgotten how much Laclos’ main characters group novel-reading disparagingly with sentimentality. Hampton retains these references throughout his adaptation; when Madame de Tourvel is struggling with her love for Valmont, she reads Clarissa – the latter being the novel to which Laclos’ work is most strongly indebted. Laclos’ text also defines itself against the feminocentric novels of Madeleine de Scudéry, whose idealising romances were still being read in the eighteenth century in both France and England, but were increasingly being satirised within fiction. In Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote (1752) the heroine Arabella makes a whole series of misjudgements because of her reading of French heroic romance, much as Catherine Morland does with the Gothic variety in Northanger Abbey. Female agency in Laclos is verbal and calculated, and the witty dialogue between Valmont and Merteuil rests on the assumption of intellectual equality. Pierre-Daniel Huet’s 1670 A Treatise of Romances (translated into English in 1672, Wing H3301) makes the connection between high narrative art and gender power relations, arguing that French romances are superior to any other nation’s because of

‘the refinement and politeness of our Galantry; which proceeds (in my opinion) from the great liberty in which the Men in France live with Women: these are in a manner recluses in Italy and Spain, and are separated from Men by so many obstacles, that they are scarce to be seen, and not to be spoken with at all’ ( p.103).

La Carte de Tendre

La Carte de Tendre

It’s a notion articulated strongly in Madeleine de Scudéry’s Clélie (1654), which introduced its readers to the Carte de Tendre, or the map of tenderness. Possibly a collective creation of Scudéry’s Paris salon, it’s a spatial representation of how heterosexual intimacy can and should progress. It begins at Nouvelle Amitié and presents three routes to ‘Tendre-sur-Reconnaissance’ ‘Tendre-sur-Inclination’ and ‘Tendre-sur-Estime’: gratitude, inclination and esteem. Along the way, the lover must pass through towns called Complaisance (obligingness), Petit Soins (small favours), or Obéissance (obedience), but there are dangers for the unwary traveller, who can wander to Negligence (neglect), Légereté (frivolity), Perfidie (treachery) and Orgeuil (pride) and potentially end up in the Mer d’Inimité (sea of Emnity). The most perilous endpoint, though is La Mer Dangereuse, a place of unbridled passion. The map still has the power to inspire now; Gucci’s head designer Alessandro Michele calls clothes ‘an atlas of the emotions’ and Gucci’s womenswear collection for spring this year included a print of La Carte de Tendre on a midi dress.

Gucci womenswear collection, Spring 2016

Gucci womenswear collection, Spring 2016

The Carte de Tendre regulates and authorises the emotional interactions between men and women, making them literally readable, though Boileau satirised this as a covert manual of seduction. Merteuil is with Boileau on this: she declares in the play:

‘I became a virtuoso of deceit. I consulted the strictest moralists to learn how to appear, philosophers to find out what to think, and novelists to see what I could get away with, and in the end, I distilled everything to one wonderfully simple principle: win or die.’

Merteuil’s philosophy of self-interest is diametrically opposed to Scudéry’s Carte de Tendre, but it gestures at a not dissimilar road map within relationships. What they both have in common is a horror of lack of control, or ‘la mer dangereuse’ of passion, and it is exactly that lack of control that forms Merteuil and Valmont’s downfall as they give in to love (or at least, a form of love). Les Liaisons Dangereuses not only figures the patterns of seduction as war, but also subverts the very notion of friendship – the highest possible relationship in Scudéry’s novel, which is presented as a form of perfect understanding. Valmont and Merteuil’s relationship is a twisted version of the friendship so valorised by Scudéry; there is only perfect understanding between Valmont and Merteuil when they share the same malicious objectives. Merteuil’s conviction that sex is the only power a woman can have is the cynical obverse of Clélie’s idealised view of negotiated relationships. Les Liaisons Dangereuses reverses the map of tenderness into a map of dazzling cruelty.



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Chivalry in Liverpool

Our book club had a fantastic weekend of culture, food and drink in Liverpool in March. Just before our train home we ended up spending a couple of hours in the gorgeously refurbished Central Library, where there were two books on display that really caught the eye. One was Speculum Aureum Decem Praeceptorum, a collection of sermons based on the Ten Commandments by the fifteenth-century monk Henricus Herpf. It was published in 1481 by the Nuremberg printer and goldsmith Anton Koberger at a time when the Continental printing industry was beginning to flourish – Caxton only printed his first book in 1473, when the presses in Cologne, Bruges and Nuremberg were already going strong. It appears that Herpf ‘s meditations had a healthy readership regardless of political or confessional divides, given John Dee’s library contained a heavily-annotated book of his sermons. (Abe Books is currently selling one of them for £18,435.65, plus £29.83 p&p. I think I’ll pass.)chained book

If I’m honest, the real interest is the material detail that hints at how it was consumed. It’s bound in pigskin with its chain still attached – the last link has a bolt that is shaped to fit into a slot where it could run freely, presumably with other books in a collection. It’s a book made to be housed with others, which hints at an intellectual or devotional community – in this case, an institution in Gerpinnes in the Belgian region of Hainaut.

The second book of note is a stunning illuminated manuscript called Voeux du Paon (the vows of the peacock), written a century earlier in 1312 and dedicated to Thibaut de Bar, bishop of Liège. This copy (Phillipps MS 2582) is bound in 18th-century mottled calf and the head librarian tells me that it was bought in 1957 from a collection that was originally acquired by the antiquarian Sir Thomas Phillipps in the early 19th century. Phillipps was clearly an enthusiast of fourteenth-century verse romance, since he owned two other versions of the Voeux, all of which are from the same manuscript tradition with little dramatic variation among them. When the medieval scholar Edward Billings Ham compared the three in 1929, he found that what is now the Liverpool manuscript has less regional French dialect than its companions but the scribe’s calligraphy is not as fine as the others.

Verse romance, which on the whole (generalisation alert) was consumed orally, tends not to have quite so much in the way of iconography and this conforms to that – just 20 illustrations among the 132 leaves of vellum.

The Voeux du Paon, which is part of a cycle of texts around Alexander the Great, switches between warfare and leisure, between the battlefield and the courtly milieu; it starts off with the siege of the castle of Epheson where the attacker, Clarus, is trying to make Fesonas, the sister of Gadifer, marry him. Gadifer has some powerful allies, though; namely, the venerable knight Cassamus and Alexander himself. During the enforced leisure of the siege, the lords and ladies gather and the knight Porrus kills Fesonas’s peacock. To calm the gathering, Cassamus suggests the peacock be the focus of vows among the company, whereupon the knights pledge to perform great deeds.

My medievalist friend Mike Leahy tells me that there’s a very probable link between these peacock vows and Edward I’s feast at Westminster in 1306 where he pledged over a feast of swans to avenge various acts of aggression by Robert the Bruce and to fight the Saracens in the Holy Land. The feast of swans saw over 200 lords knighted at the same time, so it’s a key moment in the development of the ideology and culture of chivalry, particularly given Edward I’s propensity to appropriate Arthurian legend. It looks like the Longuyon text is therefore a classic example of refictionalising an original act, and how that piece of fiction in turn helps to create cultural rituals – a bit like the way that the jousts in Sidney’s Arcadia and the Elizabethan Accession Day tilts inform and create each other’s mythology. There was a subsequent rash of verse imitations of the peacock vows, too, such as the vows of the sparrowhawk and the vows of the heron (the latter dramatising Edward III’s decision to embark on what would become the Hundred Years’ War).

les voeux du paon 2

The transmission history of the Voeux du Paon is significant not just for initiating the cycle of texts around vows. It also marks the first appearance of the Nine Worthies, the three triads of great heroes whose examples span pagan, Old Testament and more recent history. They are: Hector, Alexander and Julius Caesar; Joshua, Judas Maccabaeus, and David; and Arthur, Charlemagne, and Godfrey of Bouillon, who successfully besieged Jerusalem in the First Crusade. All are deemed by Longuyon as the perfect noble warriors, neatly co-opting the emerging cult of chivalry into a divinely ordained historical continuum. The Nine Worthies became embedded into high and popular culture, from tapestries to ballads. By the time of Love’s Labour’s Lost, the Nine Worthies are well known enough to become comically misremembered by the middling-sort characters when they try and put on a masque for the aristocracy. It’s not chivalry being satirised there, but – much to the derision of the lords and ladies – the artistic pretentions of Holofernes, Nathaniel & co and their misappropriation of chivalric heritage, which is a slightly uncomfortable scene for a modern audience.

Even more excitingly, on the back of this I bought what I hope will turn out to be a magnificent historical bodice-ripper. The Vows of the Peacock, by Alice Walworth Graham (1955), is the story of Edward II, Isabella and Roger Mortimer. The blurb on the back tells me it’s about the ‘pageantry and scandal of a great court set aflame by a too-beautiful, too-ambitious woman’. Sounds just the ticket.

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The Knight of the Burning Pestle, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

I missed The Duchess of Malfi, so my trip south of the river last week was my first time at the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, which has been built to put on the sort of plays that weren’t originally staged at the Globe but at the indoor Blackfriars theatre. It’s a lovely intimate space, lit only by candles. The repertoire is non-Shakespearian– next up is Marston’s The Malcontent, and running right now is Francis Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle.

The Knight of the Burning Pestle performed at the Globe Theatre

The Knight of the Burning Pestle is proof that the post-modernists didn’t invent post-modernism. The play announced onstage is ‘The London Merchant’, in which Jasper the apprentice (Alex Waldmann)  is courting Luce (Sarah MacRae), the daughter of his master (Giles Cooper), but their love is forbidden. Sitting among us in the auditorium are the Citizen (Phil Daniels), the Citizen’s Wife (Pauline McLynn – yes, Mrs Doyle from Father Ted) and their apprentice Rafe (Matthew Needham). The grocer and his wife interrupt the play and demand that London characters – specifically Rafe – should appear and be given heroic roles. The apprentice duly joins the action on stage and the rest of the play is accompanied by a very funny running commentary by the Grocer and his wife – Neil Rhodes’s piece in the programme likens it to a Jacobean Gogglebox. The commentary and occasional direction from the Citizens – who now and then invade the stage – constantly take the plot of The London Merchant into random directions. Rafe’s noble deeds in Waltham Forest scare away Jasper’s mother (Hannah McPake), who, fed up with her drinking and prodigal husband, has run away with Michael, her favoured son. After various adventures in which Rafe defeats the giant Barbaroso (who is really the barber), Jasper pretends to be dead and then impersonates his own ghost, and all sorts of slapstick, the two young lovers win the merchant’s approval.

It’s probably a bit long at three hours, but it’s actually very funny.  It’s not just knockabout stuff, either; it’s terribly meta. The Knight of the Burning Pestle is actually three plays in one – the original play put on by the company, the chivalric play urged on by the grocer, and the ensuing final production that we, the real audience, enjoy, which is a comic synthesis of both of them. There’s explicit comedy of register too; Luce’s approved suitor Humphrey (Dickon Tyrrell, in a Michael Fabricant wig) speaks in high-flown rhyming couplets that are far removed from the demotic speech of the lovers and particularly the grocers. ‘The London Merchant’ plot is straight out of the cynical City comedies of Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker, which usually involve spirited lovers outwitting their merchant fathers. But City comedies don’t offer heroism; what the grocer couple really want to see on stage is escapist chivalric literature, and they want to get involved.

Imagine Harry Potter rolled into Jason Bourne and you’ll get an idea of the stories that the grocers are after. These are the so-called Iberian romances, probably best filed under early modern guilty pleasures. They include the Palmerin series and the granddaddy of them all, Amadis de Gaule, which originated in Spain, were elaborated upon in French and translated for the first time into English by Anthony Munday in 1590. We had our own homegrown tales too, like Guy of Warwick, whose provenance goes back to the fourteenth century.

knight barber

Beaumont is having a lot of fun at the expense of the grocers and their insistence that they no longer be passive consumers of romance but active purveyors of it. You can see how much he is tapping into the satirical, anti-romance tradition personified by Cervantes. The Knight of the Burning Pestle is thought to have been performed in 1607; Don Quixote, which had been published in Spain in 1605, had its first English printing in 1612. By the time Cervantes is writing at the beginning of the seventeenth century, there’s enormous amounts to satirise. The Iberian romances are full of heroic battles, magic potions, jousts with masked knights, vicious giants, and the insistence on knightly honour and duty. Although chivalric romance is often pretty sexy (Amadis gets it on with the heroine Oriana before getting married) Rafe is modelling himself on the chaste Christian hero – rejects the advances of the princess of Moldavia. In this context the syphilitic overtones of the ‘burning pestle’ are particularly amusing given our hero’s obvious sexual innocence. What’s more, when Don Quixote and Rafe transplant their understanding of heroism into a ‘real’ context of innkeepers and barbers rather than knights and princes, their rigidity in the way they read the genre usually ends in their getting beaten up. The fight scenes in this production, by the way, are genuinely hilarious.

There’s not just fighting – there’s a lot of music , too, The songs are often fragments, primarily sung by Merrithought (Paul Rider), who’s clearly modelled on Falstaff but without the coherence or the ruined majesty. Some are from pretty more elevated musical sources – ‘Down, Down, down’ is a reference to the ‘Sorrow Stay’ in John Dowland’s Second Book of Songs and Ayres (1600), and ‘Sing wee, and chaunt it’ is from Thomas Morley’s First Book of Balletts (1595) But the majority of them are popular ballads.  ‘Nose, nose, jolly red nose’, and ‘Trole the black bowle’ end up in Thomas Ravenscroft’s songbooks – respectively, Deuteromelia and Pammelia (both 1609), where they nestle against a large collection of drinking songs, catches and theatre tunes. The theatre and the alehouse were central social spaces, and inevitably both were attacked by the godly. Mirth was a loaded concept in Stuart cultural politics; James I’s Book of Sports in 1618 sanctioned leisure activities on holy days, much to the disgust of strict Puritans.

Puritans were not all your black-hatted Zeal-of-the-land Busy types satirised by Jonson in Bartholomew Fair. They also made up the sober, God-fearing, Protestant commercial class that ended up being the backbone of Parliamentarian support in London during the Civil War – in other words, the class to which the Citizen and his wife belong. But mirth, Beaumont is suggesting, is available to all of us, and it doesn’t have to be anarchic; it can be creative. For example, the fun he has dismantling playgoing conventions of the fourth wall creates another play before our eyes. At the same time, drinking does not have to entail prodigal disintegration. Instead, it can be an agent of sociability.  The Knight of the Burning Pestle ends with a speech not from a hero but from the Citizen’s wife, who takes charge of the epilogue. She says to the audience directly: “I would have a pottle of wine and a pipe of Tobacco for you’ and pretty much invites everyone back to hers. It’s certainly not The Duchess of Malfi.

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Don’t mess with the shepherdesses: L’Astrée in England

It’s a classic quiz question: who was the first woman to make a living from writing? Answer: Restoration dramatist and poet Aphra Behn.

What’s perhaps less well known is that she consistently referred to herself as ‘Astrea’ in her writing.  ‘Astrea’ carries a whole host of associations in seventeenth-century England. There are traces of Astraea, the name often identified with Elizabeth I, but its most resonant derivation is from L’Astrée, a pastoral bestseller written by Honoré D’Urfé in 1607 and first translated into English as Astrea in 1620.


Aphra Behn, 1670

Set in Forez, a region near Lyons, L’Astrée recounts the stories of groups of nymphs and shepherds in a forest divided by the river Lignon. On one side of the river are the shepherds and shepherdesses; on the other, nymphs and nobles. As with all pastoral romance, it’s about aristocrats with leisure time yearning for a simple life and philosophising about social, ethical and erotic behaviour. Farmers’ Weekly it ain’t.

The romance begins when Astrée banishes her lover Celadon from her sight. She believes him to have been unfaithful, but the blameless shepherd has been a virtuous and constant lover. Distraught, he throws himself into the river Lignon and is rescued on the other side of the bank by Galathée and her nymphs Léonide and Sylvie. Galathée falls in love with Celadon and keeps him comfortably imprisoned for most of the first volume before he escapes with the help of Léonide to the other side of the forest where he constructs a temple to his beloved.  Love, avowedly chaste, becomes the central force of the text as the characters variously discuss their dilemmas and pass judgement on the ethics of lovers’ actions.

L’Astrée is barely studied at universities now. Its length militates against it, so if it’s examined at all it’s through excerpts or as an exercise in narratology (though check here for a University of Paris project on D’Urfé) since it uses a variety of discursive forms: letters, tales, poems, debates. It’s a remarkably lively read; the individual stories of romantic predicaments that fan out from the central narrative are skilfully woven together, and there is considerable craft in leaving clues that later stories pick up. Myriad different characters are delineated: the proud Astrée, who begins to doubt herself and is tormented by regret for having banished Celadon,  headstrong Galathée daughter of the king, the haughty Sylvie, the patient and suffering Celadon, the wise druid Adamas, Sylvandre the judicious intellectual and the amusing libertine Hylas, to name but a handful.

In my next few blogposts I want to discuss its enormous cultural impact. L’Astrée ported Neoplatonic ideas into a readily accessible fictional form. Those ideas, with a little help from St Francois de Sales’s Devout Humanism, dominated aristocratic French culture and the English court. L’Astrée even inspired a equally well-known parody by Charles Sorel, Le Berger Extravagant.

Soul food: The rise of cultural Neoplatonism

L’Astrée is soaked in Neoplatonic philosophy, which holds that all the universe is one being and that different levels of existence work in unity. This is overt throughout the text: to give just two examples, the druid Adamas declares in volume three that God creates the universe out of love and gives man reason, which teaches him to love God in the world. The ideal of love is a manifestation of God. The intellectual Silvandre states in volume two that love is not an abstraction whereby man unites in the love of God but where the lover and beloved unite their souls and wills.

It’s worth stepping back for a moment to examine Neoplatonism’s illustrious Renaissance pedigree. Marsilio Ficino, the Italian metaphysician who represented Plato as the philosopher of unity and order, was a major influence on the gentle theology of St Francois de Sales, who believed in the goodness of human nature. Love and beauty become a way to experience the divine, since to adore the beloved is to be directed to contemplate spiritual things. Uniting souls, not the bodies, is what distinguishes Neoplatonism, which takes as a source text Plato’s Symposium.

Neoplatonism in England is evident from the middle of the sixteenth century, though it’s less a philosophical movement than a literary one.

Jayne Sears argues that although Ficino is influential on the Continent, he is not the primary source for Neoplatonism in England at this time, and certainly an EEBO search reveals that neither Ficino nor Plato was published in English during this period.  Prose writers up to 1570, such as Elyot and Ascham, engage with these ideas, but between 1570 and 1610 the influence of Plato’s Symposium is evident in poetry (especially in Spenser and Drayton) and after that mostly in drama, particularly Fletcher’s The Faithful Shepherdess (1608) and other tragicomedies.

The Neoplatonic literary version of love is not Petrarchan. You simply don’t get the frustrated blazon of the female body, where physical parts are parcelled out. This is rife in the sixteenth century both in France and England; check out Pléiade writers such as Ronsard or the erotic epyllions by Inns of Court poets such as Barnabe Barnes and Thomas Lodge. However, from the second decade of the 1600s, just after L’Astrée was published in France, the lover contemplates the whole being of his adored. The feminine is still the object of the masculine gaze, but the masculine is yearning to mesh with and subsume itself into the beloved in Platonic unity. Drayton’s valorisation of chastity is a typical example, but Donne’s Valediction Forbidding Mourning (1611) best fits the Neoplatonic template:

Our two soules, therefore, which are one, 

Though I must goe, endure not yet

A breach, but an expansion, 

Like gold to ayery thinnesse beate.

But we can’t let the poets hold the floor; what’s missing from Sears’ analysis is romance. On the Continent, Urfé’s L’Astrée had become a central transmitter of Neoplatonic ideas, and Catholic Neoplatonists such as St Francois de Sales recognised its cultural power in the promotion of a virtuous life. J-P Camus, who wrote a biography of de Sales shortly after his death, says in his Esprit de St Francois de Sales (tome VI, p 119) that anyone who reads it must acknowledge that its narration of love and chastity are exemplary, just as its author D’Urfé is: “Et certes qui considérera bien l’Astrée et en jugera sans passion recognoistra qu’entre les romans et les livres d’amour, c’est possible l’un des plus honnestes et des plus chastes que so voient, l’autheur estant l’un des plus modestes et des plus accomplis gentils-hommes que l’on puisse figurer..” (quoted in McMahon, fn p233.)

In mid-seventeenth century England, cultural production was dominated by the stage, but romance increasingly helped shape its norms (yes, that’s a sweeping statement, but the traffic between Jacobean and Caroline tragicomedy and romance is too big a subject to elaborate on here). It wasn’t long before a recognisable Neoplatonic culture emerged that was notably feminocentric – and that coincided with a L’Astrée ‘s publication in English in 1620 by an anonymous translator.

The injunction that women should be silent simply does not exist in L’Astrée, either implicitly or explicitly. Shepherdesses and nymphs speak as much as the shepherds and knights.. They relate their own stories and give judgement in the love debates. Near the end of the first volume the shepherds and shepherdesses discover the Temple D’Astrée, where The Laws of Love (“Loix d’Amour”) are engraved. This erotic manifesto posits a submissive (male) lover who must serve his lady, but whereas medieval courtly love had an adulterous subtext, the Astréen lover must serve without necessarily hoping for physical reward. Love must be pure.

The gender politics of L’Astrée and English proto-feminism

L’Astrée marks a radical restatement of the status and agency of aristocratic women. This blossomed in Paris salon culture and préciosité, and it’s most famously exemplified by the Hôtel de Rambouillet, which was the centre for the literary lions of the day. Discussion of love and literary topics in the salons were self-consciously modelled on the debates in L’Astrée. And this is where life mimics fiction; Laurence Gregorio argues that it should not be read as a consistent text that advocates a particular form of Platonic love, but one that sets how to talk about it: “What we see emerging is not a concrete philosophy of love, but rather a kind of theatre of rhetoric, destined for the general divertissement and consistently ending in general merriment.” L’Astrée therefore provides a model for French and English salonnistes in which men and women could take an equal voice.

In England, any analysis of the success of these discursive conventions converges on two central proto-feminists or précieuses and their circles: Queen Henrietta Maria and Lucy Percy Hay, the Countess of Carlisle.While Erica Veevers and Julie Sanders have sought to differentiate these circles – the court’s préciosité had a strong religious accent, while the Countess of Carlisle’s salon was considerably more secular – most critical attention has nevertheless been focused on Charles I’s wife, the French Henrietta Maria. Her expensive court masques were strongly politically encoded and her defiant Catholicism was controversial, not least because of a series of high-profile conversions to Rome by English nobles. (Erica Veevers and Karen Britland have done wonderfully detailed studies on how her political allegiances played out culturally.) In Henrietta Maria’s court productions, women were seen on stage for the first time. Her brand of Neoplatonism was intertwined with Catholic theology, fusing Astréen pastoral romance with de Sales’s Devout Humanism and just a sprinkling of Mariolatry.

To say that the Puritans didn’t like it would be an understatement. William Prynne’s 1000-page diatribe against the theatre Histriomastix (1632) rails against the “amorous pastoralls” at court and attacked women on stage as “notorious whores”. Given that the queen was one of the women who appeared on stage (albeit at court, not in public) publishing Histriomastix was considered a criminal act; Prynne’s ears were cut off and he was branded a seditious libeller.

Yet in many ways, Prynne’s views would prevail. Among many Parliamentarians Neoplatonic culture became associated with extravagance, idleness and emasculation. In the next couple of decades even English romance was reacting against it; Richard Brathwaite’s Panthalia (1659) is particularly critical of court Neoplatonism, and Herbert’s The Princess Cloria is decidedly ambivalent.

And so L’Astrée‘s promotion of the eternal feminine faded in the years just after the Civil War. How neat, then, that it took a woman to bring it back. Aphra Behn didn’t just use Astrea as a poetic alter ego: when she was exiled on the Continent during the Interregnum and working as a spy for Charles II, it was her code name. Royalism and female agency rolled into one.


Karen Britland, Drama at the Courts of Queen Hnrietta Maria (Cambridge University Press, 2006)

Laurence Gregorio, ‘Implications of the Love Debate in L’Astree’, The French Review, Vol .56, No. 1 (Oct. 1982) pp. 31-19

Sister Mary Catherine McMahon, ‘The Astrée and its influence’, The Catholic Historical Review, Vol.12, No.2, (Jul. 1926) pp. 225-240

Julie Sanders, ‘Caroline Salon Culture and Female Agency: The Countess of Carlisle, Henrietta Maria, and Public Theatre’, Theatre Journal, Vol. 52, No. 4, Women/History (Dec. 2000) pp. 44-464

Jayne Sears, ‘Ficino and the Platonism of the English Renaissance’, Comparative Literature, Vol. 4, No. 3 (Summer, 1952), pp. 214-238

Erica Veevers, Images of Love and Religion: Queen Henrietta Maria and Court Entertainments (Cambridge University Press, 1989)

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Erotomania and bodily decorum

o-REAL-LIFE-VAMPIRE-facebookMy last post discussed wounds and surgeons in the first volume of Roger Boyle’s romance Parthenissa (1651), in which I argued that the hero’s body was being medicalised in a distinctively modern way. But there’s plenty more to say about the function of wounds in this romance. The hero’s body in Parthenissa is not just a patient’s, submitting to the ‘plaisters’ of the surgeon; the hero is also an active desiring subject who has been overcome with physical passion for the heroine.

So far, so conventional; the wound representing love stretches all the way back to Cupid’s arrow. However, clichés become clichés for a good reason; just because the wound is now hackneyed as a metaphorical construction of passion it shouldn’t blind us to its effectiveness. The wound conveys a loss of control, the absolute physicality of the body confronted with the object of desire. What emerges from a reading of Parthenissa is the insistence that passion is not simply a meeting of minds at all. In their first erotic encounter with the heroines, the heroes’ bodies always bleed. Artabanes is near death following his joust defending Parthenissa’s honour; Artavasdes is close to expiring after defending the city of Artaxia from attack; and Perolla, whohas just fended off assassins, is broken and bleeding  when he first meets Izadora and falls in love with her.

Parthenissa reclaims the body in all its fleshiness and reworks the conventional metaphorical construction of the wound. In this romance, passion is literally embedded in the bodies of Artabanes, Artavasdes and Perolla.  And where the hero desires, there must he bleed. It’s a marked reaction against neo-Platonic ideas of chaste union between lovers; that conception of marital harmony was dominant at the Caroline court and enshrined within masques of Charles II and Henrietta Maria, notably in Carew’s Coelum Britannicum where the king and queen are united within the mythography of Carlomaria.

There’s plenty to say here about Boyle’s displacement of the sexualised bleeding body from a female one to a male one (more on that another time) but for the moment I want to remain with the physiological elements of blood and sexual desire in the early modern period. We’re back to the surgeons again.


“Barber-surgeons…were responsible for phlebotomies: common but sometimes spectacular bleedings, considered necessary on the strength of the notion that noxious humours had to be literally expunged from the organism,” notes Noga Arikha. “These bleedings were performed with a selection of somewhat alarming tools, such as lancets and scarificators, as well as cups that, when heated, drew blood to the surface by creating what, in the seventeenth century, would eventually be recognised as a vacuum.”

But why might a surgeon-phlebotomist be required to bleed a healthy male? To understand this, you have to tackle the Galenic theory of humours that held sway up until the late seventeenth century.

Galenic medical theory was largely concerned with purging excess or imbalances. Those imbalances could be affected by internal dispositions or external factors. Human temperaments were divided into four, corresponding to four different fluids: sanguine (blood), melancholic (black bile), choleric (yellow bile) and phlegmatic (phlegm). Bodily imbalances could also be fostered by external  influences such as air, seasons or diet.bloodletting

Fluids, in Galenic humoralism, were fungible within the body. Ambroise Paré, in his great medical textbook, which appeared in English editions in 1617, 1625, 1631 and 1634, says: “All things which we eate or drink are the materialls of blood”.  Food was turned into blood, and blood, semen, sweat and tears could turn into one another.  The liver was thought to manufacture copious quantities of blood continuously; an overabundance was thought to be harmful as the circulation of the blood was not understood.  Bloodletting therefore evolved to relieve the patient of excess; in Gail Kern Paster’s words, it was the “cultural inversion of menstruation”, which purged the woman of noxious humours.


Which brings us to Erotomania. Originally written in French by Jacques Ferrand in 1623, it is a textbook that discusses the diagnosis and treatment of lovesickness. Translated into English in 1640, Erotomania is prefaced by a series of poems by various Christ Church wits. Rather in the tradition of Coryat’s Crudities, these poems are largely performative, a communal university game that ironises the text they preface and which jokingly frame the book itself as a prophylactic. The first poem, by W. Towers, plays on the conceit that the lovesick reader must have made a mistake in buying the volume, that (s)he has picked it up not for medical reasons but has mistaken it for a pleasurable romance: “Thou, that from this Gay Title, look’st no high’r/Then some Don Errant, or his fullsome Squire”. F. Palmer mock-prophesises the world turned on its head: “The World will all turne Stoicks, when they find/This Physick here”… “Men, as in Plagues, from Marriage will be bent/And every day will seem to be in Lent”

Prefatory material aside, Erotomania consists of 39 detailed chapters discussing the treatment of love melancholy from surgical remedies to potions. It’s less of a manual than a quasi-conduct book – there are no diagrams, unlike in Ambroise Paré’s works. The physician must devise remedies that are not just physical but moral. Ferrand declares in his introduction: “My chiefest purpose is, to prescribe some remedies for the prevention of this disease of Love, which those men for the most part are subject unto, that have not the power to governe their desires, and subject them to Reasons Lawes: seeing that this unchast Love proves oftentimes the Author of the greatest Mischiefes that are in the world (p4)

Therapeutic bloodletting, the letting go of a plethora of blood and heat, as much about the control of a patient’s desire and therefore his (usually his) behaviour. In Chapter 38, entitled Chirurgicall Remedies for Love-Melancholy, Ferrand advises: “If the Patient be in good plight of body, fat and corpulent, the first thing wee doe, we must let him bleed, in the Hepatica in the right arme, such a proportionable quantity of blood, as shal be thought convenient both for his disease, complexion, and strength of body…. Phlebotomy makes those that are sad, Merry: appeaseth those that are Angry: and keeps Lovers from running Mad.”

In other words, bloodletting regulates social behaviour. The unruly humoral body must be tamed. Gail Kern Paster’s The Body Embarrassed is the key critical work here; she has brilliantly drawn on Norbert Elias’s theories of the way that violence, bodily functions (including sexual) are ‘civilised’ by ever-increasing thresholds of shame. Paster makes the connection between the disciplining of humoral fluids and the way that the Bakhtinian grotesque and carnivalesque becomes tamed by the classical body. Her study of Middleton’s city comedies and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar explores the inflections of gender. Anxieties around the ‘leaky vessel’ of the female body, whether through menstruation or urine, underlines the increasing ideological investment in female intactness that becomes a system of control and decorum. (Nowadays the female body is disciplined by the baby diets in Closer magazine and the Daily Mail sidebar of shame. But I digress.)

Back to romance

Ferrand’s Erotomania and Paster’s study of the early modern humoral body open up a reading of Artabanes, Artavasdes and Perolla, the bleeding, leaking heroes of Parthenissa, as partly feminised and verging on the uncontrollable. Their desiring bodies must be regulated by bloodletting.

Parthenissa’s high-minded heroes may display their desire through martial acts but must bleed because they have a surfeit of that same desire. It’s notable that Artabanes and Artavasdes speak of their passion for Parthenissa and Altezeera as ‘criminal’ – not so much because it is transgressive in a Montague-Capulet kind of way, but because the very admission of (sexual) passion is framed as disruptive to the bodily and social balance. You can see traces here of how English mid-seventeenth century romance was influenced by its French cousin, a product of the Paris ‘précieux’ salons, in which ‘bienséance’, or propriety, was privileged – the latter being both an aesthetic system as regulated by the Académie française and a physical/social one, as regulated by the classical body.

It seems that in Parthenissa bodily fluids are therefore enlisted into a wider ideological cross-Channel discourse of decorum within fiction. In other words, you can put the body centre stage, but you have to punish it. It is a physical purging but also a moral one; blood becomes both a display of passion and its control mechanism.


The Workes of that famous Chirugion Ambrose Parey, Translated out of Latine and compered with the French, tr. Thomas Johnson (London, 1634)

Jacques Ferrand, Erotomania or A treatise discoursing of the essence, causes, symptomes, prognosticks, and cure of love, or erotique melancholy (Oxford, 1640)

Noga Arikha, Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours (New York: Harper Collins, 2008)

Gail Kern Paster, The Body Embarrassed: Drama and the Disciplines of Shame in Early Modern England (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993)

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Bedside manners: surgeons and the wounded romance hero


The first part of Roger Boyle’s multi-volume romance Parthenissa, published in 1651, tells the interwoven tales of the Parthian nobleman Artabanes and his passion for Parthenissa, and the Armenian nobleman Artavasdes and his love for the princess Altezeera. It’s a romance that is full of battles, heroism and desire, and it would take me about a dozen blogposts to summarise the astoundingly complex plot, so I’m going to be coming back to Parthenissa a lot in the future. Suffice to say that when they’re not sighing and lovelorn, the heroes are invariably fighting; at tournaments, in duels, on the battlefield, with pirates, in ambushes, in sieges and on one occasion struggling with street assassins.  And they get wounded. A lot.

This isn’t entirely usual. Romance heroes tend to be almost impervious to assault. Amadis, the eponymous hero of Amadis de Gaule – a Continental best-seller translated into English by Anthony Munday in 1590 – is constantly battling with knights and the odd giant but is rarely knocked out by his opponents for long. In one incident he is fighting the Irish forces of King Abies outside the castle of Perion. The battle takes place outside the city walls with the Irish driving Perion and Amadis’s soldiers back into the city. Abies then challenges Amadis to combat with ten knights on each side. Just before the encounter, the queen sends for Amadis, at which point “she perceiued he was sore wounded, which she shewing to the King, he said, I meruaile Gentleman, seeing you are so hurt, that you tooke no longer time for your Combate. It had been needlesse, answered the Prince, for I haue no wound (I thanke God) that can keep me from the Combate”.

In Parthenissa, though, the heroes really are laid low. I want to explore the martyrological undercurrents of the wounded hero and the erotic undertow of the prone hero in later posts, but for the moment I want to focus on a hitherto undiscussed feature of injuries in Parthenissa. Constantly hovering, dressing the wounds and applying plaisters (not, as I first assumed, a sort of bandage but type of ointment) are surgeons.

The first hero, Artabanes, nearly dies within the first twenty pages of the romance when he defends Parthenissa’s honour in a tilt against a visiting knight Ambixules:  “[King] Arsaces did mee the honor to walke a foote by my Litter, and to see the first dressing of my wounds, where hee receiv’d an assurance from the Chyurgions, that I had none which were dangerous, that the losse of blood was the greatest harme I had sustained, and that rest was one of the best remedies they could prescribe.”

Artavasdes is almost left for dead defending the city of Artaxes against the rebel forces of Phanasder. Artavasdes recounts: “Some able Chyrurgions … having search’t my wounds and drest them, found they were very dangerous, yet to console my Mother, told her they were curable, & having given me some Cordialls which brought me to my selfe againe, they withdrew themselves.”

In the romance’s long Roman subplot, Perolla is grievously wounded after saving Blacius, the enemy of his father, from assassination: “Though the Chyrurgions came hastiy to binde [my wounds] up, yet they could not vndertake for my life, ’till they sawe what operation that dressing would have, and to free me from all noyse that I might take a litle sleepe.”

The wounds just keep on coming. Even when Artabanes flees west across the Mediterranean and his ship is captured by pirates, the outlaw vessel has a surgeon on board – handy, really, since Symander, Artabanes’s trusted companion, gets a javelin stuck in his back. He is prescribed strong cordials and eventually recovers.

What is striking here is that at all times these heroes are receiving a third-party diagnosis of their prospects. The fictional body is being authenticated by science. Not only does the surgeons’ determination of how long the hero should rest imposes specific time periods within the narrative, but in the case of Artavasdes’ brother Amidor, the doctors metaphorically don the black cap, pronouncing the situation hopeless:

“My poore Brother mortally wounded, carying unto his Lodging: so sad an object soone clouded all my Ioy, and made me retourne with him to knowe what I might expect of his fate. The ablest Chirurgeons being sent for, searched his wounds and found they were incurable for their Art.”

1651, the year of Parthenissa’s original publication, saw the printing of numerous medical books, from Robert Record’s treatise on urine The Urinal of Physick to Thomas Vicary’s The Surgeon’s Directorie. Ralph Williams’ Physical Rarities functions as user-friendly manual  with an alphabetised index that runs from A for ague to Y for yard. (That’s as in a ‘man’s yard’ and which includes a remedy for being “burnt by a harlot”.) Medical publications that year were already aiming at a variety of audiences; Richard Elkes’ Approved Medicines of Little Cost…For the Soldier’s Knapsack has military men as its target audience, while  the anonymously written A Closet for Ladies and Gentlewomen and A Book Of Fruits And Flowers both combine advice on conserving and candying with recipes for poultices and salves.

Alongside these was the increasing production of surgical textbooks. The granddaddy of this was Ambroise Paré’s Method of Curing Wounds Made By Gunshot, originally published in French the previous century. The frontispiece to the 1617 translation (see picture) displays a body variously attacked by lance, sword, hatchet, arrow, dagger, cannon ball and gun. This is not an erotic St Sebastian, for inside is the promise of recovery: within the following pages, and looking remarkably similar to the weapons on the front, is a parade of surgeons’ tools.

]ohn Woodall’s The Surgeons Mate (1639) takes the surgeon’s chest as an organising principle, detailing all the instruments necessary from knives to bandages before moving on to discuss actual conditions such as plague and gangrene. Like the textbook itself, the chest is designed to be portable and to be taken on board coach or ship. Meanwhile, Dr Alexander Read’s Tuesday lectures on surgery at the Barber-Surgeons’ Hall were collected and printed in 1650, which bespeaks  an appetite amongst the reading public for this medical knowledge. In turn, it can’t be altogether surprising that the seepage of this technical discourse into lay reading is having an effect on the way wounds are being represented in fiction. And this isn’t even taking into account the aftermath of the Civil War, a conflict so bloody and widespread that few families would not have known someone killed or wounded in siege or field battle.

Parthenissa is an intriguing evidence as to when the body starts to become medicalised. The hero is now a patient; no longer a vigorous subject, he becomes the object of treatment. Foucault explores this separation of the body from personal identity in The Birth of the Clinic, but he locates the birth of the ‘medical gaze’ to the eighteenth century. My reading of Parthenissa hints that this is happening a century earlier; in projecting the surgeon into the role of the gatekeeper and diagnostician romance is acknowledging that the body is not just the emblem of valour but an object of study, even a site of experimentation.  The hero has been handed over to the medics.


PS There’s an enormous amount to say about the rhetorical construction of medical knowledge: thanks to Mike Leahy, a doctoral student at Birkbeck, for his paper last year on the literary readings and reception of a medieval surgical manual.

I’ve also come across a couple of medical history blogs which make good reading:



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Fictions of politics and the executioner’s axe

aa Execution of Charles BH_Crown Copyright_Historic Royal Palaces 156

What happens when politics morphs into fiction? I’m not talking about spin doctors and myth-making, but the problems inherent in dramatising recent history. The modern mind tends to place history and fiction as generically distinct forms whose readers have differing expectations, but for the early moderns that distinction was blurred.

Take roman à clef, which had a brief but intense flowering during the Interregnum. The immense romans à clef Panthalia, Theophania and The Princess Cloria all retell Stuart history at huge length. Real characters appear under different names and with neatened-up narratives. The few critics who attend to these texts largely see them as ideological; at best, they’re viewed as compensatory fictions for defeated royalism where disguise is a defensive move to fend off censorship.

However, the rush to work out which character represents which political figure is to ignore that hugely enjoyable space between history and fiction where the drama is not about ship money or the Scottish Kirk or diplomacy with Spain but is told entirely through character. For example, The Princess Cloria was reprinted in 1661 with the disguised names still intact. After the Restoration, there might seem to be no need for a royalist writer to use code, but the preface gives us a clue. The exigencies of fiction and readerly pleasure, rather than history, are highlighted: “Do not look for an exact History, in every particular circumstance; though perchance upon due consideration you will finde, a certain methodical coherency between the main Story, and the numerous Transactions that passed, at home and abroad, as may render people competently satisfied; for that the tediousness of reparties, and impertinent discourses, commonly used in inventions of this kinde, are for the most pat omitted, that oftentimes not onely weary Readers with expectation, but make them cast away Books before they are half read.”

When you fictionalise recent history the draw is personality; plot becomes secondary to motivation. Think of going to see a David Hare play, which often explores the weaknesses of the rich and powerful behind closed doors. Or, indeed, This House at the National Theatre, which I saw the other week.

In This House the history of the Wilson-Callaghan governments is staged as clash of personalities; MPs’ individual decisions to rebel against the Labour whip create the plot. It’s history where teleology is king, since This House‘s underlying assumption that Thatcher’s lengthy apotheosis was inevitable.

The chaotic politics of the pre-Thatcher era will continue to be disputed, but for royalist writers in the Interregnum who are evoking pre-Civil War times there is one event that is un-rewritable: the regicide. Sir Philip Sidney pulled off the fake execution of Pamela in Arcadia, but no amount of narrative trickery can get you past the fact that in 1650s roman à clef the king is dead and his son is in exile. The dispossessed prince is a fundamental trope of romance, but in the early 1650s there were no happy endings in sight for the royalists; Restoration was barely envisaged.  (It’s why I always feel uneasy about using the term Interregnum, since it presupposes a historical inevitability that simply didn’t exist at the time.) To write a roman à clef in the 1650s you have to engage with the scaffold.

You don’t need to have read any Foucault to realise that an execution, with its blend of state violence and personal repentance, is pure theatre. A good scaffold speech, whether by criminals or aristocratic rebels, always set the early modern pulse racing. Take the execution of Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, in 1641. It spawned a large number of pamphlets very much aimed at the mass market; the bookseller, Francis Coules, had previously made his living selling broadside ballads (see here for an excellent blogpost by Mercurius Politicus on Coules and his colleagues). So forget any jurisprudential treatment of the subject; in restaging execution roman à clef is participating in the collective and demotic world of pamphlets as much as the discussions of statecraft in Sidney’s Arcadia or John Barclay’s Argenis.

In allowing the characters to reframe their own autobiography and speak of their motives the scaffold speech is both a neat microcosm of the historical and fictional process and a confessional shriving. Richard Brathwaite’s Panthalia (1659) obsessively replays execution as the cornerstone of Tudor-Stuart history, starting with Clarentio (the Earl of Essex) and narrating the deaths of Mariana (Mary Queen of Scots) and Sophronio (Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford). It also devotes considerable space to Silures (Buckingham) as Jacobean villain, whose death is unjudicial, but is perhaps providential. Royal power in this romance is decisively centred upon the executioner’s block, and the transfer of that power to the Senate (Parliament) with the death of Rosicles (Charles) is clearly signalled when he points to the axe, saying: “There is an instrument… that will shortly ease me of my sufferings.”

The king becomes a marginalized and solitary figure. Brathwaite’s rendition of his speech includes his grief for the execution of Sophronio/Strafford, as indeed Charles’s speech did.  While Rosicles/Charles initially speaks of himself as a prince who has “become a Sacrifice to his Subjects”, the religious element is relegated in favour of a dynastic lament: “Never did Royal Race.. fall into like misery”.

In contrast, Charles’s speech on the scaffold that cold January day in 1649 was considerably more religious in tone, taking place an hour after he had received communion. Ten days after his death Eikon Basilike, The Pourtrature of His Sacred Majestie in His Solitudes and Sufferings was published. Eikon Basilike, that brilliant mixture of the sacred and self-justifying, went through 36 editions in the first year of its publication, and not even Milton’s counterblast Eikonoklastes could stop Charles’ transformation into martyr.

Remarkably, Panthalia does not engage in the project of Anglican canonisation undertaken by Eikon Basilike; despite his subtitling of his work “The Royal Romance” Brathwaite never marshalls the devotional strategies to be found in royalist elegy of the period. Brathwaite’s ambivalence towards the romance’s subscription to royalist history is striking. This is a disappointed text, not a propagandistic one.

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