Magazine article History Today

Sirens & Scandals: Today's Obsession with 18th-Century Femmes Fatales Distorts the History of Women

Magazine article History Today

Sirens & Scandals: Today's Obsession with 18th-Century Femmes Fatales Distorts the History of Women

Article excerpt

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In The Age of Scandal (1950), T.H. White expounded a mischievous thesis. 'The peak of British culture', he insisted, 'was reached in the latter years of George III ... the rot began to set in with the Romantics ... the apparent prosperity of Victoria's reign was autumnal, not vernal: and ... now we are done for.' Writing at a particular political and post-war moment, his vision of Georgian Britain was suffused with salacious chatter, flirtatious duchesses, errant dukes, misdemeanors and mistresses--underwritten by confident wealth, rolling acres and Britannia's rule over the waves.

What White identified as the 'peculiar flavour' of this era has become big business in recent years. Walk into any high street bookshop and the shelves designated 'Eighteenth Century' should perhaps be relabelled 'Age of Scandal', as endless biographies of winsome but flamboyant women jostle for space. For it is primarily on women's shoulders that current cliches and caricatures of the period rest. While eighteenth-century men are presented as intelligent war heroes (John, Duke of Marlborough), intelligent political heroes (William Pitt) or intelligent heroes of reform (William Wilberforce), many of the women are celebrated for their supposed sexual allure. The siren and her scandalous life have taken centre stage. Although its focus is not on the eighteenth century per se, a startling sign of the times is the American author Ellen T. White's recent book, Simply Irresistible: Unleash your Inner Siren and Mesmerize Your Man with Help from the Most Famous and Infamous Women in History (2008). One hopes that this book is satirical in intent. However, the author's online interview suggests the contrary (http://ellentwhite.com), presenting her work as offering 'accessible history lessons on women', alongside 'lessons in love', because 'every woman is a siren'.

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As a historian with an interest in the history of women, I find this trend unsettling. The biographer Kathryn Hughes recently decried the plethora of 'intellectually slight and stylistically poor' biographies of 'camera-ready subjects'. While for Hughes the tide of 'saucy lives of endless eighteenth-century ladies' is a worrying skew in the biographer's trade, the fashion for the femme fatale surely does as great a disservice to eighteenth-century history generally and--more worrying still--to the history of eighteenth-century women.

Hughes linked current scandal-mongering back to Amanda Foreman's biography Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (1998). Her critique was not of Foreman's book but of the publicity path Foreman followed, which concentrated as much on the author's inner (and outer) self as it did on the subject of her book. Hughes herself reviewed Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire favourably when it was first published and with good reason. The book had been promoted for its focus on a troubled ancestor of Diana, Princess of Wales, with all the twists and turns of a celebrity saga. Nonetheless, by taking a particular interest in Georgiana's contribution to contemporary politics, Foreman's biography was supported by a detailed backdrop of political and social history. Thus readers gained some explanation of the Whig and Tory parties and political moments such as the Regency Bill, the Ministry of All The Talents, British responses to the French Revolution and much more. Such items rarely get a mention in the current slew of biographies of women, with eighteenth-century Britain sketched as little more than a timeless blur of dissipation, without sustained historical focus.

More significantly, Foreman published her work at a time when feminist historians wem busy debating the possibilities of female authority and women's public profiles in this period. For example, Amanda Vickery's The Gentleman's Daughter: Women's Lives in Eighteenth-Century England (1998) argued that Georgian women were neither passive nor cloistered in the private sphere (as stereotypes had led us to believe). …

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