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

By Greig, Hannah | History Today, October 2008 | Go to article overview

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


Greig, Hannah, History Today


[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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'.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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). …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.