My Godmother’s Legacy;
or, The Art of Consoling
Section V — Ladies out of Fashion
If I may judge from experience, Ladies out of fashion are not easily consoled; but as wits without beauty, and beauties without wit, have been almost equally numerous, both classes have the consolation of precedents, since both have been successfully in and out of fashion.
Antiquity is never an agreeable source of reflection to Ladies, therefore I advise my pupils, in the art of consolation, to say nothing of the examples furnished by ancient heroines; since, from the days of Helena to those of our own Queen Boadicea, every body knows they are all out of fashion. Perhaps, however, we may venture to quote the saying of King Henry VIIIth’s Queen Catherine, one of the many wives who have found themselves unfashionable. “If I was compelled to chuse the extreme either of good or evil, I would prefer the last, for adversity bringeth good counsel, moderation and foresight, which prosperity seldom hath.”
We are not much informed of the number of friends found by ladies out of fashion, but they had, no doubt, in all ages, an abundance of good counsel. There is still greater consolation in knowing, that the wittiest and cleverest women were most distinguished when in adversity, which is another word for unfashionable. Who would have heard of the charming Diana de Montmorenci, if her husband’s caprice had not thrown her early life into shadows. This rare woman, who had power to change his aversion into esteem, and to win from Henry the Great those famous words, “Madam, if you will give me your word that the Catholics will act sincerely, all stipulations are useless, for your word is more than a thousand bonds;” even she would never have been heard of, if Francis de Montmorenci had not made her out of fashion in her youth. Our own Elizabeth owed much of her greatness to the days she spent in unfashionable and unpopular retirement at Woodstock; when, as her governess informed Lord Cromwell, she had neither mufflers nor biggins, nor “a dish fit to eat of.” The Janes and Joans of France, and England, the Julias of old and new times, all the Eleanors, and a great many of the Catherines, whose celebrity employs historians, have been indebted for their fame to some little portion of their lives spent out of fashion. From this number, perhaps, we must except the immortal Catherine of Petruchio, whose style has always been found prevailingly fashionable in almost every class of her sex.
We have never heard that the Demoiselles Dacier, and Descartes, or any of the learned Greek Ladies whom they rivalled, were very fashionable in their own times and in their own female circles. What indeed, should we have heard of them at all, if they had studied nothing but the winding curls, little lace cornets, and enormous hoops, which composed women of fashion in those days? And we have good reason to believe, even the good-natured Mademoiselle de Scuderi, whose folios of love-stories were the treasures of our ladies’ shelves in Queen Ann’s reign, was by no means in “the light of fashion;” else a vigilant police officer would not have carried her to Paris with her brother, on suspicion of treason, because she had been heard planning with him the quickest way of dispatching some Prince, whose adventures they were busy in. An accident which the polite magistrates of France would never have permitted to befall a woman of fashion. Of Englishwomen, the wittiest have been always the least fashionable, because the least known; for the wit of a genuine English female, like the almond which it resembles in flavour, requires some time to develope. There have been, however, a few whom chance or high birth has hung in public view; but every one in turn ceased to be in fashion—often while she lived and always after her death.
Women out of fashion have another and better consolation. The best of their countrywomen and their sex have seldom had that word attached to their names. My pupils may observe that I have never mentioned the good wives, daughters, and mothers, whose examples have reached us. Not that our Lady Ann Pembroke and Lady Russell had less wit than Mesdames Roland or Lafayette; or the daughters of Sir Thomas More less learning than the Maries and Margarets of Valois and Anjou, or the daughters of Madam de Sevigne and Monsieur Neckar; but if they have ceased to be fashionable, at least they are still spoken of as models for imitation.
I do not know any class so hard to be consoled as women of high rank, accustomed to homage and display, and suddenly deprived of both by widowhood. It is no use to quote Artemisia’s fine example, or to see at the opera how Dido and Sappho conducted themselves in circumstances not much unlike. One lady of consequence actually went in her new weeds and post-chariot to Brighton, and ascended the cliff to throw herself down, but saw nobody below. Another told me, it would be all very well if such things were or could be done in any new style; “but (said she) if the Dowager Dido really burned herself, she must have burnt her settlement first.”
Though such widows deserved little consolation, they always seem to want it more than any other. They may find a great deal by looking over the list of powerful women, who have been reduced to need it. Perhaps General Monk’s wife, as she was a blacksmith’s daughter, and once a sempstress, will be deemed hardly a fit example. Yet it is curious to observe how this celebrated Ann Clarges, whose wit led her behind a curtain to overhear a political conversation, and by providing her with means to baffle it, saved her husband’s life, and established the throne, became at length a mere woman out of fashion. Sarah of Marlborough, after startling the ears of half Queen Ann’s Ministers, besides her husband’s, was forced to ask admittance of her chambermaid, and to thank heaven that she, who had helped to carry the staff of state, was not reduced to beg with one. The Duchesses of Portsmouth and Kendall shared the fate of the Montespans, the Maintenons, and Du Barrès of other lands. On one of the many occasions of Marie Antoinette’s magnificence, the populace of Versailles erected a pyramid of snow to her honour. Could there have been a more appropriate emblem of her unsteady greatness, and their own nature? The Empress Josephine verified the Egyptian sybil’s prophecy, by dying under a roof granted by the bounty of those, whose empires had been only a few months before at the disposal of her husband. After her name we can find no nearer or superber example. I have not such a long list of precedents suitable to this section as might have graced my last. But it must console Ladies out of fashion to know they are not so numerous as wits out of place.
Mere beauties are the last class I have named as objects of consolation, and they have one at least. As they are envied only by triflers, the enmity they excite is as evanescent as their power, and their fall is unremembered. Perhaps they scarcely can become less important, for a youth of folly is not more insignificant than an old age of cards. Instead of reckoning up the beauties, who have gone out of fashion within the last eighteeen hundred years, it would be more profitable for decaying belles to collect and study the costumes worn by their most celebrated predecessors; and to see, whether by reviving them they might not revive some part of their own charms, and come again into fashion. In Henry the Sixth’s time the charming Countess of Desmond wore a mirtle of orange coloured silk, and a courtpie, or petticoat of white; a broad girdle of brocade fastened on the left side, and long large sleeves exquisitely plaited and fringed with silver. Her hair was divided on her fair forehead and flowed over her shoulders curiously curled, and covered behind with a caul of gold network intertwined with flowers. The small bewitching cap, with its pearl pendent over the brow, may be found in Mary Queen of Scotland’s picture; and the Orindas and Saccharissas of Elizabeth’s day may be guessed at from the portraits in ancient castles, and the murray-coloured satin gowns guarded with fur and lined with pink, which appear in the inventories of the Clifford wardrobe. We must allow Elizabeth herself credit for retaining the ample and lofty frill, which gives royal character to the female race, by concurring with our idea of the reserve and firmness proper for a queen. From her days, till those of George the First, the drapery of beauty was not allowed to flow in easy folds, at least they did not begin less than a yard below the shoulder; but the head retained its flat smooth crown, with clusters of ringlets playing over each ear with very infantine grace. It was reserved for the belles of 1770 to construct a tower of wire and gauze on their heads, not unlike those still worn in Normandy, with flags of lace behind. The Gunnings, the Rutland and the Coventry of our court, must have had grace even beyond their beauty, since they dared to exhibit their faces with such extraordinary additions from the hair dresser. I remember myself nothing of their other costumes, except as it was represented by my nursery-maid at a Christmas Yule-dance. My mother furnished her with an original court-hoop, over which we adjusted the green velvet cover of a large table, and employed twelve yards of highly glazed Scotch Holland, intended for aprons, in a festoon round the bottom of this weighty petticoat. Two cambric cravats folded cross-ways, with a dollar in each corner, formed treble ruffles duly poised to cover the elbow. A leghorn-hat, placed the wrong side before, decorated by three large leaves of the Scotch kail-plant, and a diamond knee-buckle as a loop, represented the fan-tail chapeau and plume; and a very large fly-trap of cut paper curled round her neck, in the style of a buffon or crimpled net, the glory of 1779. Jet-black hair, combed over a high cushion, a chin neatly patched, and bright eyes well sustained by rouge, completed the resemblance to the loveliest duchess of that time. Then followed a head-dress resembling Psyche’s wings; and, as if suddenly remembering the land which gave birth to that elegant fable, the next race of beauties became Greeks in every article of the toilet. From this long succession of varieties, from the time of the 14th century, the feathery fur and pearl stomacher of the 15th, the brocade and gold stuffs of the 16th, the tippets, cardinals, hoods and ruffles of the 17th and 18th, one would think a lady might contrive to compose something so multiform and unparalleled, as to be the instant fashion of the day. But unfortunately this would require some money, and ladies are seldom absolutely out of fashion while they have any. It is recorded among the traditions of Tabby Hall, that five fair ones being avowedly and irretrievably unfashionable, proposed to combine their resources, and live in dignified retirement. When the funds were collected to compose the pecuniary picnic, Mrs. Artemisia Bustletor had nothing to send but the undertaker’s receipt for the prime cost of the velvet coffin and 200 silver nails, which he had furnished for her husband, on her promise of future patronage. Miss Rodelinda Stormont possessed twenty-two MS. sonnets, half a philosophical essay, and a novel in six volumes. A lady, rather younger, shewed two letters of thanks from as many particular friends, for her services in promoting one marriage and fifteen explanations. One still younger offered, as her contribution to the fund, a recipe for Ninon del’Enclos’s cosmetic, capable of producing the finest candle-light tints. And another, only in her third public year, sent an immense bundle of bills, which she called vouchers for her having duly learned the seventeen accomplishments. All these treasures united would not have bought one tolerable annuity; therefore I proposed to make a general transfer or exchange of property. The spirited widow took the patent rouge, and became again a brilliant beauty: the school-bills were transferred to the cosmetic’s former owner, who immediately assumed the character of an accomplished wit, and became fashionable as the pupil of Cramer, Vestris, and Ambrogetti. The match-maker quitted her worn-out practice of manoeuvering, and announced a new novel, which was eagerly read in all circles of ton, as the work of an experienced romancer in real life. The authoress took the widow’s funeral bills, and by altering the name and date with a little poetical license, transformed them into proofs of a rich godmother’s burial, by which she was reasonably supposed to derive a legacy, suitable to the pomp of the last honours. Thus I recommend manœuverers to write, instead of acting scenes; beauties to become wits, and wits to grow rich; their mountain of miseries will lessen instead of increasing by the change; and new bonnets, new novels, and new estates will be welcomed, when wit, beauty, and good management are out of fashion.
- Madame Talleyrand was out of fashion in the East Indies as an English gentleman’s divorced wife, before she became Princess of Benevento; and the beautiful Madame Tallien, whose lock of hair caused Robespierre’s dethronement, and whose beneficent intercession gained her husband so many friends, lost both friends and fashion when he lost his place. ↩