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review 2019-11-04 22:20
The Courtiers by Lucy Worsley
The Courtiers: Splendor and Intrigue in the Georgian Court at Kensington Palace - Lucy Worsley

This is an entertaining, readable, yet well-researched look at the royal courts of George I and II of England (early to mid-18th century). Worsley picks out a handful of people and follows them throughout the book: a royal mistress who was also the queen’s lady-in-waiting; an ambitious painter who got the commission for a palace mural; a few hanger-ons who wrote extensively about their contacts with the royals; a feral child who was brought to court as a curiosity. A solid chunk of the book is also spent on the domestic intrigues of the royal family themselves – and wow, did these people tear each other apart at every opportunity – but we also learn a fair bit about the lives of the people around them. The book is worth reading for its storytelling alone.

Meanwhile, it taught me a lot about how the royal court functioned. The crowds of nobles at court, as it turned out, weren’t just the idle rich; much of what they were scheming for was jobs, which paid actual salaries, upon which many of them depended. Even menial positions close to the royalty were occupied by the nobility: we see a lot of one equerry, a sort of unarmed honor guard whose job was to follow the king around all day without apparently having much personal interaction with him, and who nevertheless is the son of an earl. Overall being a courtier sounds fairly miserable from a modern perspective (and based on their writings, at least some of these folks thought so too): always surrounded by other people, and if you were a woman, you wore incredibly restrictive clothing and took hours getting ready for an event. Though the maids of honor also got to raise quite a ruckus without anyone seeming to care much about their behavior. If you were married to someone in the line of succession though, you were expected to give birth before an audience of high-ranking men.

I did wish Worsley’s writing about the rules of court was more comprehensive. For instance, she mentions that no one was allowed to leave the king’s presence without his permission, which led to one unfortunate lady-in-waiting peeing all over the floor. To which my question is: how did the system normally work to keep this from happening all the time? Did the king spend tons of time granting people permissions to leave? Or was it understood when you attended an event that you had to wait for the king to leave first? Did this rule apply even in the crowded drawing-room gatherings, large enough to attract gate-crashers as well as actual courtiers? Did people dash out whenever the king himself left to use the toilet? Or did they all go around a bit dehydrated to ensure they wouldn’t have to? Or maybe the whole thing was more of an etiquette suggestion that this one lady took way too seriously? Maybe Worsley can’t explain further because no one wrote it down. But the book definitely left me curious about how the practices we see in the narrative worked in other contexts.

At any rate, this is entertaining history, gossipy without being frivolous, and I definitely learned a lot about the Hanovers from it (not having known anything about them previously). Worth reading for those interested in royal history.

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text 2014-12-31 21:48
Reading in Progress: Amphibious Thing: The Life of Lord Hervey by Lucy Moore
Amphibious Thing: The Life of Lord Hervey - Lucy Moore
The Courtiers: Splendor and Intrigue in the Georgian Court at Kensington Palace - Lucy Worsley

I'm doing it again - starting multiple books because I can't resist reading a bit here and there. In general I try to only do this with history books in very different time periods or it can get a tad confusing.


Happily I have Lucy Worsley's The Courtiers to blame/praise for this book choice. (I love having the excuse "but I had to buy this book!") She introduced me to the courtier John, Lord Hervey (or 2nd Baron Hervey) and the woman he married, Mary Lapell (later Mary Hervey or Lady Hervey). In Worsley's book the couple makes a secret love match - two clever, good looking people, sought after by others but choosing each other. But like some husbands of the time Hervey tired of Lapell, was unfaithful and treated her badly. Unlike most husbands he was quite open about his relationships with other men, especially the one whom he considered the love of his life.


Hervey was always known for his biting wit - and we all know from our history (and from people in general) that that type of person makes plenty of enemies. As fun as it is to read their snark you also have an idea that this type of person is not easy to be friends with - or live with, or be related to, etc. I immediately thought of Dorothy Parker, for instance. (Long review of the Marion Meade bio for quick reference.)


I really wanted to read about Mary Lapell first, but thanks to Worsley's citation of this book, I decided to start with Hervey's bio for the story of his and Lapell's relationship. (What I really want is to read more from his letters and memoirs, to see if they're really as good as the bits and pieces I've read.) The key to giving in and buying the book was reading Moore's introduction. Here's a chunk of the introduction that sums things up, and gives you specifics of what I mean by "treating his wife badly."


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text 2014-12-29 20:35
Books I Read and REALLY Liked in 2014

I've been enjoying everyone's end of year summings up (in various fun forms) and thinking on making one of my own - and I couldn't quite come up with a way to rank anything. Which is I suppose what happens when you end up reading a variety of random things. Anyway, there's no order to this - except I have a particular fondness for the first book mentioned. History wins out this year, which isn't always the case.


Annoyingly all my favorite reads have also been the ones that I haven't written reviews for. (Except one!) But I think I can explain that! (There's a trend of laziness too, but we'll ignore that bit.)


[Jan 2, 2015: Since this has been linked at booklikes I thought I should add - a few of these are much more academic than others and have what I'd call "some dryer patches" reading-wise. Mad Madge in particular. I'll go into more detail when I review them, and add links to this. In this list I was more focused on how the book impacted me personally - I usually post more info as to readability in my reviews to give readers a head's up. Which is usually why I go quote-happy.]



Mad Madge: The Extraordinary Life of Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle, the First Woman to Live by Her Pen

by Katie Whitaker


This book was the perfect sort for the mood I was in - but it also requires a bit of backstory. So about a year ago I started the fun process of getting divorced, and it turns out that ends up effecting everything, even things you'd not thought over. Like what you enjoy reading.


Madge is Margaret Cavendish, and she gradually realizes that not only does she enjoy writing, but that it's important to her. And she wants to publish a book. Noble women of her day did NOT do this. They especially did not do this without asking their husbands first. Margaret did both. The author spends a good bit of text quoting what contemporary men and women felt about women authors (and educated women) - not much of which is positive. And because I've read enough fiction, this looked like the ol' set up of Woman Tells Husband Her Big Secret and He Reacts Badly. (I always have hated the Big Misunderstanding/Disagreement trope.) Here's the fun part - in reality William Cavendish was not upset, and in fact was extremely proud of his wife and wents on to brag about her to anyone and everyone he knew (and some no doubt rolled their eyes a good deal). Theirs was also a love match, and there's a chapter that's full of some of the love poems he wrote to her.

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text 2014-07-16 17:07
Reading in Progress: The Courtiers by Lucy Worsley, and a Quote I Could Not Resist
The Courtiers - Lucy Worsley

As soon as I read this bit I immediately thought "oh I have to share this!"


Background: The king in this quote is George I. This particular bit is discussing how the king would avoid the more crowded areas of the court at Kensington Palace to make private visits to his family and mistress.


(24% in) "On other occasions he would cut conveniently through the behind-the-scenes areas and labyrinthine passages that were used by the palace's scurrying servants. The narrow 'backstairs' to his private apartments were useful for making a discreet exit. The royal chamber pot descended down this secret staircase, and the king's most intimate visitors were brought up it when they came to visit him. Using the backstairs circumvented the pomp, publicity and many watchful eyes ever present on the King's Grand Staircase. The enduring phrase 'back-stairs gossip,' signifying insider information, was born in this part of the palace.


As time went by, more and more of the courtiers considered themselves to be entitled to the privilege of using the back-stairs. The result was that the little staircase became positively crowded, with constant 'contriving, undermining and caballing at the backstairs....


Anyone trying to get up to the king's private chambers via the back-stairs would find one of the pages keeping guard.  ...Charles II had in the previous century delegated much control to one particular page. William Chiffinch, this favoured servant, became 'a man of so absolute authority' that even government ministers obeyed his commands. Some people, knowing that his duties included bringing in women for the king, called him the 'Pimpmaster General.'"


Was not expecting the title Pimpmaster General. Immediate giggling resulted.


Worsley is really wonderful about footnoting - for those curious, the Pimpmaster General reference comes from R. O. Bucholz's ‘Going to Court in 1700: a visitor’s guide’, The Court Historian, Vol. 4. (December 2000), pp. 181–215. Which isn't online, but then I also hadn't known that a journal called The Court Historian existed, much less the Society for Court Studies.


Of course I looked up William Chaffinch, and the man does not have a wikipedia page (Really?! Even with that nickname?!). However, he does have a website called Ask Chiffinch, which is the advice column it sounds like (with photos of actors in period dress), and does have a Who Was Chiffinch page. Sample questions/captions from the main page:


"I'm the King's favourite, but is this as good as it gets?"

"I confused a maiden's blushes and a harlot's blusher"

"My husband cheats relentlessly - now I'm pursued by the most handsome man at Court"

"The Young Bucks get all the girls - does experience count for nothing?"


Each question has its own page, Chiffinch's answer, and a "what really happened" explanation. The Ask Chiffinch website is/was  part of a 2013 exhibit Secrets of the Royal Bedchamber - and a really clever idea. (You can really tell that it was fun to put together. Also, some men do look rather fetching in those ridiculous period wigs. Not something I thought I'd say, as I've seen way too many ridiculous wigs of that era. The wig craze was possibly due to syphilis - another link.) More on that exhibit here at the Historic Royal Palaces website.


And for some more fun:


Secrets of the Royal Bedchamber (youtube, 2:15 min)

Historic Royal Palaces video, for a look at the chambers under discussion.



Dr. Lucy Worsley: Secrets of the Royal Bedchamber (youtube 3min)

On my end the audio on this was insanely low, but on the up side there are captions. And of course this contains the kind of historic detail that Worsley is so good about digging up. (Randomly, note the mantlepiece behind Worsley where there's a gnome and dinosaur.)




Oh and Chiffinch did have an official title: Keeper of the King's Closet. Not as catchy.


Thanks to the way my brain works, and the title Pimpmaster General, I now have now a mental mashup of:


-the video here (embedded on that page) for the Georgeous Georges exhibit at Royal Historic Palaces (which you should see just to watch long dead kings appear to be having a press conference/photo op - am SO in love with the production values of this, they're shooting in the actual palaces)


-the images from Ask Chiffinch


-Falco's Rock Me Amadeus (youtube 3:45)


This is what happens when you grow up watching a lot of MTV. When it used to play videos.


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text 2014-06-17 21:32
Glorious Georges, Historic Palaces, Costuming, Victoria's Wedding Dress and Men's High Heels...
The Courtiers - Lucy Worsley

Whenever I read history I'm interested in it always leads to googlefests where I find all sorts of articles and videos. Then I pretend that I'm not wasting my time because of course I'm going to blog it, and someone might find it useful. (I do love this excuse, it always makes me feel helpful. Of course I'd be looking this stuff up this anyway because I'm a history junky and can't help myself.)


From Lucy Worsley's The Courtiers: Splendor and Intrigue in the Georgian Court at Kensington Palace, 2% in, on men's dress for court:

"Between each gentlemen's left elbow and his side was clenched his chapeau-bras: a flat, unwearable parody of a hat, for the head was never covered in the presence of the King."


Literally, an "arm hat" - because you're wearing it only on your arm. I had wondered why I've seen so many illustrations of men carrying those and never actually wearing them. They don't look like they'd even fit over the wigs of the period.


3% in, on going to St. James' palace:

"A bristling bevy of red-clad Yeomen of the Guard preceded the sedan chairs of the Prince and Princess of Wales as they led the procession of their servants and supporters out of Leicester Fields. Ladies in court dress had to be literally crushed into sedan chairs, 'their immense hoops' folded 'like wings, pointed forward on each side.' To accommodate their 'preposterous high' headdresses, they had to tilt their necks backwards and keep motionless throughout the journey."


One of the fun things about reading well researched histories is that you find out all the uncomfortable details of life that really can't be romanced away.


Because anything connected with Lucy Worsley always has me googling something, I bumped into something recent that she's worked on. I should note here that  Worlsley's the Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces. Here's an exhibition that is currently on until Nov 2014:


The Glorious Georges


This link's to the main website, and should (hopefully) show you a video presenting the Georges as if they were all alive in present day, and mobbed by paparazzi (or having a press conference) in one of the historic palaces. Yes, it's history cosplay! Which I say as a compliment, since a good percentage of cosplayers are incredibly serious about being historically accurate and are wildly careful with detail. Meanwhile I enjoyed whateverhisnameis playing George II in that video because he looks so perfectly smug. At several points I expected them all to start Vogue'ing.


I then got totally hooked on the Historic Palaces youtube account - which led to most of the links below.


Glorious Georges - The Curator's Stories (4 min)

Lucy Worsley narrating, and then bits from other curators who worked on the exhibits and in the palaces. Gives you a run down of the various Georges' backgrounds.


Making Queen Anne's Bed (2 min)
Different exhibit, but a great fast speed view of how a crew of museum folk put together a historic bed. (Warning, the background music's a bit loud.) Note that all of the workers are wearing coats  - the older palaces are not known for their comfortable temperatures even now apparently.


Secrets of the Royal Bedchamber (2min)

Not the tell-all kind of secrets - it's all about the many royal rituals involved in going to bed and getting up. This is also a great example of a very competent video production with interview subjects/narrators that aren't quite managing to put their interest of the subject into their voices. (Doing vocals is such a fiddly business - most people who don't do it for a living often need a lot of coaching and a good director, and even then it's not always possible to get people to put the feeling of "THIS IS FASCINATING" into their voices without sounding like an addled cheerleader.)


Georgian Cook-along: Mutton Smoured in a Frying Panne

I'm adding this one purely for the fun of imagining a cooking show that is all about period cooking. (The Supersizers did this, but I'd love to see more producers try this sort of history show.)


Royal Wedding Dresses: A History (7 min)

This is from 2011 when the last royal wedding had everyone pondering royal history. I really love curators talking about dresses and fabric - I wish there were even more information here on how incredibly hard it is to keep such old dresses from falling apart.


How Will The Dress Measure Up to History (Telegraph, Hillary Alexander, 22 Apr 2011)

A text version on that exhibit, in case you wanted something non-video.


Queen Victoria's Wedding Dress: The One That Started It All (Dreamstress, Apr 2011)

Excellent blog entry about Victoria's dress with photos as examples. SO much about wedding dresses that people now insist have always and forever been traditional really date back to Victoria. The dress also has it's own wikipedia page.


High Heels for Kings, Expresses, and Nana (Dreamstress, June 2014)

In which the blogger re-creates a modern pair of shoes into an 1870s look. Yes, I have fallen in love with this blog. Note that it then moves on to discuss The Louis Heel versus Pompadour Heel, with photo examples from various museums. I now want to know more about Nicholas Lestage (who doesn't have his own wikipedia entry).


The Fashion Historian: Red Heels (Katy Werlin, Nov 9, 2010)

Only those in favor were allowed to wear the red heels.


Why Did Men Stop Wearing High Heels? (William Kremer, BBC World Service, 24 Jan 2013)

Quote: "Although Europeans were first attracted to heels because the Persian connection gave them a macho air, a craze in women's fashion for adopting elements of men's dress meant their use soon spread to women and children."



...Somewhere on one of my TBR lists I know there's a book on shoe history. The search for it will probably lead me into another googlefest, so now you have an idea of how I'll spend the next few hours!


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