Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Flappers Travel Fast

We'll begin today slightly earlier than normal, but then we finish up in the 1930s so it all balances out.  Anyway, today's ramble-y post starts in 1773, and Gottfried August Burger's poem Leonore...

Frank Kirchbach illustration for a translation of Leonore
I'm sure you are all very familiar with the tale, not to mention the many, many translations of the poem, including one by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, but for those who need reminding, the storyline is thus:

An 1860s translation of Burger's ballad
Our sad ballad begins with lovely, pouty Leonore wondering where the heck her boyfriend William has got to.  He's been off, fighting in Prague (I blame all the stag weekends) and the rest of his soldier-friends have come home but William hasn't.  Instead of taking this fact quietly, Leonore decides to take it up with God who she blames entirely and points out how unfair it all is because she's been a good girl and everything.  Leonore's mother, hearing her daughter ranting at the Almighty, decides to put in a good word for the otherwise blameless Leonore with God because honestly, you really shouldn't be arguing with God, that sort of thing goes down badly with Him and gets you sent to Hell.  Also, I'm guessing being known as the mother of the woman who shouts at God isn't a great look either.  To make her daughter feel better, Leonore's mum says 'well, look, he might not be dead, he might have just shacked up with another woman.' Thanks Mum.

Leonore illustrated by Joseph Louis Leborne (1796-1865)

Anyway, one night there is a knock on the door and it's William!  Hurrah says Leonore and gleefully jumps on the back of his suspiciously large black horse ready to be carried off to her marriage bed.  They go awfully fast and Leonore begins to suspect that everything is not entirely right.  When they arrive at a cemetery, things begin to look even more unromantic.  Their marriage bed is in fact an open grave, already containing William (who indeed had not shacked up with another woman, Mum) and Leonore crumbles into the ground while God says 'That'll teach you.'

Whilst overblown and bonkers, this ballad was not only translated by a bevy of contemporary writers and a few since, but also influenced many writers with the tale of a lover rising from the grave to claim a partner and the general supernatural-ness of it all.  The phrase 'The dead travel fast' which is spoken by Dead William to Leonore as they gallop to the grave, cropped up in books such as Dracula and (after a fashion) A Christmas Carol.  My interest in the story came through Julia Margaret Cameron who published a translation of the tale in 1847.  Her version was illustrated by Daniel Maclise, who also provided some of the illustrations to the famous Moxon Tennyson, a decade later, including one of my favourites...

Extraordinarily camp King Arthur gets the sword of his dreams!
Anyway, Julia Margaret Cameron's translation is just that, a translation.  Being devote in her faith, she adheres to the tale of Divine retribution for cheeky daughters and being galloped to the grave.  As you might have gathered, and as I will explain in a forthcoming post, I am currently writing a book about Julia Margaret Cameron and so read her version of the tale with interest.  I also read this book...

For those that don't know who Lady Troubridge is, here's a reminder...

Laura Gurney (1872) Julia Margaret Cameron
Laura Troubridge, nee Gurney, was the grand-daughter of Sara Prinsep, sister of Julia Margaret Cameron.  

Alice Prinsep Gurney and her daughter, Laura
Her mother was Alice Prinsep, who married Charles Henry Gurney, but the marriage was not overly successful.  This led to little Laura and her sister Rachel being shipped back to Grandma Sara Prinsep and the excitement of Little Holland House.  Inevitably, this happened...

Rachel and Laura Gurney (1872) Julia Margaret Cameron

Not to mention this...

Rachel and Laura Gurney (c.1875) G F Watts
Laura married Sir Thomas Troubridge in 1893 and embarked on a career as a writer.  Her book Memories and Reflections is an absolute treat and it was while seeking a cheap copy of this memoir that I came across one of her novels called The Story of Leonora.  How could I resist?

My battered copy of Lady Troubridge's novel...

Lady Troubridge's novels are often dismissed as Mills and Boon-type stuff and on the face of it The Story of Leonora from 1930 doesn't exactly sound like an adaptation of a somewhat gothic poem. Quoting from the back cover:

In the 'eighties the power of the parents was supreme.  In marriage the giving or witholding 
of their consent was decisive.  The Story of Leonora is the story of a girl whose
 mother's passionate nature and insane jealousy could not bear the thought 
of her daughter's happiness with a former admirer of her own.  From this situation, 
pregnant with tragedy, Lady Troubridge traces the subsequent life of Leonora 
against a fascinating background of the vanished social conditions of the 
late Victorian and Edwardian eras

Well, blimey, that all sounds like an emotional roller-coaster.  Never one to say no to something 'pregnant with tragedy', I plunged right in...

Leonora Stanniford is a beautiful and privileged little girl with a nightmare of a mother.  From the beginning of the novel you are left in no doubt that Caroline 'Carrie' Stanniford will not be wasting any time pleading with God to spare her daughter from Hell as she is too busy having it away with most of the handsome gentlemen in 1880s London. Leonora has her cousin Theodora for company, who is as dark as fairy-like Leonora is fair and utters such brooding lines as 'Brunettes are always wicked'.  In fact on page 34 there is a complete run down on what men find attractive in a woman which is most helpful, thank you.  Apparently, don't be too smart, men don't like that, and don't be too 'forward and fast' because men really like that but have to pretend they don't.  That's cleared that up.

Anyway, Leo and Theo have a childhood in Versailles with various relatives that bears rather a resemblance to Julia Margaret Cameron and her sister's upbringing with their French Grandma, just round the corner from the palace of Versailles.  When Leo, now a pretty young woman returns, Carrie Stanniford is horrified to discover that she has grown up to be (gasp!) as pretty as her! But younger! The horror.

As a child, Leonora caught sight of a handsome young soldier that, oddly enough, Carrie hadn't slept with (even though he apparently wanted to) and fell in love with him.  When she reached the dizzy heights of 17 she meets him again and he falls in love with her (because she looks like her mother, but lets not dwell on that).  Lord Denzil Lynford, our dashing soldier with a frankly preposterous name, is apparently 'too soft for this wicked world' but Leonora's mother cannot bear to see them together so she hatches a plan to separate the lovers when Denzil is summoned off to the Sudan on a camel, for War reasons. When he does not return, Leonore begins to wonder...

Okay, so that's a bit round the houses, but it's loosely the plot for Leonore by Burger.  What Troubridge does is give us a version without galloping horses and with actual decisions.  Leonora has to marry someone apparently and she marries her mother's choice, a man with ambition and position.  Lord Matthew Carlingford could easily have been a panto baddie, crushing the hopes and dreams of little Leonora while she pines for her one true love, but actually, he's quite nice.  So what happened to Denzil?  Go on, find a copy of the book and find out. It's brilliant.

Laura Troubridge's childhood shines through the narrative.  We met with Lord Tennyson, who is described, I'm guessing, rather accurately, and is peppered with quotes from his poems.  I also loved details like how Leonora's hair is dressed (in a 'Langtry knot') and what you get to eat at a debutant's buffet.  It's romantic, a bit torrid, but Leonora's life, although rocky, has a much fairer ending than her namesake.  She's not dragged to Hell, rather she reclines on a bedstead in Mayfair.  Far more dignified.  While Laura Troubridge seemed to specialise in Victorian glamour, this balances the sensibilities of the modern age with the romance of the past.  Leonora strays off the appropriate, moral path but she isn't really damned for all eternity.  For all Troubridge's comments on what makes a good wife and a decent woman, she allows commentary on what the Victorians got wrong in terms of morals to slip into the story subtly.

If you are feeling romantic and wonder how the readers of Flapper-Lit would reimagine an eighteenth century ballad of Divine punishment, this is definitely the novel for you.  I really love the way that Laura Troubridge writes and so will now seek out her other novels.  And remember, as it says on page 63, 'to deceive your mother is surely the worst crime a girl can commit', even when your mother is Carrie Stanniford.

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Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx