The 8th of March is International Women’s Day. In Britain, Mother’s Day (or Mothering Sunday as it is known here) is celebrated in March – this year, it falls on the 26th. And all over the world, women have been celebrating their achievements and working towards their goals, so it seems a good time to reflect on the lives of some remarkable women.
I have just put together an online catalogue of letters from women (you can email me if you would like a copy). Many of these letters were written by royalty or women from aristocratic families – in earlier centuries, their letters were considered more worthy of preservation. By the nineteenth century things happily began to change, and women from very different backgrounds made their mark as writers, social reformers, travellers, artists, actresses and occasionally as demi-mondaines.
The one thing they have in common is that they lived their lives with a sense of purpose, often with a sense of humour, and frequently with little regard to the conventions which society tried to impose on them.
Elisabeth-Charlotte, Duchesse d’Orléans spoke with disconcerting frankness about the goings-on at the French court, and Louis XIV (rather surprisingly) liked her for it. The Duchesse de Dino – like Elisabeth-Charlotte, a German princess thrust into the more formal French society – lived happily in a most unconventional ménage with her uncle by marriage, Talleyrand, fulfilling her role as international hostess with intelligence and elegance.
In Sweden, Queen Christina was surely one of the most intellectually curious and independent of monarchs. She invited Descartes to come to Sweden. It took a little effort to persuade him to do so, and in the end the Swedish weather seems to have proved fatal to him. Her conversion to Catholicism was a coup for the Church, but distinctly unpopular in Protestant Sweden; the Catholics rewarded her with a tomb in St. Peter’s basilica which is, by modern standards, downright ostentatious.
Denmark was perhaps more comfortable with the two queens consort featured in the catalogue. Caroline Amalie, consort of Christian VIII of Denmark was famed for her work on behalf of the disadvantaged of her country. Her grandmother had led a more exciting, but more unhappy life; the sister of George III of England, she earned the enmity of her husband (who suffered from mental illness) by embarking on an affaire with the doctor and reformer Johann Struensee, resulting in the birth of Caroline Amalie’s mother.
Another Dane, Queen Alexandra, consort of Edward VII, also earned the love and respect of the people of her adopted country by her charm, grace (particularly in her attitude towards her husband’s infidelities) and, above all, her dedication to the welfare of the less fortunate members of society. The first Alexandra Rose Day took place in 1912 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of her arrival in Britain. It is still marked today with the sale of artificial roses to raise money for charities.
Napoleon was not known for his love of clever women, and yet the years when he was in the ascendant brought forth some of the most enterprising of women, on both sides of the Channel – and many of these women felt very much at ease on both sides of the Channel.
Madame de Staël was certainly among Napoleon’s enemies. Luckily, she possessed a house in Switzerland. When Napoleon had her placed under surveillance, she escaped, via a remarkably roundabout route, to take refuge in England. She was great friends with the francophile Devonshire set, including Elizabeth Foster, who married the Duke of Devonshire after the death of his first wife and her great friend, Georgiana. Elizabeth, who also felt very much at home in much of Europe, would eventually settle in Rome, though she was equally happy in Paris.
Maria Cosway was yet another cross-Channel traveller. Born in Italy, of an Italian mother and an English father, she moved with her family to London, married the English portrait painter Richard Cosway, but later spent much time in Paris – where she had an amorous friendship with the American ambassador, Thomas Jefferson – and eventually returned to Italy.
Elisabeth Vigée LeBrun, whose portraits had done so much to promote Marie Antoinette’s image, fled France at the outbreak of the Revolution, travelling to Rome, Naples (where she painted several portraits of Emma Hamilton) and St. Petersburg before returning to France when Napoleon was First Consul. It was not an altogether happy homecoming, and she soon moved to London until the restoration of the monarchy. During a sojourn in Naples, she was commissioned to paint a portrait of Napoleon’s sister, Caroline Murat. The two women did not really get on; Vigée LeBrun compared Caroline’s manners most unfavourably with those of Marie Antoinette.
Napoleon disapproved of Madame Tallien, though she had once been Josephine’s closest friend – a friendship in part forged in a prison cell before the fall of Robespierre. She was known as Notre Dame de Thermidor for her efforts to save many who would have perished on the guillotine. Rather less “Notre Dame” was her sublime disregard for the opinion of those who demanded discretion from women. A very beautiful woman, she attracted men and took more lovers than most – except for Napoleon, whose advances she allegedly laughingly repudiated. It may, perhaps, have accounted in some small part for his later desire to have her banished.
Which brings us to Napoleon’s family: Elisa, Duchess of Tuscany was undoubtedly the quietest of his sisters, but she ruled her lands with good sense and a firm hand. Pauline, whose countless love affairs were considered shocking even by the standards of the time, proved to be the most faithful to her brother in the end. She followed him into exile on Elba (something which Napoleon’s wife, Marie Louise had no intention of doing), and when he escaped from Elba she gave him her diamonds to pay for his army. She tried, but failed, to get permission to join him on St. Helena.
There is no doubt that Napoleon loved his first wife, Josephine, and considered her his good luck charm. Charm, in fact, was something she seems to have had to a very great degree, and she used it freely to obtain favours, and for his benefit as well. But her easy-going ways hardly qualified her for anything requiring judgement or concentration.
His second wife, Marie Louise, had been brought up at the Austrian court where Napoleon was detested, and he, for his part, made no secret of the fact he had only married her in order to produce an heir. And yet … he obviously trusted her sufficiently to appoint her as Regent when he went on campaign, in large part because she was, by then, the mother of his son. Having been brought up at the Imperial Austrian court, she knew what was expected of her, despite her youth. She remarked, after his downfall and exile, when she could derive no benefit from such a statement, that he had always treated her with kindness and respect. But both would have admitted openly that love did not have very much to do with the relationship.
The Bourbon restoration lacked the sparkle of Napoleon’s court, but one woman brought a touch of brightness. In 1816, the Neapolitan princess Marie Caroline married Louis XVIII’s nephew, the Duc de Berry. Her intrepid spirit and her rather ill-judged attempts to regain the throne for her son were to furnish Alexandre Dumas with material for one of his novels. She could have found no better chronicler.
On the English side of the Channel were two very likeable women, intelligent, capable, but best of all, the sort of women most of us would have liked to have had as friends.
Dorothea Jordan was already a popular actress when she met the Duke of Clarence. The Duke, son of George III (an uxorious man, who had good reason to feel aggrieved at the behaviour of his sons), fell in love with Mrs. Jordan, who lived with him in what was said to be perfect domestic bliss in Bushy House, Teddington, bearing him ten children. But when the Duke – later to be William IV – was ordered to find a suitable bride and provide a legitimate heir (he succeeded in the first, but failed in the second), Mrs. Jordan was abandoned. It is to her eternal credit that she behaved with tremendous dignity, which is rather more than can be said for her former lover.
Lady Hester Stanhope did not always concern herself quite so much with dignity, but led one of the most exciting lives of any woman of her time. She did things entirely on her own terms, and succeeded. While still only in her twenties, she acted as hostess for her unmarried uncle, the Prime Minister, William Pitt. But she soon decided to travel. Her journey took her to the Middle East, where she initiated important archaeological excavations in Palestine, and later went to Damascus and to Lebanon. En route, she adopted Turkish dress. Lady Hester spent the rest of her life in the Middle East, earning the respect of the inhabitants.
Another great traveller, half a century later, was Isabella Bird. She found, rather oddly, that sea voyages soothed the pains in her back. In an age when sea voyages could be extremely tiring and travellers risked weeks of sea-sickness, this may suggest that her health problems were psychosomatic, requiring an escape from home. If that is the case, the escape was certainly not a half-hearted one; she visited, and wrote about, Korea, Japan and Hawaii.
The nineteenth century heralded a more democratic age, and the opportunities extended to women, if they were prepared to take advantage of them. Many were writers and artists, and actresses, singers and musicians were increasingly viewed as artists rather than mistresses.
Mrs. Jordan was said to be an exceptional actress, but she is better remembered as the Duke of Clarence’s mistress. Barely a century later, Sarah Bernhardt, who also took a royal lover, was known first and foremost as a great actress.
Lillie Langtry may be remembered as Edward VII’s mistress, but she earned her living as an actress, and toured extensively, even in what was then America’s “Wild West”.
Ellen Terry became one of the founders of a great acting dynasty; her son, Edward Gordon Craig fathered a child by Isadora Duncan, and John Gielgud was Terry’s great-nephew. Sybil Thorndike became one of the grandest actresses of her time. It is difficult to forget Miss Jean Brodie exhorting her girls to walk like Dame Sybil Thorndike, with their heads up, up, up. By the middle of the twentieth century, actresses had become role models, their fame increased by films seen worldwide. When an almost unknown actress called Vivien Leigh secured the role of Scarlett O’Hara, but also in Shakespearean roles, actresses could be introduced to royalty.
Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette appeared on stage, but most people today think of her as a writer. Respectability didn’t rank very high among her concerns, but that was entirely her choice. She lived, and wrote, as she pleased, and her books as still cherished today.
Writers, especially in Britain, generally wore a more respectable countenance, but appearances could be misleading. Harriet Martineau looked like a typical Victorian lady, but she was also a feminist, social reformer, abolitionist and a great campaigner. Half a century later, Mary Augusta Ward, writing as Mrs. Humphrey Ward, would take up the cause of social reform and increased opportunities for the disadvantaged.
The twentieth century brought other concerns. Vera Brittain, appalled by the horrors she witnessed as a nurse during the First World War became a great pacifist. Rosamond Lehmann shocked readers with her depiction of a lesbian romance in her first novel; Vita Sackville-West shocked society with her real-life affaire with Virginia Woolf. Ottoline Morrell startled with her wilful eccentricities, but her generosity helped to sustain many important writers. Rebecca West wrote one of the great travel books of the twentieth century about her journeys through Yugoslavia; she was to shelter Yugoslavian refugees in her own home during the Second World War. Stevie Smith looked upon the world through a dark, yet often humorous, glass, maintaining her fierce independence. Daphne du Maurier was no less independent, chronicling the lives of strong women in her engrossing novels and plays.
Pauline Viardot would hold musical evenings, descendants of the salons of the eighteenth century. Guests included some of the greatest musicians and writers of the day, who must have relished the chance to exchange ideas in convivial surroundings. A century later, another great musician, Dame Myra Hess, earned the affection and respect of Londoners with her lunchtime concerts at the National Gallery during the Second World War. The artist Rosa Bonheur was said to “paint like a man”. She didn’t. She painted like a strong woman.
It strikes me that one thing many, or rather most, of these women have in common is a cosmopolitan attitude, an openness and intellectual curiosity which took them outside the narrow confines of their own backgrounds and their own countries. Their lives were enriched by contact with those outside their own society. They were living proof of Virginia Woolf’s assertion that “As a woman my country is the whole world.”