The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik

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June 18, 2013

Reading, Pictures, Women

Von Angeli, the Austrian artist, made a portrait of Bertie and Alix with their children Eddy and Maud in 1875. ... Bertie stands behind his family. The iconography of rule -- a pillar behind him, his heir, Eddy, in tartan at his side -- gives him authority; yet his costume is not that of a royal person but of a masterful and mid-Victorian father. He wears a black coat, and his white cuffs seem to escape from his sleeves as though he has dressed rather hastily. ... Alix, seated with six-year-old Maud on her knee, wears the sideways skittish look for which she was famous. There is no eye contact between husband and wife, and Bertie's folded arms form a barrier.  The focal point of the painting is Alix's hand, which rests on her daughter's lap. The emotional bond between mother and daughter seems stronger than that between husband and wife.
      Insulated from the world by her growing deafness, Alix became unknowable, and few people penetrated behind the mask. As Victoria perceived, in spite of her disability, Alix was incapable of leading a domestic life or staying quiet at home for long. Neither she nor Bertie could live without excitement, Alix never read a book, telling Victoria that 'she had been promised that she should have no more lessons after she married!'
      The Wales stayed at Chatsworth in December 1872.  The serious-minded Lady Frederick Cavendish, who kept a diary, was not impressed by the fat prince; he was kind and amiable but only got on with 'chaffy, fast people.' She was captivated, however, by Alix's 'perfect charm'. After dinner, Alix was a sight never to be forgotten, 'as she whisked around the billiard-table like any dragonfly, playing at 'pockets'; punishing the table when she missed, and finally breaking her mace across Lady Cowper's back with a sudden little thwack. Likewise at bed-time, high-jinks with all the ladies in the corridors, and yet through all one has a sense of perfect womanly dignity, and a certainty that no one could ever go an inch too far with her.'

      On 9 May, Bertie dined with Sir Coutts Lindsay at his newly opened Grosvenor Gallery in New Bond Street, where he saw Whistler's painting of fireworks, Nocturne in Black and Gold, which Ruskin rubbished as 'flinging a pot of paint in the public's face.' No doubt Bertie agreed. ...
      Two days after the Grosvenor Gallery dinner, accompanied by his artistic sister Princess Louise, Bertie again visited a gallery:  he went to King Street to view Millais' Effie Deans. ...  Effie was the tragic heroine of Walter Scott's Old Mortality, and Millais' painting shamelessly milked the pathos, showing the beautiful country girl parting from her seducer, holding her maiden 'snood', the hair ribbon worn by Scots virgins, to which she had forfeited the right. Millais' model was an unknown woman named Lillie Langtry.
      Millais had met Lillie at an At Home held by Lady Sebright, a hostess who collected artists and writers. Mrs. Edward Langtry's entry that evening had caused a sensation. Among the 'rush of cavaliers' who jostled to take her in to supper, it was Millais who won. Frank Miles, another fashionable artist, sketched her there and then, and the image was reproduced as a penny postcard, which was sold on street corners. Frank Miles specialized in drawing society beauties for magazines, and Lillie came to his studio in Salisbury Street for her sittings. While she posed, [Bertie's younger brother] Prince Leopold often called, and he bought Miles' drawing of her sleepy features on a background of lilies and hung it above his bed at Buckingham Palace. One day when he was ill his mother the Queen came to visit him in bed, and (according to Lillie) the picture shocked her so much that she took it down at once, standing on a chair.
      Bertie, who was no slouch where professional beauties were concerned, let it be known that he wanted to meet Mrs. Langtry, too. ... A dinner was fixed for 24 May. Bertie's diary that day was, even by his standards, unusually packed. He returned from Portsmouth where the previous day he had inspected Lord Charles Beresford's battleship Thunderer, arriving back in London at 1:30; lunched with his sister-in-law Marie, Affie's wife, the Duchess of Edinburgh; chaired a committee meeting at the Marlborough Club, and then took leave of Marie at Charing Cross at 8:15.
      The dinner party of ten assembled at [Sir Allen Young's] Stratton Street home was kept waiting. 'I am afraid I am a little late,' boomed 'a deep and cheery voice', and Mrs. Langtry noticed an expectant hush. According to her own account, which is frankly unbelievable unless she was strangely dense, she was quite unaware that the Prince of Wales was expected.  Alleno presented her to Bertie, whose chest was apparently adorned with glittering orders and a blue Garter ribbon, and she became panic-stricken and longed to escape. At dinner she 'found herself' seated next to him and was struck silent. Her ordeal was brief. At 11:30, the prince departed for Lady Dudley's dance.
      In her memoirs, The Days I Knew, written in 1925, Lillie created a myth about herself. Brought up in Jersey, the only daughter of William Le Breton, the philandering Dean of Jersey, she ran wild as a girl with her six brothers, and married impulsively a seemingly wealthy Irish widower named Ned Langtry. ... In the spring of 1877 she was in mourning for her younger brother, and appeared at Lady Sebright's feeling shy and countrified, wearing a plain black dress and no jewels because she had none, with her hair twisted in a simple knot on the nape of her neck. ... Next morning, her table was heaped with invitations, and she and her reluctant husband found themselves attending two or three parties a night. Everywhere she went she wore the little black dress, which was the only evening gown she possessed.
      Lillie's narrative of herself as an innocent country girl to whom success just happened is disingenuous, Her assault on London society was carefully planned. She admitted as much in an interview she gave to the New York Herald in 1882. Wearing a loose red robe and drying her waist-length hair before the fire, she told the reporter that the Le Breton family had a 'prescriptive right' to the deanery of Jersey, which they had held for generations. 'My pedigree being good and my position in Jersey society being assured, it was not surprising that I should be well-received.' She was introduced to London society, she claimed, by Lord Ranelagh, whose daughter had married her brother. She was no adventuress.

from Bertie:  A Life of Edward VII, by Jane Ridley

[images from Wikipedia} 


lyn said...

I loved this book. I listened to it on audio so I drove around with Bertie for quite a few weeks.

JoAnn said...

I have audiobooks on the brain this week so, after seeing Lyn's comment, I'm off to investigate. It sounds wonderful!

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