December 18, 2013 § Leave a comment
In Wyndham Lewis’s extraordinary 1928 satire The Childermass, recently deceased odd couple Pullman and Satterthwaite (a Don Quixote and Sancho Panza pairing, or aspects of James Joyce and Gertrude Stein if you prefer) wander the “Time-flats”, the unstable purgatorial landscapes of the hereafter, as they seek admission to the heavenly Magnetic City.
In one more than averagely baffling episode Pulley and Satters find that they have meandered into a “Time-scene” where all becomes smaller in an artificially diminishing perspective, and – as in H G Wells’s 1901 story The New Accelerator – people and animals are frozen in immobility. Arriving at a living tableau straight out of Rowlandson, they identify the time as the late eighteenth century, and the place as Islington – specifically, the Old Red Lion Tavern where, as Pullman recalls, Tom Paine wrote his Rights of Man.
As childish Satters peeps into the garden of the tavern, he sees three men around a table, on which is placed “an object the size of a large hen’s egg, of bright ultramarine …” Fascinated, Satters tweaks the pigtail of one of the miniature figures, which, coming to life, upbraids him “with a slight American accent,” proving itself to be Paine. (The identity of the other two figures sat before the egg is not suggested, though the Williams Blake and Godwin might be a fair bet.)
Pullman, perhaps aware of the terrible dangers, familiar to all science fiction readers, that might result from interference with the past, is horrified. But he is powerless to restrain his companion, who, in a fit of spite, snatches up the miniature Paine and runs off with him. The mannikin sinks his teeth into Satters’s hand, who retaliates by trampling him “in an ecstasy of cruelty … into an inert flattened mass.” Having gratuitously killed off the Enlightenment and human rights, the pair are abruptly flung back into the present, or at least, what passes for time present in their shifting afterlife.
The episode is touched on by several commentators, but I’m not aware of much analysis of the details. In the novel as in his wider work, Lewis is concerned with what he sees as the deleterious cultural and political effects of “time philosophies”, and in particular the subjectivised model of time as creative flux promoted so influentially by the philosopher Henri Bergson. Alan Munton has noted how the instability of the landscape, much of it apparently invented by the grotesque Bailiff who presides over the entrance to the City, suggests the untrustworthy and contingent nature both of fiction itself and of the political structures embodied by the Bailiff. More recently Jonathan Goodwin has also highlighted the relevance of the novel to the political climate of the late ‘twenties.
But why the eighteenth century? And why Tom Paine? And what is the mysterious blue egg that so attracts Satterthwaite? Maybe this episode comes a bit more into focus when set alongside a possible source for Lewis, the bestselling An Adventure of 1911 and 1913 – the first hand accounts of the “Moberly-Jourdain incident,” sometimes tagged as “the ghosts of Versailles”. read more
PHOTOGRAPH: Mary Robinson
April 2, 2013 § Leave a comment
One of the most iconic images of eighteenth-century extravagance is a fashion plate depicting a lady wearing a miniature ship in her powdered and pomaded hair.
But this much-misunderstood hairstyle was not just an eye-catching novelty. It was one of many ship-shaped headdresses that celebrated specific French naval victories and, more importantly, advertised their wearers’ patriotism and political acumen.
Far from being the whimsical caprice of bored aristocrats, these maritime modes were directly inspired by one of the defining political and philosophical issues of the day: America’s struggle for independence, in which France was a key military and political ally.
In 1778, France signed a treaty of alliance with the United States and sent its ships up against Britain’s formidable Royal Navy. The Battle of Ushant on July 27th of that year was the first major conflict between the British and the French. Though the battle was not decisive and both sides would claim victory, the French fleet suffered far fewer casualties, and one French frigate in particular, the Belle Poule, badly damaged the British vessel the Arethusa.
“All Paris was enflamed by the news,” the Vicomtesse de Fars recorded, “and for a month the ladies enshrined its memory with an object of fashion of bad taste, called the coiffure à la Belle Poule. This coiffure represented, more or less, a ship in full sail.” The Journal politique marveled at its “ingenious. . . sails of gauze” and “riggings of silver and gold threads.” A variant of the same fashion plate was published under another title, which made explicit its political context: the “Coëffure à l’Indépendance, ou le Triomphe de la liberté.”
The Junon was another French frigate that distinguished itself at the Battle of Ushant; later that year, it secured its own place in fashion history by capturing the H.M.S. Fox. The Journal des modes de Paris described the coiffure à la Frégate la Junon as “a hat on which is represented a vessel with all its apparatus and tackle, having its cannons in formation,” which could be purchased from the milliner Mademoiselle Fredin.
France’s next important victory was the Battle of Grenada on July 6th, 1779, in which the French fleet—led by Admiral d’Estaing—captured the West Indian island from the British. The battle inspired chapeaux à la Grenade and à la d’Estaing; one satirist took this trend to its logical conclusion and depicted d’Estaing himself perched on a lady’s head. read more
PHOTOGRAPH: Geoffrey Pugen