Tell us a little about you and your research.
I’m a historical sociolinguist and something of a philologist at the Department of Modern Languages in the University of Helsinki. I study the interrelatedness of language and society in historical texts, and my research has largely focused on the language and letters of the Bluestocking circle in eighteenth-century England. I’ve edited some 200 letters of Elizabeth Montagu (1718-1800) and some of her correspondents from manuscripts at the Henry E. Huntington Library, British Library, and Houghton Library, and compiled these letters into an electronic database that’s designed for linguistic research; I’ve had the good fortune to be able to visit wonderful libraries for this purpose. Editing is time-consuming work, but very rewarding – you make constant progress, and get to know your research material thoroughly.
I’m interested in issues such as eighteenth-century spelling variation in private writing and how that variation is patterned in terms of e.g. gender and social rank, intertextuality in letters, social and linguistic prestige, and the relationship between 18th-century linguistic prescriptivism and actual usage. I’m currently working on a linguistic biography of Elizabeth Montagu, and some shorter projects dealing with social dimensions of page layout and orthography, verbal irony in letters, identity, and intertextuality.
Have you learned anything unusual/fascinating about Elizabeth Montagu?
I find it interesting (though perhaps not all that surprising) that Elizabeth Montagu reacted strongly to the increasing stigmatisation of preposition stranding between the 1730s and 1770s. Here’s an example of this severely criticized construction:
My Brother Morris & his family are going to Sandleford, which I am very glad of, for I think it is a Good air for ye sweet little man. [Elizabeth Montagu to Sarah Scott,1760, MO 5779]
This feature all but disappears from Montagu’s letters as the years go by, and I think it happens because of her increasing awareness of her literary reputation and what was considered proper style and good language use. Montagu published the Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespear in 1769, albeit anonymously, and towards the end of the 1770s she had established herself as an influential social hostess and a patron of arts. Interestingly the initial decline of preposition stranding in Montagu’s letters precedes the influx of grammar writing which took off in the 1760s, so she must have been influenced by the earlier 16th-century comments (particularly of John Dryden) which were more elite-oriented and less accessible to the common audience than grammars. This decline of preposition stranding could be considered as language change from above, initiated by the upper strata of society. Nuria Yáñez-Bouza has done interesting research on the history of preposition stranding.
I’ve also been impressed by Montagu’s early letters to Lady Margaret Bentinck, the Duchess of Portland, written when they were in their twenties. Elizabeth is amazingly cheeky and satirical in these letters and openly makes fun of third parties. She was a sophisticated and skilled letter-writer from an early age, and elegantly weaved quotes from Shakespeare and other literary references in her texts.
François Boucher, French, 1703–1770
Lady Fastening Her Garter (also known as La Toilette)
Oil on canvas
Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
Pleasure is the object, duty and the goal of all rational creatures.
Amidst the robe à la française with gold metallic trim and François Boucher’s Lady Fastening Her Garter, the feeling of pleasure sets in. While admiring the collection that makes up the exhibit, Life & Luxury: The Art of Living in Eighteenth-Century Paris at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston (organized by the Getty Museum), the sensations can only be equated to a transportation in time. The goal of recreating the daily life of the upper class is eloquently achieved, and the audience is left with the impression of luxury in its many forms.
Inspiration for the exhibit was found in the Nicolas Lancret paintings depicting The Four Times of Day, thus the collection is divided into rooms based on daily activities. The message being conveyed to the audience is one of making every minute of the day count, and using time wisely. Time is portrayed as the vessel to seek pleasure with, and what allows the luxurious lifestyle to flourish.
Clock movement by Jean-Romilly, French, 1714-1796
Case attributed to Charles Cressent, French, 1685-1768
Bracket by Jean-Joseph de Saint-Germain, French, 1719-1791
Clock on Bracket (Cartel sur une console)
Gilt bronze, enameled metal; glass
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
The exhibition is made up of various eighteenth-century pieces; including paintings, clothing, furniture, books, toiletries, and sculptures. All of these pieces are needed to fully convey to the audience the lifestyle of the upper class, and this is done successfully. The rooms that make up the exhibit include the bedroom in the morning, the man at home, scientific pursuits, food, fashion and culture; and the evening activities of gaming, going out, and night time prayer. The rooms are painted with reference to the time of day; the morning room is painted a beige color, the day rooms are mid tones in blues and greens, and the evening room is a darker blue color. This adds to the visual stimulation of the artifacts, and helps with sensory perception for the atmosphere.
The exhibit’s layout flows nicely, with only a few hiccups. There are two exits from the exhibit; the visitor either has to back track through the entire exhibit or enter in the middle of the museum’s permanent collection. Although it is enjoyable to get one last look at the rooms (and highly recommended for this type of exhibit) by going backwards, it is a distracting feature in the layout. The other design flaw is found in the evening room. To get the accurate story of gaming, going out, and then evening prayer, the proper view is clockwise. If a visitor goes in the opposite direction, the story first reads as if religion is the only aspect of nightlife.
Artifacts are displayed in accordance to their proper room, and it shows that every piece was chosen to serve a purpose. In the entrance of each new room or theme there is an artfully carved placard; which shows the time of day being displayed, a quote from an eighteenth-century philosopher or person of standing, and a general background on the purpose the room would serve in daily life. It is unfortunate to note that the majority of visitors did not even glance over these pieces, as they truly set the mood for the room. Each individual piece also has a placard, all with the typical facts seen (piece title, creator, approximate date, and origin), but most also have a morsel of information on the functionality of the object. The placards that corresponded to clothing and some of the furniture were so low to the ground that the visitor has to bend over significantly to view it. The curators could have alleviated this by placing them on little pedestals, ensuring the audience is at ease in their viewing. Although the museum offers a guided tour of the exhibit, the times are sporadic enough that the self-guided route is the most reasonable.
There is a semi-interactive aspect to the exhibit in the form of using cell phones to hear more information. Some of the placards had a phone number with a # key to use to hear museum curators or historians speak more on the object. This can serve as a marketing tool for the museum to gauge interaction of visitors and help to base future programs on the interest of their audience; and also give added education to visitors who are on a self-guided tour. Although the cell phone tour provides a role, it is worth noting that it comes at a small cost to visitors. Photography in the exhibit is prohibited and when a cell phone is pulled out, the security staff tends to closely walk by to ensure no rules are being broken. The general public tends to be a little leery about being around such expensive pieces anyway, so the feeling of the security staff can be enough to deter visitors from bringing out their phones at all. Arguably, this is a great shame as the audio works with the entire exhibit to help create the world of eighteenth-century Paris.
Jean-François Oeben, French, 1721-1783
Mechanical Reading, Writing, and Toilette Table
Oak veneered with kingwood, amaranth, bloodwood, holly, and various stained exotic woods; drawers of juniper; iron mechanism; silk; gilt-bronze mounts
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
The Art of Living in Eighteenth-Century Paris excels in conveying its story. Without a doubt, the craftsmanship and detail that goes into creating an exhibit can be seen. The concept and execution of it is truthfully world-class. The general public can certainly gain a wider understanding of the luxurious lifestyle during this time period, and the aficionados of eighteen-century history will be hard-pressed not to tear up at seeing such a fine collection in one exhibit. The catalog of the exhibit includes essays by historians and art historians, and is just as finely organized as the exhibition. Although the flow of the exhibit and the placement of some placards were not always to the best advantage, the overall story was masterfully portrayed.
The exhibit is sponsored by Linn Energy and private donors, but aside from their names being prominently displayed in the introduction room, no corporate bias can be seen. It might be argued that the exhibit is pushing an elitist agenda; however, the entire point of this collection is to show a luxurious lifestyle from another time. It is true that the lower class is only mentioned a few times on placards, and solely as servants assisting the upper class. This does not mean the curators or museum is trying to say only the wealthy are worth studying. It simply means that it is the focus of this particular exhibit. The exhibit makes no qualms about its topic; it is about life and luxury. It is not portraying this history as the only history. Our society revolves around disposable goods and mass produced everything, so it is a refreshing turn to look at an entire culture of finely crafted and loved pieces; even if the escape is only for a few hours.
This exhibit runs through December 11, 2011 at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston.
Jean-François de Troy, French, 1679-1752
Before the Ball
Oil on canvas
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
The ideas of love and relationships in the 18th century varied by social status. Extramarital affairs were not only common amongst aristocrats but accepted too. This was not the case with the bourgeois, if affairs cold be considered a privilege, it was one of the nobles only. An excellent case of affair-intolerance among the bourgeoisie would be the fortunate-then-unfortunate case of Madame de la Popelinière.
(Maurice-Quentin De La Tour, Madame de La Pouplinière. Pastel on paper, not dated. Musée Antoine Lécuyer)
Before she was Madame de la Popelinière she lived with her siblings in Paris and her mother (the actress Madamoiselle Daucour) trained her to be a stage actress. But the young Therese never had a need to use her acting skills, because she caught the eye of Alexandre Le Riche de la Popelinière, a wealthy financier. Before long, she was his mistress, and in passing mentioned that he had seduced her to the influential Madame de Tencin. Could this have been part of a bigger plan on her part?
(Anonyme d’après Jean-Marc Nattier (1685–1766), Le Duc de Richelieu, maréchal de France (1696-1788). Oil on canvas, 1732-42. Wallace Collection.)
Eventually the gossip made its way to the upper crust of society, and the Cardnial de Fluery heard of the situation regarding Monsieur de la Popelinière. The situation may have not been of matter to him, had not M. de la Popelinière held the lease of farmer-general from the king. Fluery gave the man an ultimatum, marry the lady or loose your position. Not willing to risk his position and station, he agreed and wed the lady. What good fortune for the would-be actress! M. de la Popelinière was wealthy, well known, and bumped elbows with the best of the best in France.
She took full advantage of her new place in society, holding a salon with artists, musicians and writers. She was a patron of the arts, and became greatly admired. She developed a fine taste for art and writing, her opinions were regarded as refined, and her manor was effortlessly graceful. This young lady would have had made her mark on Paris if it had not been for her own little affair, which was short lived.
She started to see the duc de Richelieu, infamous for his own intrigues, until she was caught by her husband. Disgusted with the whole incidence (fortunately he did not catch them in the act) he wanted nothing to do with the lady. The means of the discovery? A revolving fireplace in her room! So she was being sneaky but not sneaky enough.
Her husband kicked her out of the house but provided her with some money to live on. She appealed to the great men she previously knew for help but to no avail. Richelieu helped her out with lodging, and she may have had the opportunity to regain her place had she not died shortly after the whole disaster.
Be sure to visit Lauren’s blog for more 18th century related posts!
“Forks [in America] do not appear in archaeological sites until the early eighteenth century. The first mention of a fork in the Plymouth Colony area probate inventories is in 1721, in the estate of a wealthy gentleman in Marshfield, but significant numbers of forks do not show up on these records until the second half of the century.”
James Deetz, In Small Things Forgotten
Guest Post by the fabulous Heather Carroll of The Duchess of Devonshire’s Gossip Guide
In the last quarter of the eighteenth century Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire reigned as the toast of the town in London. At the age of seventeen Georgiana married into one of the richest and most influential families in England putting an incomprehensible amount of pressure on the teenager. However, Georgiana rose to the challenge of playing society hostess and delighted London in the process.
Those in search of Georgiana today flock to her beautiful country home, Chatsworth. Sadly though, Georgiana didn’t leave many fingerprints on the breathtaking estate. In her lifetime the Duke of Devonshire owned many properties across England but both he and his wife were known to put most of their time in at only one, Devonshire House on Picadilly Street, London. Due to the couples’ involvement in politics and Georgiana’s legendary hospitality, Devonshire House became a frat house of sorts, complete with endless parties, a fantastic hostess, and guests who were there so often you weren’t quite sure if they lived there or not. Those guest-idents became known as the Devonshire House set.
With so much going on Devonshire House, the Duke figured he could spare the family’s other London homes and rented them out to family. Burlington House was let to the Duke and Duchess of Portland and you can still see it in London today although now it is known as The Royal Academy.
Paradoxically, the more famous house is the one that no longer stands. What once was the hub of aristocratic life in London was sold and destroyed in the 1920s to make room for the unimpressive building that stands there today. The priceless possessions inside were moved to Chatsworth but spaces that captivated an era are now all gone.
However one architectural relic did survive. The gates to the famous house, in which so many famous historical figures passed through, were salvaged. You can see these gates, still with the Cavendish coat of arms in Green Park. A little bit of Devonshire House still remains in London.
Be sure to visit Heather’s blog for more Georgiana (and 18th century) related posts!
— Samuel Johnson
The Adventurer, No. 137, 1754