Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Look at me

Pam Rosenthal and I gave our presentation at National, Writing the Hot Historical (aka Pam & Janet Evening), and as is the way with such things, we started making exciting discoveries hours before we were to speak. It started with a bit of cross-pollination from my workshop on servants that I gave to the Beau Monde a couple of days before and one of the illustrations I had of a lady's maid, painted by James Morland.

Seems this portrait, and this particular subgenre, of female servants at work, was very popular in the long eighteenth century, reproduced in the form of engravings; and this particular picture proved so popular that Morland did another version, this time of the servant ironing. There's also another one that I couldn't hunt down online of a woman wringing out wet laundry, straight out of the window.

I used it in my servant presentation, of course, to show how very well-dressed lady's maids typically were--they were given their mistress's cast-off clothes in addition to wages. But what struck me also about these paintings were their voyeuristic aspect (and also the fact that the subject's bosom is smack-dab in the center of the painting, which I'm sure added to their popularity). Lady's maids washed their mistress's linen--stockings and shifts that were next to their skin, so Ms. Washing is caught in an intimate situation; not only that, but she's looking into your eyes, as though daring you to guess which intimate garment she's handling. Ms. Ironing, however, has her eyes modestly lowered as she irons (stockings? help me out here!)--but she's inviting the viewer to watch as blatantly as Ms. Washing.

One of the puzzling and difficult things about writing sexy historicals is trying to reconcile what we find sexy now with what we think--or guess--people found sexy then. Why the allure of women doing things with their hands?--it's not just handling stockings; there's another subgenre, or sub subgenre, of erotic art featuring kitchen maids (bosoms exposed) plucking game (babes with large dead birds).

My explanation is that these were private moments when a viewer was not expected. When the woman, engaged in her fairly monotonous work, would let her mind drift off, and then feel that prickle at the back of the neck you get when someone is watching. And because what she's doing is completely innocent (isn't it?) she might pretend not to notice. She'd continue her pleasant reverie, the slow, careful movements of her hands, with the additional pleasure of performing unaware. She might even let the watcher know, somehow, that she's aware of his presence; or, she might choose, brazenly, to look into his eyes, and dare him to think that anything out of the ordinary is happening at all.

Your thoughts?


Gillian said...

I was at work workshop, and enjoyed every minute of it.

I think it's the art of the "look" as much as anything.

Jane Lockwood said...

Gillian, glad you were there and thanks for the feedback.

Kate Pearce said...

I think you've hit the nail on the head. There are always those feminine 'mysteries/secrets' that men are fascinated by and the portraits reveal so much; intimate undergarments, maids who have secrets about their mistresses or maybe can be paid to keep them, complicity, sexual awareness-and all captured in the most simple of actions.

Kalen Hughes said...

Ms. Ironing, however, has her eyes modestly lowered as she irons (stockings? help me out here!)--but she's inviting the viewer to watch as blatantly as Ms. Washing.

Can’t tell what the item on the table is, but it looks like the one she’s working on is an engageante (a sleeve ruffle). There also appear to be at least two different versions of both the paintings you show.

janegeorge said...

Loved your workshop, it was great. And I've got another question. Both these ladies' maids are quite comely. What is the fashion to have young, attractive ladies' maids, or was it harder to get such a position if you were a beauty? Like some well-heeled moms today don't want the competition from a hot young French au-pair.

janegeorge said...

Urgh, I meant, "Was it the fashion ...?"

Janet Mullany said...

Hi Jane--
I'd guess that ladies' maids were chosen for their looks because they'd represent the household and show how fashionable the lady of the house was. On the other hand you wouldn't want one who was too goodlooking for the reason you state!

Jane Lockwood said...

Sigh. And really of course, that answer to Jane's question came from me.