Monday, May 3, 2010

The Sylph, Letters 1-8

Salon 1, Welcome, get cozy, and let's get chatting!

Our novel opens with Sir William Stanley’s letter to his friend, Lord Biddluph telling him that on his trip to Wales he acquired a wife. Sir William knows that this news will shock most, but as he puts it, “Don’t every body marry?” His new wife is Julia Grenville, a country-girl, who although is “rustic” in Sir William’s opinion is beautiful enough to tempt him into the shackles of matrimony. Beside being young and naïve we find that Julia is also “Mild, passive, duteous, and innocent” which excites Sir William. Sir William is quite the opposite.

We are also introduced to two other players: Sir William’s pen pal, Lord Biddluph and a man from Julia’s past, Henry Woodley. Lord Biddluph reveals the competitive nature that exists between him and Sir William and confirms that they both lead a rake’s life. Woodley writes to his friend to bemoan the loss of Julia, whom he has been in love with since they were children. Freshly returned, from making his fortune, he went to her father’s house to propose only to find he was too late.

Julia’s letters to her sister talk of the difficult adjustments to life in the ton. The bustle of London frightens her and she is perplexed by the grand fashions. She is constantly being scrutinized by her husband and those around her for the social faux-pas that she commits due to the how foreign her new lifestyle is. To aid in the adjustment Sir William has recruited Lady Anne and Lady Besford to be Julia’s companions, which as Lord Biddluph hinted at, could not be the best match for the naïve newlywed.

Sir William’s introductory letters may not be the most interesting way to begin the novel but serve to give us an idea of how different he is from his new wife; they are foil characters. I found Letter 3 very interesting in that it gives a wonderful description of Piccadilly Circus and the change of lifestyle as Julia transitions into the life of an aristocrat. Letter 8 continues to give these great eye-witness accounts of high society.
The Georgiana Connection
Julia brings up Puce, the color that Marie Antoinette popularized and which Georgiana and her mother talk of in their personal letters to each other around the same time (some excerpts here). This is the same chapter where Georgiana sneaks in a reference to herself, “He had run the risk of disobliging the Duchess of D--, by giving me the preference of the finest bundles of radishes that had yet come over; but this it was to degrade himself by dressing commoners.” She couldn’t resist sneaking a clue into her anonymously-published novel, oh which there are several hunts throughout the book. In the same stroke, she pokes fun at herself for her own outlandish fashions.
Throughout the book Julia frequently refers to a “vortex of dissipation.” In her letters dating from the same time, Georgiana often uses this phrase to describe her own life. Those lucky enough to read both would undoubtedly catch the frequency of this Georgiana turn-of-phrase, if you will.

Georgiana is also very black and white with her characters. Those from the aristocracy come off as pernicious while those from Wales (The Grenvilles, Woodley) are very innocent. Woodley himself seems like the ideal Enlightened man, embroidering his tear-stained letters with poems and such.

If you were suddenly thrown into London ton life like Julia do you think you’d cope better than she? Does one only need an open-mind to survive this lifestyle or does it take more of a cunning personality? Do her descriptions of her life scare you as much as they scare her or are they more intriguing than terror-inducing?


  1. The Sylph is certainly a great read so far and I think that the role that Henry Woodley plays as the jealous past admirer will become a very important part of the overall plot.

    I had a quick question regarding something I noticed on page 33 of the Northwestern University Press edition of the book. "He had run the risk of disobliging the Duchess of D---- by giving me the preference of the finest bundles of radishes that had yet come over". I noticed that in this book and in many other writings of the period, authors would sometimes use dashes to cover up names. What is the purpose of using this technique?

  2. I am also enjoying the book so far. I am a little surprised at the naivety of Julia, even though she was brought up in the country by a father in seclusion. Surely she would have SOME idea of life and fashion in the city?

    I loved the description of the fabrics for the gown and of getting dressed for court, however I was puzzled by Julia being so displeased by her own reflection. It was not her normal style, but by this time she had been exposed to fashionable ladies, so her eye should have adjusted.

  3. I'm pretty sure that if I were in Julia's place I would make a run for it. But then I don't think that I would ever fall for such a man as her husband. I think she is way too naive, but I think that at present she is holding up quite well and her humour is a good weapon against constantly rising calamities. I wonder how soon she will discover her husband for what he really is and what will be her reaction. I love reading her letters, but not so much her husband's - he is kind of revolting. I feel sorry for Julia, because she is the only one who doesn't know yet who she married.


  4. @blue, Ah yes dashes. This book, and eighteenth century writings, are just full of them, in both punctuation and with names as in this case. In cases such as this, they were used when you were expected to know the rest of the name, so why bother filling it out? This came in handy especially in fictional pieces when the author didn't want to bother coming up with a fictional noble's last name, ie Lady L--, B--y S--rs. Personally, they drive me nut!

    @Vinery, I think it's most certainly a possible situation. It would be like someone from the backwoods of [enter rural US state here] seeing people wearing couture in real life. There are prints from the time (which I searched high and low for) called the Country Girl Returning from the City where the young lady can't get into her country cottage because her hair is now too tall, and everyone else looks on in shock! So Julia could have been totally ignorant of the extent of just how crazy the fashions of London, or even more specifically, the ton, were especially on her. I imagine it's like suddenly being told to dress like Lady Gaga every day...I wouldn't care for my reflection either! Well, the shoe part I would like! Do you think she will eventually adjust?

    @Farida, Isn't it such a relief when you get to Julia's letters? Sir William's are so self-celebrating and flowery they make you want to gag! When I read Julia's I was thinking "Thank God, a normal person!"

  5. So far I love it! Is it just me or does Georgiana's voice really come through? I imagine the descriptions of Sir William by the housekeeper to relate much to her own views of men after five years of marriage to the Duke. If I didn't also see so many similarities to Sheridan I'd say she was a bit risqué to call him William!

    That said I'm impressed she could distance herself from the character of Julia, by not giving her a title before marriage, and so linking her more to Eliza Sheridan and Lady Teazle - tho' G also came from outside London.

    Really enjoying her self-satire too! Here's to more!

  6. I'm really enjoying this so far. Letter 8 really detailed Julia's feelings and her character and I was able to get a better feel for her personality. I somehow get the feeling that deep down she is intrigued, and although she longs for her life with her sister and father...she does want more; almost like she wants to really fit in. If it were me, I think there would be no other choice but to play along (gee, really is starting to sound like Georgie's inner feelings..)
    I'm dying to find out if Woodley reappears in her life...
    One more thing; I find that although William showed his some of his snobby, spoiled self from the beginning- he's now turned completely cold, and worse...once again alluding to the Duchess's own relationship?

  7. I too am really enjoying the book so far. I hope that if I were in Julia's situation, I'd have a bit more spine, but I honestly don't know. Guess I'll have to win the lotto to find out;)
    I get the feeling Julia married Sir William out of boredom. Most girls long for a bit of romance and adventure, and how likely was it that she would find it rustcating in the country? By letter 8, I think she's beginning to see that she jumped into the deep end without knowing how to swim.

  8. What I don't get is why didn't the Grenvilles' housekeeper tell them that Sir William basically offered to buy her daughter? Even though that wasn't her daughter but Julia? What a weird thing not to say the guy was an immoral creep.

  9. So here's a question: Sir William- a serious danger to be wary of or just a fop? What do you think?

  10. I'm having a great time with the epistolary format. I was taking everything Stanley said to Biddulph at face value -- thinking the two of them were great friends-- until Biddulph's letter to the Colonel.
    Oh! The intrigue!
    It also struck me as strange that Julia's sister, Louisa, would appear so knowing to Stanley when she has been raised the same way Julia was, but Woodley reveals the answer to this when he discusses the disappointment she sustained by a former lover.
    Everything is being peeled back for the reader layer by layer. It's great fun!
    I like that Julia is standing up for herself to Stanley. That moment where she tells him she will stay home until she can "submit to insult and absurdity without emotion" is the moment I really became invested in her as a character.
    If I were in her situation, Stanley would have already sent me back home to my father in disgust. I would have a hard time assimilating into the ton.

  11. @Heather I think Sir William is a nasty piece of work. Someone to fear eventually. He wanted to buy a girl, and then he pretty much married to - what? Do what others do?

    This is an awesome book. It testifies to the oft-repeated maxim, write what you know. It certainly worked here.

    Also am most impressed people in those days had enough hair for those incredible hairstyles!

  12. Sir William is a jaded and bored opportunistic man. He finds a shiny new toy, takes it home and proceeds to try and destroy it. I am greatly enjoying the different letters with bits and pieces and clues all flying about.

  13. After reading the first batch of correspondence presented to us in this narrative, there are many avenues for discussion one could choose to wander down, and the one that has most captured attention could perhaps best be summarized thus:

    You can tell a lot about a man by what he reads!

    More specifically, I believe Her Grace has given us some pretty strong clues as the nature of Sir William's character through the books and poetry he quotes (or misquotes, as the case may be). The very fact that his letters are peppered with literary references is a clear sign of his worldliness, but the content of his allusions leads one to the conclusion that he is a thoroughly dissipated individual, and most likely not to be trusted! Examples? Yes, let's. There are many to choose from, but following Polonius' example of making brevity the soul of wit, I will limit myself to addressing only three ;p

    In Letter II Sir William paraphrases couplets from two contemporary poems. The first,

    And days of peace do still succeed
    To nights of calm repose

    Refers to the poem 'A Prayer for Indifference' by Frances Greville, in which the the writer beseeches the fairy king Oberon to cast a spell over him that will render him indifferent to passionate attachments and the joys and pains of love. This piece concludes with the verse,

    And what of life remains for me
    I'll pass in sober ease;
    Half pleased, contented will I be,
    Content but half to please.

    Which is a formula for a perfectly miserable, boring relationship, if ever I heard one.

    Sir William's next quote,

    And when I am weary of wandering all day,
    To Thee, my delight, in the evening I come

    Refers to an amazingly condescending poem by one Matthew Prior entitle 'A Better Answer', in which he endeavors to convince his lady that although he writes flirtatious poems to other women it's strictly business, and he really loves her best (we all know how that one goes...). The full verse runs,

    So when I am weary'd with wand'ring all day,
    To thee my delight in the evening I come:
    No matter what beauties I saw in my way:
    They were but my visits; but thou art my home.

    Which one could otherwise read as 'Sure, I might have a fling here and there, but I'll always come back to you in the end!' This was obviously the norm for many a so-called 'gentleman' of the day, so it's hardly surprising that Sir William would sympathize with the poet, and indeed, the fact that he likes this piece and knows it well enough to drop a line into casual conversation (or a gossipy letter between friends) is telling.

    As a side note I have to say in defense of Mr. Prior that despite my catty interpretation of it's use in the context of The Sylph I actually rather like this poem. He makes a wry observation on the difference between Art and 'Real Life'~

    What I speak, my fair Cloe, and what I write, shews
    The diff'rence there is betwixt Nature and Art:
    I court others in verse; but I love thee in prose:
    And they have my whimsies; but thou hast my heart.

    But! that is a digression completely off topic, so I will return to the matter at hand--

    *Pauses to sip tea*

  14. *Finishes tea, continues*

    The last reference I'd like to bring up is in Letter I, when Sir William is describing his tumble down the hill and subsequent meeting with the Grenville sisters, in which he flippantly quips,

    "I sat therefore like Patience on a monument, and bore my misfortune with a stoical philosophy."

    The quote 'like Patience on a monument' comes from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night (Act IV, Scene ii), in a scene in which the girl Viola (disguised as the boy Cesario) argues with Duke Orsino (with whom she is secretly besotted) that women, though they are less demonstrative, suffer far more from love than men do.

    She sat like patience on a monument,
    Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed?
    We men may say more, swear more: but indeed
    Our shows are more than will; for still we prove
    Much in our vows, but little in our love.

    I think hinting at this passage is Georgiana's very sly way of telling us that Sir William is selfish and insincere, and that Julia of a certainty cannot be happy with him.

    *Pauses for a biscuit*

    As for the other men moving into the fair Julia's orbit, I cannot say I see much to recommend any of them. Woodley initially comes off as perfectly ridiculous--I laughed myself silly at some of his more florid passages ("Words would be too faint a vehicle to express the anguish of my soul"!); but he demonstrates unexpected depths of perceptiveness in his assessment of Louisa's feelings after her 'disappointment':

    "She has, I question not, long since beheld this unworthy wretch in the light he truly deserved; yet, no doubt, it was not till she had suffered many pangs. The heart will not recover its usual tone in a short time, that has long been racked with the agonies of love..."

    So! If he can man up and stop mooning about like a lost calf, Mr. Woodely may yet prove to be an adequate hero.

    *Pauses for another biscuit*

    As for the last question, how would I fair if I were thrown upon the town with little or no experience? I would like to believe that I have enough natural wit and cleverness to be able to hold my own in the thick of it; though the more likely senario is that I would land up in the coffee houses along with the rest of the Bluestockings ;p

  15. Dammmmn girl!

    Thanks for doing my homework for me! That was enlightening.

  16. i would say that he's a fop, but it doesn't mean that he can't be dangerous at least in that he seems so bent on following fashion that he has no idea of real worth in a person. he's just brought julia to town and i already feel that he despises her and wants to keep his distance. but considering how revolting he is, it's more of a plus, really:)) i also think that they both regret getting married and the worst part that it can't be undone. i would go crazy.

  17. Hi guys. I had a lot typed up and then my computer froze as usual as you can probably imagine, I’m not in a very pleasant mood to be writing everything again. But on a lighter note, Thank you Blue for asking about the dashes, I was wondering about that myself. I also wanted to ask about the word "ton" Is it a British term? I’m thinking it is similar to describing someone as a big shot or something as extravagant.

    About the story, my favorite chapter had to be letter 4 from Biddulph to Montague. I think its hysterical that he’s basically saying once Julia sees that William will eventually get sick of her, she will then to start seeking the affection of other men, and there he will be to take the plunge! HOW SKEEZY!! I new right then that I was going to like this book! lol
    I also liked letter 8 from Julia to her sister. Its nice sometimes to read a letter that’s a little more on the light side so its easier on my brain. *looks around sheepishly* lol I thought it was so funny how she argued with the hairdresser and basically kicked him out, or he just put down his sh** and left once she started pulling out all the ribbons and such herself. I’m a hairdresser and let me tell you... some people... I just want to do the same thing sometimes. Today was one of those days...

    I can sympathize with Julia a little. Its like taking someone from the slow pace of the southern US and expecting them to adjust to living in NYC. Their most likely going to hate it. And probably get ran over by some people and feel like their being rushed by the waiter when they go out to eat. Its just a different way of life. And even though everyone has an idea of what NYC is like in their head, unless they have actually spent some time there, they will never understand the true feel of it.

  18. @Farida, I am with you, I'd go crazy or as Keri Luna said so perfectly, I would get sent back to my father!

    @MJ, First of all, computer freezing during moments of genius on comments are the WORST. I feel your pain!

    Now as for the ton, or bon ton if you will, the name is French for "taste" or "the good taste" and I will direct you here to do my explaining for me.

    I like that you got to enjoy an excerpt about one of your predecessors! Did you know how highly regarded hairdressers were? They were actually paid more than court painters, if that gives you an idea!

    I also think you are accurate in your NYC fantasy analogy. The romance of the fashion and society seems so great in your head, but actually experiencing them might turn many a person into a Julia!

  19. I know the Ton then could perhaps be compared more to Hollywood or NYC High Society now, but the "what the heck" response Julia has reminds me of reading Julian Fellowes' Snobs (he did the screenplays for gosford park and The Young Victoria). It's the insularity of the elite and how they believe themselves right no matter how ridiculous.

    Sir W can't really be based on the D of D, can he? From what I've read of the Duke, he was interested in dogs, gaming and drinking, not in fashion.

  20. I like Sir Stanley in the sense that he is what a husband should not be – makes for a very dastardly character! He believes himself overly clever, (“to a genius so enterprising as myself”) and as Mythosidhe said, quotes poetry alluding to dissipated gentlemen/lifestyles. Guess we know where his mind is at. As far as he is concerned regarding Julia, she is from the “lap of innocence” and unlike the women of his world who “marry that they may know the greater privilege of leading dissipated lives,” he seems to genuinely think he can pull one over on her. Makes me think he couldn’t handle a woman who could spare with him, i.e. one of the ton.

    Also, I wouldn’t count on perspicuity in Stanley. Vain men rarely have enlightened views of themselves (“I must be applauded by the whole world; lovely as I yet think her, she would be the object of my hate, and I should despair myself if she is not admired by the whole court.”) He is in the business of acquisitions and as MEL said, Julia is merely a toy.

    However, I can’t really blame Julia for falling in his trap. Given the disappointment her sister endured (and that she knows nothing of) and the fact her father has “withdrawn from the pleasures of the world,” she would possess an innocent mind because her family has been protecting her. I did laugh a little when on page 23 she discussed hiding her faults for Stanley’s pleasure and then questioned whether he had any. Pure naiveté there.

    I am quite looking forward to Biddulph schemes, especially as he says, “Men who delight to disturb the felicity of others are most tenacious of their own.” That sounds like a vendetta to me!

  21. @Tulip, I personally don't see much of Georgiana's husband in Sir William. Perhaps that is why she was comfortable giving him the name of Sir William. Or perhaps giving him that name was a means of further identifying herself as the author.

    @Susan, Perhaps Sir William's fault (that Julia is blind to and I use it in the singular terms since obviously the man is a stunning human being)is that he couldn't handle a woman of the ton? I can see him getting slapped around by one. Perhaps that has happened often enough in the past to induce him into going after a "rustic"

  22. @Heather Carroll, that's exactly what I'm thinking. He could never dominate a worldly female. I'm curious to see if Julia ends up becoming more than he can handle. I hope he doesn't get what he bargained for!