This summer gossip 'zines on both sides of the Atlantic are feverishly hoping for the announcement of a royal wedding between Prince William of Wales and his long-time girlfriend Kate Middleton. Who doesn't love a fairy tale romance between a prince and a commoner?
But because I'm a Nerdy History Girl, especially one who's now written five novels set in the Restoration Court of Charles II, my gossip tends to come from Pepys, not People. And when I first heard of Kate Middleton, I thought instead of a much earlier Middleton lady, from a much earlier court.
Jane Needham Middleton or Myddleton (c.1646-c.1692) doesn't quite qualify as one of our Intrepid Women. She was born into Welsh gentry, and was married off at fourteen to an unimpressive gentleman ten years her senior. Her main claim to historical fame was her beauty, which was also her entree into Charles II's court. It also made her a favorite model of court painter Sir Peter Lely. Her languorous eyes and half-smile epitomized the period's beauty, and earned her a place in the collection of Lely portraits known as the Windsor Beauties (hers is left.) In the promiscuous spirit of the Restoration Court, Jane often wandered from her wifely duty with several notable gentlemen at the court, but she never found her way into the amorous king's bed – no minor accomplishment!
Like so many (too many) women of the past, Jane is defined for us almost entirely by men: by Lely's portraits, and by the famous diarists of the period. Samuel Pepys was delighted "to have the fair Mrs. Myddleton at our church, who is indeed a very beautiful lady." But she is more famously described by the waspish courtier Anthony Hamilton. Hamilton's sister, Elizabeth, had her eye on Philibert de Grammont (last seen on the TNHG gossiping here), who in turn was much more interested in Jane. Even though Jane refused Grammont's advances, Hamilton took his sister's side with a vengeance in this often-quoted bit of character assassination:
"The Middleton, handsomely made, all white and golden, had in her manners and in her way of speech something that was extremely pretentious and affected. The airs of indolent languor, which she had assumed, were not to everybody's taste; the sentiments of delicacy and refinement, which she tried to express without understanding what they meant, put her hearers to sleep; she was most tiresome when she wished to be most brilliant."
But a single off-hand comment by Jane's relative, John Evelyn, is the most tantalizing. While he, too, praises her appearance – "that famous and indeed incomparable beauty" – he also casually mentioned to Pepys that she excelled at "paynting, in which he tells me the beautiful Mrs. Middleton is most rare."
Sadly, that's all, not nearly enough for a serious historian to consider. But I write fiction, and I'm not afraid of a little conjecture. Was Evelyn's remark a condescending compliment of the "good for a girl" kind, or did Jane have real talent? Had she somehow managed to receive encouragement or instruction before she became an adolescent wife and court beauty? If she'd been born in another age, would the beauty of her paintings be remembered now instead of that of her "languorous eyes"? I wonder....
Above: Jane Needham, Mrs. Myddleton, by Sir Peter Lely, c. 1663-65, The Royal Collection
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.