Wednesday, July 7, 2010

An Earlier Court Beauty Named Middleton

Wednesday, July 7, 2010
Susan reports:

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

17 comments:

Felicity Flower said...

Fascinating! What finally became of Jane? Does anyone know?

Finegan Antiques said...

She must havd been a strong woman to have not be bedded by the King. I wonder why she refused considering she did wander from her wifely role from time to time with other men?

Donna

Always Trista said...

Love this portrait, how sly she looks, like she has lots of secrets. But that quote about her is horrible! So bitchy. When men are writing the history, it's the women who always get bashed.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Felicity, from what I can find, Jane continued as a courtier for most of her life. She's mentioned as being part of Hortense Mancini's card-playing circle, and was a fixture there. She and her husband died within a year of one another, and are buried side by side; she lived to be around 50, which was a ripe old age in the 17th c.

Donna, I wish I could say Jane displayed great moral fortitude in resisting the king, but my guess is that it was more a case of him perhaps not asking rather than her refusing. Charles seemed to have preferred brunettes to blondes, and in the early 1660s, when Jane was in her heyday, he was very involved with Lady Castlemaine. Which isn't to say that Jane didn't refuse him....:)

Trista, you're right, men tend to leave only their side of the story. The gentlemen of the court were proud to declare themselves libertines, loving wherever they pleased, but woe to the reputation of the lady who dared do the same. Some things never do seem to change, do they?

Margaret Evans Porter said...

Is she the one who was lauded for beauty while at the same time criticised for not smelling very well?

Susan Holloway Scott said...

You're right, Margaret -- Pepys does report that about her. He heard it as part of general court-gossip from Elizabeth Pierce, and he is "greatly troubled" by the news. But considering how throughout the diaries, Mrs. Pierce generally has very little good to say about any other lady at these suppers with Pepys, preferring to keep the attention squarely on herself -- and considering, too, that this seems to be the only mention of Mrs. Middleton's unfortunate "sour smell", I wonder how much it should be counted. But it is often repeated in many secondary sources as an example of 17th c. uncleanliness....which, like Pepys, I find "greatly troubling." *g*

Anonymous said...

All these portraits are so beautiful.
I wish I had a museum of my own to display them all!

Lady Burgley said...

When I first read the Pepys comment about Jane Myddleton's "sour smell", I interpreted it to mean that she had some sort of nasty STD or yeast infection. Whether an infection or only gossip, I still pity the poor lady. That was not a "nice" court.

nightsmusic said...

I'm not very familiar with that era's fashions, but I must say, that is a lovely painting and the dress is beautiful. Simple, elegant...I didn't expect to see that simple of a style.

Those comments remind me of Rose's mother and her conversation regarding her marrying Hockley in Titanic. Rose claims it's so unfair and her mother replies, "Of course it's not fair. We're women. Our choices are never easy." I'm sure Jane's weren't and the fact that she was a survivor speaks volumes.

Mari said...

Absolutely gorgeous painting of Middleton by Lely! She was a beauty! However Charles II as you rightfully pointed out was enthralled with Castlemaine!

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Theo, Jane's attire is beautiful -- she makes a very elegant Ceres with her horn of plenty. But it's a costume contrived by the painter, and has little to do with actual women's dress of the 1660s, which was much more corseted and contrived than this.

The painter Sir Peter Lely dressed all the Court ladies in this kind of "antique" dress, loosely flowing robes that he had in his studio. They were considered romantic costumes, and all that silk was probably much more fun for him to paint. Some of those studio-robes appear in numerous portraits, accessorized with different faux-jewels or scarves. The same gold-colored one that Jane is wearing here also appears on Lady Castlemaine in the portrait that's on the cover of my book "Royal Harlot." Guess the ladies didn't care!

Here's the link to the portrait:

http://susanhollowayscott.blogspot.com/2007_07_01_archive.html

nightsmusic said...

Interesting that at least he gave it a different color ;o) Too bad they're costumes though. They look ever so much more comfortable than the 'everyday wear' that fashion dictated at the time.

Thanks!

Susan Holloway Scott said...

I agree, Theo. The costumes are much more appealing! Here's another portrait of Lady Castlemaine wearing the kind of gown that would have been actually worn at court:

http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/lot_details.aspx?intObjectID=5254045

nightsmusic said...

That dress must have weighed 20 pounds! And what did the women do who actually had bosoms? Yup, I definitely like the costumes better.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

What did the ladies with bosoms do? They had to squeeze them flat beneath their stays, I guess - it's weird how an era that's so known for promiscuous featured fashion without cleavage. Same with the Tudor styles.

Though here's another Lely portrait that proves some ladies didn't mind showing their bosoms, LOL (and there's that gold silk robe again)!

http://www.artchive.com/web_gallery/S/Sir-Peter-Lely/Diana-Kirke-Later-Countess-of-Oxford-2.html

nightsmusic said...

Lely evidently liked that 'loose' look! :lol: Never saw the one of Nell Gwynne they show before but...

Yeah, loose must have been...nice.

;o)

ccryder said...


The most beautiful woman ever to have beguiled the Earth? ... I do believe so. Makes so many contemporary 'beauties' appear common tarts by comparison.


 
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