Satirical cartoons of the late 18th-early 19th c are seldom subtle (like these examples here and here), which makes this pair all the more interesting. Published in 1775 by Matthew Darly, the prints are not labeled with the subject's names, and modern historians are reluctant to give them a definite identity. Still, 18th c viewers would have instantly known who they represent, and it's an easy guess for us, too: Jane Gordon, Duchess of Gordon, and her husband, Alexander Gordon, 4th Duke of Gordon.
Jane Gordon (1748-1812) was one of the most discussed ladies of her generation. Georgian ladies were supposed to be decorative; Jane was a celebrated beauty, but she was also clever, savvy, out-spoken, and witty. Not only did she handle her husband's business affairs, but as a confidant of William Pitt the Younger, she was actively involved in politics as a noted Tory hostess. Many accused her of having far more influence than was suitable for a woman. Her personality and pro-Bonaparte sympathies eventually led to the end of her marriage and her social position with it.
In the drawing, above, called The Breeches in the Fiera Maschereta (Italian for "fine masquerade"), a woman with a duchess's plumes has hidden herself entirely in an enormous pair of men's breeches. (If you're having trouble visualizing the front of the breeches, see this photo of an 18th c style pair.) Twentieth century wives with strong personalities were often described as "wearing the pants in the family," which could also sum up this drawing. But in a time when no woman wore breeches (or pants), there's a sharper edge to the humor. By meddling in men's affairs, the duchess is an unnatural woman - and one who strives to assume a male identity by assuming the ultimate male garment as a masquerade.
The companion drawing, right. is no more flattering to His Grace. Alexander Gordon (1743-1827) was an energetic Scottish nobleman, popular with his tenants, but his marriage to Jane was widely regarded as a bitter, tumultuous disaster. Despite having a sizable family, the two eventually lived separate lives. Those who disliked his duchess and disapproved of the influence she maintained faulted the duke for not making her act in a more traditional wifely manner (though it was doubtful any man could have made Jane obey.)
In The Petticoat, at the Fieri Maschareta, a man is shown "masquerading" in a voluminous woman's petticoat, his gloved hand protruding from the pocket slits and the waist strings tied around his neck. On his head is a ducal coronet, and the face that peeks out has an exaggerated version of the duke's profile. Garbed like this, he is not simply hiding behind his wife's skirts, but overwhelmed and emasculated as well - which is likely the way his overbearing wife's behavior was viewed. Despite this caricature, however, the duke was behaving in an entirely male, ducal way. While his duchess ruled London society, he remained at Gordon Castle with his mistress nearby, siring four illegitimate children with her.
Above: The Breeches in the Fiera Maschereta & The Petticoat, at the Fieri Maschareta, published by Matthew Darly, London, 1775. The British Museum. Many thanks to our blogly friend Heather Carroll for reminding us of this print!
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.