Saturday, March 31, 2012

Quick Curiosity about Nancy and Otto

In paging around through the internets for information on my last Nancy Shippen blog (part 11 of the ongoing tragedy!), I happened across a reference to The Sylph on "The Dutchess of Devonshire's Gossip Guide to the 18th Century." It's one of my guilty history pleasures (okay not so guilty because it is well-researched, just guilty because of my prickly, no-romance exterior).

Long story short, it was written in 1779 by the ill-married Georgiana Cavendish, Dutchess of Devonshire (pictured at right with the fabulous hairdo and ostrich feathers). It's a novel about "the naive country girl, Julia, who marries a rich aristocrat but soon discovers him to be a rake who spends all his money on gambling and mistresses. To distract herself from her woes, Julia involves herself in the ton and fashion, making friends and frenimies with the elite. Meanwhile her home life only gets worse when her husband gets more and more abusive. Her fellow wives of the ton bring little consolidation because they are just as ill-used by their husbands. In her worst time of need an anonymous person calling himself The Slyph (a sylph was a mythical invisible spirit) writes to her offering her advice. Eventually, Julia is forced to run away from her husband (who promptly commits suicide) and she discovers the true identity of The Slyph and the two wed." (summary borrowed from the blog)

See the paralells to Nancy?

And Julia! Julia was what Louis Otto had begun calling Nancy in the throes of romantic passion in early 1790. "...the Julia, whose letter I can not peruse too often..." he wrote after their meeting in New York that spring and later, "forgive it Julia" in August.

Louis Otto and Nancy Shippen had long called each other by nicknames borrowed literature or mythology. She called him Leander in their youth. He had at least once called her Amanda.

Is this sudden adoption of the name Julia a reference to the tragic heroine of the Dutchess of Devonshire's novel? Is Louis suggesting that he is going to rescue Nancy from her terrible marriage? To be sure, Julia is a name that had many applications over the decades, going back to Ancient Rome. But the timing and popularity of The Sylph does make me wonder.

Although I can never be sure, the possiblity adds an interesting perspective to their perseption of the romance and their hopes for it.

Love and Divorce: The Sorrowful Tale of nancy Shippen, Part 11

Louis Otto had been Nancy Shippen Livingston's dearest love since she was a bouncy teenager ballancing the attentions of several suitors. It seemed that their lives had parted irreparably when, in 1781, Nancy followed her parents' advice and married the wealth Henry Beekman Livingston and Louis Otto contented himself with a bride of his own and returned to France.

But now seven years had passed. Nancy's marriage was in a shambles. She was estranged and caught in a conspiracy of deceit to hide her daughter from her husband since the law could offer no shelter.

Louis Otto's wife had passed away suddenly, and he was making return trips to New York. His once shakey career prospects had now morphed into a "future Minister to the European courts." And then he bumped into Nancy. The old flame was not extinguished.

Sometime in the spring of 1788, the two began corresponding again, and letters went between them reliably every two weeks. By February of 1789, Louis wrote to Nancy "Let me [hope] to receive at least every fortnight a Letter from you. I am now so used to this charming corresponance that I expect with anxiety every new testimony of your rememberance."

Nancy needed this kind of love and support. Her marital situation had entered a new chapter: she was finally ready to sue for divorce. This was a controvercial decision and was not supported by everyone in Nancy's life. Because "irreconsilable differences" was just not acceptable reason to break the marrital bond, she was going to have to prove her husband's cruelty to a court presided over by men who as a whole share the common belief that divorce was immoral in the first place.

Nancy's uncle Arther Lee once responded with harsh sarcasm to her request for assistance, insinuating that her divorce was a symptom of the loathsome fashions of the time. Nancy's parents weren't supporting her either. This must have been highly distressing since Nancy was living with them at the time. You have to wonder what dinner conversations were like in the Shippen household when Nancy sat down across the table from her father and his strong opinions.

Oddly enough, her mother-in-law Margaret Beekman Livingson (whose own happy marriage she heralded to whomever would listen) was one of her greatest supporters. She offered moral support, information, influence, and an active public relations campaign on Nancy's behalf. Several time she referenced attempting to get "the ladies" on Nancy's side as a way to influence the opinions of their powerful husbands.

"I dare say no more to you altho their [your parents] conduct is reprobated by every Body for their sordid interestedness," wrote Margaret (more evidence of her lobbying her society friendy on Nancy's side). Another time she comforted her, "Keep up your spirits...Do not sink under your afflictions." She was also writing long letters to Nancy's parents, presumably to prevail upon their sympathies. "I have written 5 pages to your father and now my pen is bad and my hand is tired."

Henry was out to destroy Nancy. Knowing the depth of her attachment to their daughter, he sought every tool possible to get little Peggy away with him. He pushed his brother the Chancellor to intercede, to no avail (the Chancellor was on Nancy's side in all this). He pushed Nancy's father to send the child up (Dr. Shippen agreed, but for whatever reason did not succeed in sending little Peggy out of his house). Peggy did not even make her annual pilgrimage to Clermont because Margaret was afraid that Henry would come and forcibly take her away. "I am not fit now at this period, to encounter the salleys of his turbulent temper," she wrote.

Henry even employed friends to spy and possibly even steal the little girl. "Do not be secure [in your distance from him]. Remember who are his friends..." Margaret advised.

In December of 1788, Maragert also informed Nancy that her son was preparing to spread rumors to ruin Nancy's public persona. Reputation in this society was everything, and loose sexuality could get Nancy branded a pariah and destroy any hope of her gaining legal custody over her daughter. This rumor was going to involve everyone: Nancy, his mother, and Louis Otto.

"He has he says proof of your infidelity before marriage & after this if I am rightly informed (for him I have not seen) He says he will publish Mr O is named &c &c and says he will Publish the treatment he has received from his own family," Margaret informed Nancy. Thankfully, throughout the winter social season, the rumor was slow to carry. When Nancy wrote Louis Otto in February or March of 1789, the rumor had not been published.

Louis Otto was trying to understand the situation only through gossip and letters since he hadn't seen Nancy more than briefly during this whole period. The danger to her reputation and his (including his career) was real if they were to meet. Their early correspondance was restrained, more formal, and Nancy held back some information. When Nancy wrote him of Henry's plan to slender them, she must have made only vague and anxious references to it and the divorce, because Otto responded "...I am at a loss how to advise you. even the enclosed letter does not inform me sufficiently of your situation..." He suggested hopefully, gently that after all his encouragement to reconcile with her husband (the conventional and prudent way to solve this problem), she was finally attempting to free herself through divorce.

But their letters were becoming increasingly impassioned as Nancy gained hope that she could escape her husband and free herself up to be with her first love, Louis Otto. Even acknowledging the highly-stylied and romantic language of the day, they were becoming increasingly more open with their endearments. "I am so good natured that I believe every flattering word you tell me, therefore do not write more than you feel. your affectionate Friendship is now my only ressource and if I could think that you deceive me I should be miserable," Louis wrote her that February.

When Henry redoubled his efforts to create a scandal around them, it destroyed any hope of their being able to meet again soon. "Somtimes...I am pleased to indulge dreams which can never be realised, I wish to go to Philadelphia [to see Nancy] and soon after i think it better not to go," moaned Louis to Nancy. Her mother-in-law continued to advise cautious behavior in Nancy's social life, "Calumny with her thousand toungues can only be escaped by the wary and wise. By them no male Visitants will be permitted to extend their Visit beyond the hour limited by propriety in its strictest sense, especially if the Lady be alone." In other words, "don't do anything that might cast doubt on your reputation."

The following spring (1790), when it was finally safe enough to deliver Peggy to Margaret Beekman Livingston in New York, Nancy wrote to Louis Otto that there was a chance they could meet. He awaited her arrival for weeks, on tenderhooks lest the opportunity to see his beloved be smashed.

But the meeting was brief and strained by the need for propriety. "So much reserve seems to be incompatible with Friendship and if I was not acquainted with the motive of your sudden departure, I should have atrributed it to a change in your sentiments... At least my dearest Friend, I have seen you, I have conversed with your charming little daughter, I have recalled to my rememberance the delightful moments of former times."

This time was a strained and hard one for Nancy, filled with anxiety about protecting (or losing) her daughter, fear of her husband, distress at the lack of support from her parents, and tantalizingly tempted with the faint possiblity of happiness with Louis Otto. If she could only prove her husband's fault in the failure of the marriage, she could extricate herself and finally find emotional fulfillment beside Louis. But the law favored her husband, and she could in the process lose her eight-year-old daughter Peggy, the one person she loved more than anyone else in the world.

Two painted images have been borrowed from the 18th Century American Women Blog, a womderful source for imagery and analysis of 18th century life.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Isn't it Suite? Livingston Furniture Returned to Clermont

It was with great excitement last December that welcomed the donation of three pieces of Livingston furniture back to Clermont. After some time in our cramped temporary storage area, these pieces were gently transported to our Peebles Island Resource Center for conservation and photography.

Above at right you can see the sofa, a transitional piece between the heavy, blocky Empire period and the more curvacious Rococo revival period. The conservators estimated this piece to be from somewhere in the mid nineteenth century. It looks to me to be stately, refined, and uncomfortable.

While the upholstery on these three beautiful pieces matches, they themselves do not. They are a "marriage," a combination of pieces from different sets. The two chairs appear to be from a few decades later than the sofa above. You can also see that the two chairs, while in a similar style, have different ornamentation schemes. Both are Rococo revival, but the one with the crest at the top is much more ornately-carved and of a slightly different-colored wood.

The three were re-upholstered in matching blue silk in the 1960s by the woman that Janet Livingston gave them too, but if we look at them in photographs from the 1930s, we can see that they were upholstered to match at that time too.

See? Here they are, photographed in the mid 1930s in Clermont's drawing room. You can just see the sofa and crested chair to the right. The smaller arm chair is in the middle, ironicly paired with the chair it should match, but now does not match because of the change in upholstery.

As the conservators embark on their restoration of the three pieces, they will need to find a new upholstery that resembles the stuff that was on there around 1930 (Clermont's interpretation date). You can see a closer look at the edges of the sofa and larger chair right.

And at left, you can see a closer image of the smaller arm chair.

It's clearly some sort of silk damask (pronounced DAM-ask), light in color, and not an uncommon choice for the era.

While the conservators were hoping to finds shreds of the old upholstery underneath the new stuff, it occurred to me that the side chair in this photo is upholstered in the same fabric. In my wanderings through collections, I knew I'd seen at least a few upholstered side chairs hanging out in collections. So over I went, and I was rewarded for my trouble.

Here is the same side chair you can see in the photograph at left, now worn by age and use and light. And at some point some put a heavier upholstery over the top (I've folded it back so you can see the older layer underneath). But the same pale damask is still clinging to the seat underneath.

And here's another image of the upholstery. It's faded, shattering, and worn, but from this our conservators will be able to select new silk with which to cover our beautiful new donations as we return them to the way Alice, Honoria, and Janet knew them in the 1930s.

It's all one more step on our quest to continually improve the accuracy of our interpretation of life at Clermont. I will keep you updated as we look to incorporate these into our furnishing plan at the site.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Always Learning: A New Silhouette of Alice

Quite some time ago, I was all excited to have discovered a little sihouette of Janet Livingston, made during the family's trip to England in 1921 (at right, Honoria and Janet on Woolacombe beach in North Devon). Because it was the only one in the file box, I had assumed this little card to be the only silhouette cut that day, and I mused about why no one else in the family had gotten their own.

Well, it just goes to show that there is always something new to be learned in the archives, because while I was researching Alice's clothing for an upcoming lecture (different file box), I found this little card at right: Alice Livingston's silhouette cut by the same artist as Janet's, Mr. Handrup in 1921.

Here we see Alice dressed for a day of exploring London with her family. Her collar is high in back and sweeps lower in front. Her broad hat is perhaps a little out of fashion for 1921 but would help to keep the sun out of her eyes and the city dust out of her hair.

The lesson here is that even as a museum, we are always learning more about history. Instead of a curious Janet being the only one to get her silhouette made, the new scene shows that probably all of the women in the family took a turn to sit down on a stool and get a souveneir image of themselves. The story changes a little bit with each new piece of information.

How did Alice's silhouette get forgotten?

Museum collections can be very large, consisting of thousands of items. In our case, it is most of the belongings that filled the Livingston's 44 room home. Records are kept so that we know about the condition and location of each one. Ours are kept in three ominous gray filing cabinets as well as in a computer program housed in Albany. Each curator spends time getting famliar with what is here and where to find it. But in this time of economizing and downsizing, museums are suffering from shrinking staffs much like the rest of the country, leaving the curator's responsibilities to be divided amongst several staff memebers. Now sometimes items like Alice's silhouette can hide, forgotten in collections just awaiting rediscovery.

My question now is, if Alice and Janet both got their silhouettes cut, what ever happened to Honoria's? Did she keep with her, give it away as a gift, or what? Or is it still here filed away in another box in the archives? I guess it just gives me an excuse to go exploring another day.