All those moral fables, the admonitions enforced by Vergil himself, the duels defending the honor of an otherwise shameless woman never seem to work in the end, do they? The morals fade behind the scarlet curtain of desire; Vergil sidles into the background chewing dreamily on his knuckle, the duelist’s sword breaks, and the woman lives on as wife of a Member of Parliament for another twenty years until she dies after giving birth to another man’s daughter.
Still, the beauty inherent in these stories, the inescapable pleasure we take in the dramas, the moment when tittering at the gossip turns inward and becomes recognition of the magnificence of human desire, all these things enlarge us—and bring us back to London again and again to see favorite sites and paintings and, with some luck, to find new treasure troves.
At the Wallace Collection on Manchester Square is one of my favorite paintings, “Francesca da Rimini,” by Ary Scheffer, 1835.
The story comes from Dante, whom we see in the red robe at the edge of the painting. He looks upon the disaster of Francesca and Paolo Malatesta with an expression somewhere between tragic and empathetic recognition and moral doubt. At his side, Vergil, wiser than Dante and more compassionate, too, wonders how this scene merits the damnation to hell. Indeed, Dante introduces us here merely to the second circle of hell, reserved for those who have fallen into lust. A hellish wind blows the souls of the lustful aimlessly and endlessly just as, Dante maintains, lustful people are blown from one object of lust to the next without direction or aim.
But then, Scheffer emphasizes the embrace of love, a love that extends beyond life. And well it might. Francesca was betrothed to Paolo’s brother. The brother, lamentably, was ugly and deformed, so Paolo was sent to woo and win Francesca. He succeeded. After the wedding night, Francesca learned how she was betrayed. The brother later set off on a journey leaving Francesca in the care of his brother. The two quickly understood their mutual love. They were in bed when the brother returned, drew his sword, and intended to kill Paolo. Francesca thrust herself between the brothers, and both lovers were killed.
There are complications and subtleties here. Lust may be one of the seven deadly sins, but Dante places it among the relatively innocuous circles of hell. The deeper sins, in Dante’s mind, are fraud and treachery, notably public crimes that deserve torment in the ninth circle. Besides, it may not be easy to distinguish between love and lust, a distinction Vergil seems to be reflecting on and one that seems just beyond Dante’s ken. Or so it seems to me.
In any case, I love these lovers and wish them well. Dante and Vergil can fend for themselves.
An interlude: While the Wallaces filled their house on Manchester Square with paintings, sculpture, armor and weapons (!), they also had a keen eye for porcelain do-dads that are at once beautiful and, to the modern world, as useless as they were once functional. Try to guess, for instance, what this is, paying close attention to the perforations on the celestial globe on the left.
It’s the caddy for one’s writing desk. The celestial globe would be filled with sand to blot ink; the terrestrial globe is a stamp to emboss the melted wax on your epistles with your seal.
More tales of love:
John Soane was a masterful architect who suffered the misfortune of living precisely on the cusp separating the classical period from the more unruly Romantic era that followed. His house in Lincoln Inn’s Fields is a perfect emblem of a mind divided against itself. The front rooms model 18th century taste, order, gentility. But then, Soane hollowed out the rear of the house creating a three-story open cylinder whose walls are strewn with oddities, sculptures, antiquities including the first Egyptian sarcophagus imported into England. I’ve visited the house several times and never tired of showing students the consequence of being thoroughly committed to two utterly different epochs of thought simultaneously.
On this trip I discovered the Dulwich Picture Gallery, three stops and 14 minutes south on the train from Victoria Station. Soane was commissioned to build the museum, and his inventiveness gives us the first purpose-built picture gallery in England.
Having visited Paolo and Francesca a day before, I was happily reunited with a figure I had known only from her literary appearance in the life of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the playwright who’s delighted centuries with his great works, “The Rivals” and “School for Scandal.” The figure in the Dulwich Gallery is Elizabeth Ann Linley, Sheridan’s wife, bearer of a love story that might make Dante shudder and Francesca smile.
Here is Elizabeth and her younger sister Mary, painted by Gainsborough.
Elizabeth was the daughter of Thomas Linley, a composer and musician in Bath who was successful enough in his career to be the first occupant of Number 11 Royal Crescent.
(Once, years ago, I thought of spending one cold winter’s night at the hotel that now occupies half the Crescent. Before checking the room charge, I delighted in a coffee in the highly refined parlor. Twelve pounds or thereabouts, so I discreetly stepped outside and found a B and B down by the railroad station which, by the bye, is where Sheridan lived in his Irish-poor days.)
Elizabeth was engaged to Walter Long in 1770, but something went amiss. Long paid 3000 pounds to break the engagement and vanished. The next year, playwright Samuel Foote’s “The Maid of Bath” related this story at the Haymarket Theatre, a play that enjoyed enough popularity to make Elizabeth, however temporarily, a laughing stock. Despite this sort of noteriety, she was herself a notable theatre person as a singer and actor. Indeed, she had debuted at Covent Garden three years earlier at the age of 13.
1772 was a busy year for Miss Linley. She was ruthlessly pursued by an army captain, Thomas Matthews. This pursuit provided the necessary cover for her to elope to France with Mr. Sheridan, he abandoning his slum in the lower city, she absconding from her father’s luxurious flat at Number 11. They stayed in France for a few months and, perhaps, were married. When they returned in May, Matthews said horrid things about her in the London press, and Sheridan challenged him to a duel. In the fight, Matthews lost his sword, begged for his life, promised to retract the newspaper piece he had penned. Later, he recanted his recantation and he and Sheridan fought a second duel. Sheridan was grievously wounded but survived. Matthews skipped town and, apparently, history.
The following year, Richard and Elizabeth entered a tempestuous (and now legal) marriage during which both had several Paolo and Francesca moments. Dante, or some more caustic moralist, would note that this kind of life wouldn’t end well. Right. In 1792, 19 years into her marriage, Elizabeth had a daughter by Lord Edward FitzGerald. She died of complications of few months later. Richard cared for the child until, at 18 months old, she, too, died.
So, if you were certain that the 18th century was a time of Reason, calm logic, mathematical certainties, all leavened with a touch of satire, you might want to add a passion whose patina of respectability may be enough for Gainsborough’s stable and heroic portraits but whose underlining flames still heat the room.
A few further notes on London-love. Here are three emblems, images from my last afternoon’s walk. The first is the perfect townhouse (or so I think) along Gloucester Road. Sure, I’d love to live there.
Then there is the mews across the street. A hundred years ago, this was an alley leading to the stables that served the grand houses on Gloucester Road. Time has ennobled them, and they are now quite as pricey and desired as the main houses.
Finally, here is Victoria presiding over the long view out over Kensington Garden. Maybe we can no longer say this is the Empire Upon Which the Sun Never Sets, but the going down of the imperial orb is still beautiful.