How To Be A Gentlewoman

3D front cover of Leaves from a Life by Jane Ellen PantonJane Ellen Panton was another professional writer, of the generation after Mrs Oliphant. She was (and we know this because she emphasises the fact on many occasions) a gentlewoman. She was (again, she tells us) a republican who greatly despised such royalty and aristocracy with whom she came into contact; and she was also (the evidence pours from all her works) a terrific snob, one of whose best-selling titles was Suburban Residences and How To Circumvent Them.

Married to a Dorset brewer, she became a writer for hire after her husband was forced to abandon his share in the family business, but she had since childhood been convinced of her literary destiny, and seemed to have been encouraged in this view by many of the poets, novelists, journalists and artists who formed the working and social circle of her father, the painter William Powell Frith.

Between 1908 and 1911, Panton published three volumes of reminiscences. The first, Leaves from a Life, is fascinating precisely because of the insights it gives into the mid-Victorian artistic milieu into which she was born, but as an autobiography it is has some puzzling elements. To begin with, Jane Ellen Frith was born, according to the ODNB and other reputable sources, on 18 October 1847. However, she states very firmly in her first sentence: ‘I was born in the year 1848’, going on to surmise that the storm and stress of the period of her birth caused her to become ‘a rebel against most of the forms and ceremonies that in great measure deform and cripple a most delightful world’. Secondly, she does not specifically say at any point that her Papa was the famous painter, patronised by royalty, whose output made him one of the most financially successful artists of the nineteenth century. He is once referred to, in a recorded conversation, as ‘F––––’, and several of his works are named, but he is not: and yet the point of the reminiscences as a whole is rather undermined if the reader is not aware who Papa was.

It seems likely that this peculiar reticence may be connected to the strange and strained relationship she had with her father.  Her childhood is described as idyllic – but there are repeated, ominous phrases: ‘the one great and fatal error of his life became public property’; ‘our home life threatened by one of the cruellest deeds that ever was done’; ‘the final crumble and fall of our once happy and distinguished household’.  These glancing references must be to the revelation, which came after the death in 1880 of Jane’s beloved mother, that Frith had for years been the paterfamilias of another establishment, and had several illegitimate children, whose mother he subsequently married. Frith died the year after this book was published: one wonders if he read it, and what he thought of it.

But our modern reason for reading the book has to be that the family’s social circle, when Jane was growing up, contained almost everyone who was anyone at the bohemian end of mid-Victorian Britain. The Friths knew Dickens – ironically, Jane’s mother wouldn’t have him in the house after he deserted his wife, though Frith took his side; and Thackeray (though Frith took umbrage at a witticism of his and they ceased to be friends); Anthony Trollope and Wilkie Collins; Millais; Ruskin (who disliked Frith’s work, but called on him as a defence witness in Whistler’s libel case); Augustus Egg (again ironically, Jane posed for one of the children playing cards while their mother confesses her unfaithfulness in ‘Past and Present’); and the whole coterie of writers and artists who supplied material to Punch under the editorship of Mark Lemon and then Shirley Brooks. One of Jane’s governesses was Miss D––––, who can be recognised as the sister of Richard Dadd, the promising artist who was confined to Bedlam, and later Broadmoor, after murdering his father during a psychotic episode. (It appears that Frith and Egg narrowly escaped being killed by Dadd during an earlier episode.)

The second volume of memoirs, Fresh Leaves and Green Pastures (1909) tells of Jane’s life in Dorset after her marriage in 1869. It deliberately contrasts both the joys and the potential boredom of provincial and country living with the glittering intellectual society of London. Here we meet the Squire, the Rector, the Master (of a clay-works), the Captain, the Unitarian family (shunned by the county set and the poor alike), the farmers and gamekeepers and labourers. The work ends with the collapse of the brewing business, after which the Pantons moved to Bromley in Kent, where Mrs Craik was very much the leader in intellectual society, and where Jane’s writing career took off.

The third volume, More Leaves from a Life (1911), is very odd – it purports to tell the story of a childhood friend of Jane’s who became an artist, ran off with another man’s wife, and came to a sad end, but a perfunctory Googling has not found any of the protagonists, nor a period in Jane’s life where the story would fit. She also wrote ten novels (described by the ODNB as ‘undistinguished’), so one wonders if she was capitalising on the title of her memoirs to disguise fiction as fact?

I mentioned some time ago the anxieties of the emergent middle class, in the context of The Gentleman’s House. Jane Panton made her living from such anxieties. She wrote pieces on house and interior design for magazines such as The Ladies’ Pictorial, and when a batch of these were published as From Kitchen to Garrett in 1887, she became known as THE authority on ‘the art of home-making’ and the guide to all that was tasteful for the anxious newly wed couple. Not the least of the charms of her books is the intermingling of art and commerce: the front and endpapers of A Gentlewoman’s Home, Homes of Taste (as in Rustic Adornments for), and Suburban Residences are full of advertisements for everything from wood stain to cretonnes, Venetian glass to Roman carpets. In Homes of Taste it’s difficult to see where the ads stop and the text begins. There is mutually beneficial log-rolling – the vendors have stuff ‘as recommended by Mrs Panton’, and Mrs Panton is quite specific about whose wallpaper and curtain materials should be used, giving the names, patterns and prices per yard.

(On the verso of the title page, there is an ad for books – The Art of Housekeeping and Beautiful Houses – by a Mrs Haweis. This turns out to be a rival in the interiors world – the artist wife of Hugh Reginald Haweis, clergyman, musicologist, and alas, another ladies’ man – and probably explains the rather snide reference to Mrs Haweis to be found in one of the memoir volumes.)

What is startling, to modern taste, in these well-illustrated books, is the incredible amount of clutter. A narrow hall with stairs too close to the front door is to be ‘improved’ by the addition of a dado rail (she LOVES dado rails!) painted dark brown, beneath which an ‘arras’ of dark brown fabric is draped; the flooring is to be dark brown linoleum, though above the dado rail yellow or yellow-and-white wallpaper is allowed, and the linoleum is to be improved with colourful and hard-wearing ‘Kurd rugs’. All surfaces are covered with ‘pretty things’: Japanese fans and Imari vases (bought for ‘a few pence’), ornamental pottery, brocade photograph frames, a Salviati jar (I’m guessing mosaic, from the famous Venetian firm which at this period was winning prizes in all the European exhibitions), screens. Even allowing for staff (the gentlewoman’s home seems to have space for five or six maids, as well as the cook and ‘men’), the dusting must have been a nightmare. And yet Mrs Panton was consciously crusading against the dark, crowded rooms of the previous generation, and insisting on letting the sunshine in at all times.

‘Pretty things’ is a term frequently repeated: perhaps a simplifying of Morris’s ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.’ I came across the same term recently in Ford Madox Ford: an intellectual family in reduced circumstances had been forced to sell many of their ‘pretty things’. (A propos of nothing, I had always assumed that Ford changed his surname from Hueffer (he was the son of the music critic and Wagnerite Francis [Franz] Hueffer) from patriotic motives during the First World War (just like the Windsors), but apparently he did it because two separate ladies were squabbling for the privilege of being known as Mrs Hueffer, so he cut the Gordian knot.)

Which takes us back to W.P Frith and his daughter. I must now read his Autobiography and Reminiscences, to see how (if at all) he recounts the double life which clearly caused the feisty gentlewoman Jane so much grief and anger.


This entry was posted in Art and architecture, Biography, History, Literary Studies, Music, Women's Writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to How To Be A Gentlewoman

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