'Historical facts about men and women born in obscurity are not easy to come by...[they] leave a body of historical evidence that is like a fine old musical instrument long infested with woodworm: some material traces of the original do survive, but these have become pock-marked with holes, till all that is left is a fragile shell and hollow space...'
Helen Berry's coda at the end of her excellent book The Castrato and His Wife is perhaps a salutory reminder of Hilary Mantel's assertion in her recent televised interview with James Runcie, that as soon as we learn history we should learn to be suspicious, that we should question. There is clearly much we cannot know for sure, but there are legitimate ways of constructing that history as Helen Berry elaborates.
'This book has endeavoured to squeeze a tune from ephemeral materials using the different varieties of time-tempered fragments that are left to us: not just the written words, but the objects, art, and the music that are the legacy of previous generations...
And Helen Berry offers a reference to an overview of this approach to history citing another book which sounds equally readable Sensing the Past: Seeing, Hearing, Smelling, Tasting and Touching in History by Mark M.Smith, and again I am reminded of Hilary Mantel showing us her shelf of reference files and reading out the odd but contemporaneously Tudor contents of one folder.
You may recall that a few months ago, the ink barely dry on the proof copy, I was waxing lyrical about this book which had arrived from Oxford University Press, Well, it has just been published, so now you can find out the mysteries of the life of the castrato for yourselves.
I'm not sure what it may be about the eighteenth century that makes my eyes glaze over, perhaps a little too far back for comfort and not helped by the fact that the literature has always defeated me despite my best efforts. Clearly all that was needed was an angle that would interest me and this new world of surgical interference and musical intrigue was just the ticket.
Now let's be honest, the book is interesting on many accounts but it is the castrato aspect that intrigues isn't it, and Helen Berry offers a fascinating background to the history and the world of castration, illegal even when a young Tenducci was parted from his bits by an intinerant barber-surgeon wielding his special shears, which could and did double for animal or human use. And all sufficient to leave our lad singing higher up the register and it was off to music school he went. Women in this era banned from church choirs, so someone had to sing the top line.
Moving from Italy to England, Tenducci became quite the celebrity pin up boy, his picture adorning many-a young girl's wall, and when he started to sing in public he quickly established a fan base. The X Factor is clearly only a re-hash of what has been ever thus because with fame came the adulation for Tenducci that we associate with the celebs of today. And all this despite the castrati's barrel chest and
'disproportionately long limbs, making their heads look small in relation to their bodies...'
and the subsequent ridicule this attracted from the cartoonists of the day.
Yet the rumours of relationships with women were rife to the extent that Tenducci was even cited in marriage separation cases, having to flee the country on more than one occasion. He was also absolutely useless with money, so if he wasn't being hunted down by cuckolded husbands he was being chased to pay his debts. Heaven knows what they threatened him with because to be honest... thinking about the fate of poor old Abelard of Heloise fame, well the worst has already been done by the barber's shears hasn't it.
I'm giving a potted and populist version of a rigorous and scholarly work here, meticulously researched and referenced, but for all that the research does not weigh heavy, it is eminently readable. Helen Berry presents her information in the most accessible way, exploring a great deal in the process including fascinating attitudes to sexuality, male beauty and effeminacy in men, (to which women of the day were thought to be more attracted) and the assumed unconsummated love of the castrati...though having assumed they 'couldn't' it is never quite clear what they might have been able to do. It would seem no one thought to write it down in any detail.
So who'd have thought a book like this would prove to be a page-turner, but when Tenducci reached Dublin, well things were really about to hot up. At the pinnacle of his career in the mid 1760s, and invited to Dublin to sing operas in English, it is a meeting with the young Dorothea Maunsell, the daughter of a wealthy barrister, that will really put a bit of a spanner in Tenducci's works.
It was in Dublin some twenty years earlier that Handel's Messiah had received its world premiere to international acclaim, and brought with it a cultural fillip to the city, perhaps not unlike the one happening yet again and which I have witnessed on several recent trips. Eager to be in with the 'it' boy and rubbing shoulders with celebrity, the Maunsell's invited Tenducci into their home where he quickly took on the role of musical mentor to young Dorothea, and, on the basis that surely no mischief could ensue, they spent long periods of time in each other's sole company.
The ensuing elopement, clandestine marriage and quite how the family addressed the humiliating scandal kept me on the very edge of my seat. Dorothea had been raised to make a good society marriage and have children, not to run off with a eunuch, and hell hath no fury like a barrister scorned it would seem. And of course I won't reveal the shocking lengths (well I was shocked) to which Thomas Maunsell resorted in order to try and force his daughter into submission, because that would be to give away the most riveting part of the book. But never underestimate the power of a woman in love either, and when you know that Dorothea subsequently published an account of her ordeal that gives you some clue as to her resilience.
Oh yes, and if you read it for yourself you will discover the mystery of what Tenducci 'may' have carried in his breeches.
But the added reach and attraction of a book like this rests for me in the trails of interest that it opens.
I wanted to go off and look at paintings by Caravaggio,
I wanted to listen to the Scottish ballads.. 'Roslin Castle,' 'The Braes of Ballenden,' and 'Lochaber' made famous by Tenducci.
Is 'the witty Duchess of Gordon', who gets a mention, the same Jane, Duchess of Gordon as in mother of Georgiana, who married the 6th Duke of Bedford and built Endsleigh I wonder. If so I'm sure there is a painting of her in the collection at Port Eliot.
Tenducci sang in Plymouth in 1786 to great acclaim, and I wonder where exactly.
I hadn't listened to the Pergolesi Stabat Mater in ages, now I needed to.
And just what was this aria from Artaxerxes, the first all-sung opera in English, made so popular by Tenducci that even Jane Austen was a little sick of hearing it so many times.
And most of all, with a trip to Dublin coming up on Bloomsday earlier this year, I mapped out a little Tenducci trail around the city just to walk in his and Dorothea's footsteps. It's not hard, having read this book to visit Dame Street and imagine...
or wonder if Tenducci nipped in here for a quick chop after an evening performance...
and then to wander along here, the fashionable street that Dorothea's parents had moved to..
and wonder which house it may have been.
Which one had Tenducci visited and there courted his impressionable young fan...
I also like Helen Berry's next suggestion in her coda...
'By engaging with reconstructed sounds, visiting sites of interest, and touching material traces, as well as reading and looking hard in archives, both historian and reader may in future be able to gain a deeper insight into the long-forgotten cadences, the pulses and social rhythms of previous generations.'
So for all that a book like this is written to give us another version of a lesser-known history, perhaps it is also about sparking the imagination of the reader and letting them take their own journey with it. I know I have done exactly that, and how good to find that as a result, I am friends with the eighteenth century at last, though I haven't quite gone the whole hog and pinned a picture of Tenducci on my wall....yet.