I seem to have been stuck on the high speed contemporary fiction train for ages now and, although I love it, I'm increasingly grateful to Kate Williams for sending me her book England's Mistress, The Infamous Life of Emma Hamilton, thus allowing me to step gracefully onto the slower, stopping-at-all-stations non-fiction train.
The book isn't slow at all but non-fiction does allow for some tangential thinking, a trip down the occasional branch line and the chance to hop off at Adlestrop and admire some new scenery.
1997 and two years into my six for that elusive English Literature degree, and factoring in teenagers, a full time health visiting caseload and life and I was beginning to realise that perhaps I needed to pace myself.
Launching on it in the first place had been one of those now or never decisions, but having cranked the dovegrey matter up to speed I didn't want a gap year to go back-packing around Dartmoor.
So with three Level 3 Honours Literature courses coming up, Modern Literature, Shakespeare and The Nineteenth Century Novel, I decided to slot in a relaxing year of Art History.The course covered Giotto to Picasso, that should be easy enough.
The idea was that this would entail far less reading and just be a nice soothing year of gazing and looking, eye of the beholder style and taking in the odd leisurely exhibition here and there.
The reality was that I knew so little about Art History I ended up having to read twice as much background and in fact it hooked me so excessively that I actually wanted to read four times as much.We dashed all over the place to find paintings in obscure galleries and I can't believe how excited I was to see all those precious Vermeer's in one place at the National Gallery exhibition.I even liked Tate Modern for a while.
In the midst of it all came one of those seemingly obvious questions that I had just never considered.
Can you name three great 17th/18th/19th century artists?
Now can you name three great women artists from the same period?
Um...well...er..no, you've got me there, were there any?
I was totally stumped but suddenly completely taken over by the whole fascinating subject.Of course they existed but I had never really heard of any of them.Out of the woodwork came Artemesia Gentileschi and Sofanisba Anguissola, here are their self-portraits, and I was bowled over.
Plenty more emerged and I was in a state of amazement, not only at the restrictions placed on the women painters of the period but at the fact that it had just never occured to me to even consider their existence.
It was therefore a pleasure to meet two old friends in Kate's book.
Emma Hamilton is shaping up to be the media babe of the late 18th century and, as Kate elaborates, one of the methods she employed to increase her popularity and familiarity with as wide an audience as possible was to sit as an artist's model. Amongst those she sat for were two of the great women artists of the period, Angelica Kauffman and Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun.
Here's Elizabeth Vigee le Brun's painting of Emma as a dancing Bacchante and as Kate points out
"by 1783, Emma has become the most wanted model in London" .
She knew a thing or two about becoming a commodity did our Emma and
"her image was seared on to the public consciousness"
as firmly as an super-model would be today.Emma became
"a fantasy figure for thousands of men and a fashion leader for women".
Of course she features in Jessica's Heroines but not surprisingly is absent from my 1905 version.
True to the excellent radio review that I caught last week and the blurb, Kate's book is meticulously well researched but written "with a novelist's flair" and it is rapidly becoming an unputdownable page turner. However I must remember I'm on the slow,stopping train so I'm allowed a meander off the route every now and again.
More of Emma Hamilton and her adventures very soon and perhaps more about some of these great women artists, they truly were heroines in their own right.
Emma hasn't met Horatio yet but Jessica's given the game away, I think it will end in tears.