10 Things that turn a character bad
All great stories have baddies. Baddies or antagonists are the characters who get in your hero or heroine’s way. They create conflict and problems – all the things readers love. Evil villains help create a story that is exciting and sometimes even scary. Evil is up there with Love, Death, Beauty, Friendship, and Fate. Sooner or later we encounter at least a few of them in a good story. Here are 10 ways you can turn a character bad as a writer.
1. Bad Parents
When King Minos became king of Crete he challenged his brother to a dual. He prayed to Poseidon, the sea god for some help. Poseidon sent him a snow-white bull. The deal was that the king had to kill the bull to show honour to the gods, but he decided to keep it and kill one of his own bulls. To punish Minos, Poseidon made Pasiphaë, Minos’s wife, fall deeply in love with the bull. She was so in love that she had craftsman Daedalus make a hollow wooden cow, then she climbed inside it in order to mate with the white bull. The offspring was the monstrous Minotaur. Pasiphaë nursed him, and as he grew he became ferocious and started to eat people. Minos went to the oracle at Delphi for advice on how to handle his monstrous son. He had Daedalus construct a gigantic labyrinth to hold the Minotaur under the palace.
Deviant parents give a character a bad start in life as the Greeks knew all too well!
American author Ray Bradbury gave the theme a modern twist with his short story The Veldt in 1950.
The Hadley family live in an automated house called “The Happylife Home,” filled with machines that do every task. The two children, Peter and Wendy, become fascinated with the “nursery,” a virtual reality room able to reproduce any place they imagine.
The parents, George and Lydia, begin to wonder if there is something wrong with their way of life.
Lydia tells George, “That’s just it. I feel like I don’t belong here. The house is wife and mother now, and nursemaid. Can I compete with an African veldt? Can I give a bath and scrub the children as efficiently or quickly as the automatic scrub bath can? I cannot.”
They are also perplexed and confused as to why the nursery is stuck on an African setting, with lions in the distance, eating a dead figure. There they also find recreations of their personal belongings and hear strangely familiar screams. Wondering why their children are so concerned with this scene of death, they decide to call a psychologist.
The psychologist, David McClean, suggests they turn off the house, move to the country, and learn to be more self-sufficient.
The children, feeling reliant on the nursery, beg their parents to let them have one last visit. Their parents agree and when they come to fetch them, the children lock George and Lydia into the nursery with the pride of lions. Shortly after, it is implied that the lions eat George and Lydia.
When the psychologist comes by to look for George and Lydia, he finds the children enjoying lunch on the veldt and sees the lions eating figures in the distance – George and Lydia, the reader is lead to presume.
Favouritism is a commonly used trope in Fiction Land. Bad enough when you’re an only child, but if you’re among a pack of siblings, this particular trope is nearly guaranteed to raise its head at some point in order to make life even more difficult.
Parental Favouritism is just what it sounds like — one child is given preference over their siblings.
Cain and Abel were sons of Adam and Eve in the biblical Book of Genesis. Cain, the firstborn, tilled the soil, and his brother Abel was a shepherd. The brothers made sacrifices to God, each of his own produce, but God favoured Abel’s sacrifice instead of Cain’s. Cain murdered Abel.
God punished Cain with a life of wandering and set a mark on him so that no man would kill him. Cain then dwelt in the land of Nod where he built a city and fathered the line of descendants beginning with Enoch. The narrative never explicitly states Cain’s motive though it does describe him as being wrathful, and his motive is traditionally assumed to be envy.
This biblical story and archetype of brothers locked in dual for their father’s affection is the basis for many a story and many a baddie. Sibling rivalry, envy, and wrath can motivate a character to a lot of very bad behaviour.
Favourites come in a number of varieties: Birth Order, Gender, Personality, Biological versus Adopted or Step Children – just think of all those fairy stories!
Way back in Ancient Greece King Tereus of Trace takes his wife Procne and her sister Philomela to visit their father in Athens. On the way, he lusts after Philomela. One night he rapes her. To stop her telling his wife he cuts out her tongue.
Those Greeks sure knew how to do baddies. Here sexual desire, power, and guilt are the key motivators along with a good dollop of misogyny.
Continuing the story of the now mute Philomela; she weaves a tapestry that tells her story. When her sister finds out what has happened she kills her son by Tereus; boils him up and serves him up to his father for dinner. Philomela is turned into a Nightingale and given a beautiful voice by the gods to make amends for her terrible ordeal.
Yes, this is an extreme case and the origin of the expression revenge is a dish best served cold. Your characters don’t have to murder children to get their revenge putting rotting shrimps in the air conditioning ducts of his nice new apartment might be enough revenge for a women spurned.
Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth couldn’t just be happy with her Scottish castle and thanedom, could she?
“Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be
What thou art promised. Yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great,
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it. (1.5.15-20)
After reading the letter from her husband which recounts the witches’ prophesy, Lady Macbeth’s thoughts immediately turn to murder. Problem: Her husband Macbeth has ambition, but he doesn’t have the nerve to see it through. Luckily Lady Macbeth is man enough for both of them.
The novel, The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett, begins when the knockout Miss Wonderly walks into Spade’s office. It turns out she’s a knockout with money. And she wants to hire the services of a private detective to find her missing sister, who supposedly ran off with a crook named Thursby. Neither Spade nor his partner Miles Archer, buy her story. But with the money she’s paying, who cares? When Archer and then Thursby are murdered, Spade realizes that he’s getting more than he bargained for. In fact, just about everyone around Sam Spade dies trying to get their hands on a bird figurine worth…$10,000.
Is the love of money the root of all evil? Charles Dickens thought so. Unlike Hammet he saves his character Scrooge from his lonely fate when the author shows him what happens to greedy and selfish men – that it when the author isn’t bumping them off at a rate of knots!
This terribly sad true-life story shows just what can happen when someone feels rejected. Rejection is painful. Being made to look worthless is a frightening experience so rejection can be a powerful motivation for baddies. Children rejected by their parents are often lonely, angry and hostile to a world they perceive does not love them.
Because being left out can be so painful for children, researchers have spent a lot of time and effort trying to figure out why some children are rejected. About half of rejected boys are aggressive. They hit, kick, or shove more than other boys, and they also tend to be more disruptive and argumentative. However, not all rejected boys are aggressive. Another 13-20% are shy and withdrawn. Still, others are socially awkward. Their odd, disruptive, or immature behaviour is off-putting to peers.
The son of a Hollywood assistant director went on a shooting rampage near the UC Santa Barbara campus slaying 6 people and engaging in a shootout with police which left him dead. The young man was 22-year-old Elliot Rodger, the son of Hunger Games second unit director Peter Rodger. Prior to the rampage, Rodger submitted recordings to Youtube, chronicling his catastrophic emotional state after admittedly being rejected by women for eight years.
7. Feeling Invisible
In 1917, “Baby Jane” Hudson is an adored yet ill-tempered vaudevillian child star while her older sister Blanche lives in her shadow. By 1935, their fortunes have reversed: Blanche is a successful film actress and Jane lives in obscurity, her films having failed.
One night, Jane mocks Blanche at a party, prompting Blanche to run away in tears. That same night, Blanche is paralysed from the waist down in a mysterious car accident that is unofficially blamed on Jane, who is found three days later in a drunken stupor.
In 1962 a wheelchair-bound Blanche (Joan Crawford) and Jane (Bette Davis) are living together in Blanche’s mansion, purchased with Blanche’s movie earnings. By now, Jane has descended into alcoholism and mental illness and treats Blanche with cruelty to punish her for stealing her spotlight.
Later, when Blanche informs Jane she may be selling the house, Jane’s mental health begins to deteriorate further. During an argument, she removes the telephone from Blanche’s bedroom, cutting Blanche off from the outside world.
Jane begins denying Blanche food, until she serves Blanche her dead parakeet on a platter—and, at a later meal, a rat that she killed in the cellar. Jane kills Blanche’s carer and then drives to the beach where she finally goes bonkers as the police arrive to arrest her for the carer’s death and Blanche dies.
This is a powerful case of sibling rivalry, ambition, and ego. The story of these sisters shows just how powerful these motivators can be in the hands of a great writer. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is a 1962 American psychological thriller–horror film produced and directed by Robert Aldrich, starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. The screenplay by Lukas Heller is based on the 1960 novel of the same name by Henry Farrell. Upon the film’s release, it was met with widespread critical and box office acclaim and was later nominated for five Academy Awards, winning one for Best Costume Design, Black and White.
8. Being Thwarted
Varys & Petyr Baelish Speak – Game of Thrones
Lord Varys: Thwarting you has never been my primary ambition, I promise you. Although, who doesn’t like to see their friends fail now and then.
Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish: You’re so right. For instance, when I thwarted your plan to give Sansa Stark to the Tyrells, if I’m going, to be honest, I did feel an unmistakable sense of enjoyment there. Game of Thrones (TV Series), The Climb (2013)
Varys and Littlefinger may seem to be minor players — but the maneuverings of the noble families of Westeros often seem to come back to their ongoing chess game. Varys and Littlefinger articulate two very different philosophies. Lord Petyr Baelish, popularly called Littlefinger, was the Master of Coin on the Small Council under King Robert Baratheon and King Joffrey Baratheon. He was a skilled manipulator and used his ownership of brothels in King’s Landing to both accrue intelligence on political rivals and acquire vast wealth. Baelish’s spy network is eclipsed only by that of his arch-rival Varys.
Love them or hate them, Littlefinger and Varys are the series’ real game changers. They also take the reality TV show approach to competition, forming alliances, lying, and manipulating. Basically, they aren’t here to make friends. They are here to win. But, winning means different things to the two characters and the more they can thwart the other the better.
9. Lies and Betrayal
In the song made famous by Tom Jones the price for lies is death – ‘I felt the knife in my hand and she laughed no more, why, why Delilah?’ The biblical Delilah was approached by the lords of the Philistines, to discover the secret of Samson’s strength. She was offered eleven hundred pieces of silver for her pains. Three times she asked Samson for the secret of his strength but each time he gave her a false answer. On the fourth occasion, he gave her the true reason: that he did not cut his hair in fulfillment of a vow to God. When he was asleep she allowed his enemies to cut off his hair. They took him, put out his eyes, and bound him with fetters. Later, of course, he took his revenge by bringing the whole house down on his foes.
Betrayal destroys trust. If a loved one betrays us it crushes our faith in ourselves and others. The world and everyone in it can become an ugly place to live in. Betrayal is a particularly effective emotion-filled type of conflict that we can use in fiction to create long-lasting problems for our characters.
10. Being a Psychopath
Characteristics of a psychopath: glibness and superficial charm, grandiose sense of self-worth, pathological lying, cunning/manipulative, lack of remorse, emotional shallowness, callousness and lack of empathy, unwillingness to accept responsibility for actions, a tendency to boredom, a parasitic lifestyle, a lack of realistic long-term goals, impulsivity, irresponsibility, lack of behavioural control, behavioural problems in early life, juvenile delinquency, criminal versatility, a history of “revocation of conditional release” (i.e. broken parole), multiple marriages, and promiscuous sexual behaviour.
A recent study suggests that 1-4% of the population is on the psychopathic scale. This means that we’ll probably all meet at least one psychopath in our lives.
Psychopaths love themselves. Even if nobody else loves them. They’ll think they’re the best at whatever it is that they do, even if they suck at it. It’s entirely possible they’ll take credit for other people’s success too – they live vicariously and will work how a way to feel they contributed to it somehow. Ultimately, their world revolves around them and no one else. Psychopaths are great characters to write as they give you so much scope for upsetting others and it’s so rewarding when, as an author, you can give them their comeuppance.
About the author: Julia Herdman writes historical fiction. Her debut novel Sinclair is available worldwide on Amazon.
The actress Frances Barton or Frances “Fanny” Barton was the daughter of a private soldier who started her working life as a flower girl and a street singer. As an actress, she performed in taverns and resorted to selling herself as many hard-up women did in those days before she made it onto the stage.
Her first step to success came when she got a job as a servant to a French milliner. Fanny learned about costume and acquired some French which afterward stood her in good stead as she mingled in London’s high society as a famous actress.
Actress Fanny first appeared on the stage was at Haymarket in 1755 as Miranda in Mrs. Centlivre’s play, Busybody. Following that she became a member of the Drury Lane Company, where she was overshadowed by its more established actresses Hannah Pritchard and Kitty Clive. However, Fanny was an she was an ambitious actress and travelled to Ireland where she had her first major success Lady Townley in The Provok’d Husband by Vanbrugh and Cibber. Fanny worked at her trade, she became a consumate actress and five years after she began her career she received an invitation from David Garrick to return to Drury Lane.
Fanny married her music teacher, James Abington, a royal trumpeter, in 1759. It was not happy and the pair separated but she retained his name calling herself Mrs. Abington. She remained at Drury Lane for eighteen yearsFanny played Mrs. Teasel in Sheridan’s School for Scandal making the role her own. She also played Shakespearean heroines – Beatrice, Portia, Desdemona and Ophelia and the comic characters Miss Hoyden, Biddy Tipkin, Lucy Lockit, and Miss Prue. Mrs. Abington’s Kitty in “High Life Below Stairs” put her in the foremost rank of comic actresses, making the mop cap she wore in the role the reigning fashion“.
This cap was soon referred to as the “Abington Cap” and frequently seen on stage as well as in hat shops across Ireland and England. Adoring fans donned copies of this cap and it became an essential part of the well-appointed woman’s wardrobe. The actress soon became known for her avant-garde fashion and she even came up with a way of making the female figure appear taller. She began to wear a tall-hat called a ziggurat adorned with long flowing feathers and began to follow the French custom of putting red powder on her hair.
An example of Fanny’s influence on fashion – the high ziggurat style hat.
Sir Joshua Reynolds painted her as Miss Prue a character from Congreve’s Love for Love. The portrait is the best-known of his half-dozen or more portraits of her. In 1782 she left Drury Lane for Covent Garden. After an absence from the stage from 1790 until 1797, she reappeared, quitting it finally in 1799. Her ambition, personal wit, and cleverness won her a distinguished position in society, in spite of her humble origin.
Illustrations: Fanny Abington, Joshua Reynolds, Portrait of Marie-Dauncey,1789, James-Northcote, Fanny as Miss Prue, Joshua Reynolds.
Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is Available on Amazon
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Gertrude was one of the greatest singers of the Georgian Period. She was born at Kassel, Germany in February 1749. Her mother died soon after the birth. Her father was a poor musician, named Schmeling. Undernourished from birth she always suffered from ill health. Schmeling contrived to increase his income by mending musical instruments. One day little Gertrude got hold of a violin and started to play it. Her father punished her severely for touching other people’s property but the little girl was hooked and played with the violins he was mending whenever her father’s back was turned.
Soon she had mastered a scale and her father was forced to acknowledge her genius and arranged lessons for the child. Although she was five her legs had no strength and her father was forced to carry her everywhere including to small gatherings where she would give performances. After a performance in Frankfort, a public subscription was raised to get gifted little Gertrude some education. By the time she was nine, her health had improved and she was in Vienna giving concerts to the Queen and her friends who petted and admired her and persuaded her to give up the violin because it was an unfeminine instrument and sing instead. Her voice was already resonant and clear, but she had, of course, had no instruction. Schmeling, with the help of benefactors, then placed the young Gertrude under the tuition of the musico Paradisi where she made rapid progress.
Returning to Cassel, Schmeling hoped to get Gertrude a place at Court but the King would only employ Italian singers so they moved to Leipzig and the music school of Joesph Hiller where Gertrude stayed until 1771. She made her début in an opera of Basse’s at Dresden. Her success led her to an audience with the King, Frederick II, who on hearing her was persuaded to engaged her for life to sing at his Court, despite her not being Italian! At last, she and her father had a secure income.
Whilst at the Court she met and married the violoncellist, Mara despite her friends’ advice. She soon discovered her folly; Mara was a wonton womaniser and the King’s demands were excessive too. On one occasion, she was physically brought from her bed, by his orders and forced to sing at the Opera, even though she was ill. When she had had enough of her unhappy life at Court she tried to escape but was detained by the Prussian ambassador at Frederick’s request.
By 1780 Frederick had lost his interest in music and Gertrude and she was free at last to return to Vienna where she procured at a letter of introduction from the Empress to her daughter Marie-Antoinette. She passed through Munich where Mozart heard her but was not favourably impressed. She reached Paris in 1782 where audiences pitted her talent again the celebrated Todi.
Two years later, in the spring of 1784, Mara made her first appearance in London, where her greatest successes awaited her. She was engaged to sing six nights at the Pantheon. Owing to the general election, she sang to small audiences, and her merits were not recognised until she sang at Westminster Abbey, in the Handel Commemoration, when she was heard with delight by nearly 1000 people. She sang in the repeated Commemoration in 1785, and in 1786 made her first appearance on the London stage in a serious pasticcio, ‘Didone Abbandonata,’ the success of which was due entirely to her singing.
I give Mara a cameo appearance in my novel, Sinclair. The Vicar of St James’ Piccadilly has managed to secure the services of Miss Mara and Mr. Stephen Storace her accompanist and impresario for his fundraising concert in the Christmas of 1787. Reverend Walker says ;
“Now for the highlight of our evening, ladies and gentlemen. I am delighted to invite the celebrated German opera singer Miss Gertrude Mara and her accompanist, the composer and impresario Mr. Stephen Storace, to entertain you this evening.”
The audience gasped, then clapped and roared as the pair made their way to the piano. “Well done, Connie, they loved you,” said John.
“My goodness, I’m on the same bill as Gertrude Mara and Stephen Storace,” Connie exclaimed.
An hour later Connie and Mrs. Peacock were being introduced to the great soprano by a contented Mr. Walker, accompanied by his daughters Hannah and Harriet.
“Mr. Walker, why didn’t you tell me about Miss Mara and Mr. Storace?” demanded Connie when they had gone.
“I didn’t know they would come until the last minute, and I didn’t want to put you off.”
In March 1787 she appeared in Handel’s opera of ‘Giulio Cesare’ where she played Cleopatra. It was so successful that it was constantly repeated during the season. Mara again took a leading part in the Festival in Westminster Abbey in 1787, and she remained connected with the opera in London till 1791, after which, though she sang occasionally on the stage, and even in English ballad operas, she was more frequently heard in concerts and oratorios.
In 1788 she was singing in the Carnival at Turin and the following year at Venice. She returned to London in 1790 and went to Venice again in 1791. Coming once more to London in the next season, she remained here for ten years. After this time, she found her voice losing strength, and she quitted England in 1802, after enjoying a splendid benefit of over £1000 at her farewell concert.
Her worthless husband, and her numerous lovers,—among whom the last was a flute-player named Florio,—had helped her to spend the immense sums which she had earned, until she found herself without means, and compelled to support herself by teaching. She worked as a singing teacher in Moscow until 1812 when her small school was burned down and was forced to start again at age 64. She then settled in Italy for a while until in 1819 she returned to London where she appeared at the King’s theatre, but like ?? her voice had gone and she never appeared again. She returned to Italy where she died in poverty aged 84.
Sources: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/A_Dictionary_of_Music_and_Musicians/Mara,_Gertrude: A life of Mara, by G. C. Grosheim, published at Cassel in 1823.
Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £2.42 Also available on:
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Giulio Strozzi was the poet and librettist who recognised Barbara as his adopted daughter on 6 August 1619.
She was baptised in the church of Santa Sofia in the Cannaregio district (sestiere) of Venice and officially welcomed into to Strozzi family. Barbara had probably always been part of the Strozzi family as she was his illegitimate daughter by Isabella Garzoni, a long-time servant.
Barbara was lucky. Unlike most women, she was encouraged to develop her musical talents.
Her father introduced her to Venice’s intellectual elite and showcased her talents to advance her career.
Giulio was a member of the Venetian circle of intellectuals known as the Accademia degli Incogniti (“Academy of the Unknowns”), which met to discuss and debate questions of literature, ethics, aesthetics, religion, and the arts. In 1637 Giulio formed a musical subset of the Incogniti, known as the Accademia degli Unisoni (“Academy of the Like-Minded,”) for Barbara where she performed as a singer and suggested topics for discussion.
The Incogniti were early proponents of Venetian opera and Barbara was their leading light, singing for them and writing music for herself and others to perform. Click on the link to hear her haunting cantata – My Mourning sung by Pamela Lucciarini.
Barbara thrived in the society her father created for her. But her role as hostess of the Unisoni and her very public involvement in music were satirized in an anonymous manuscript that may have been penned by a member of the Incogniti; the author equated her status as a musician with the licentious behaviour of a courtesan.
A portrait of her by Bernardo Strozzi (not of the same family) has been interpreted as one implying she was indeed a woman of less than prefect morals and the fact that she never married but had four children rather suggests she was not considered good marriage material by the men she consorted with. Her two daughters became nuns and one of her sons became a monk.
Giulio Strozzi’s proto-feminist sensibilities garnered Barbara an opportunity that would be closed to most women composers for centuries. Barbara published eight collections of her vocal works between 1644 and 1664, seven of which survive.
Barbara Strozzi was a woman ahead of her time — far ahead of her time, as it would still be several centuries before most women could have serious careers as composers. Strozzi published many volumes of music, which in itself indicates that her music was well received. Her compositional output following her first volume of madrigals consisted mostly of arias, cantatas, and ariettas. The arias are generally short strophic pieces (every stanza is sung to the same music), while the cantatas are mostly longer sectional works in which the music changes to suit the meaning of the text. For example, impassioned or pathos-ridden poetry might be set as recitative, whereas music with dance rhythms might be used for poetry with a lighter character. Most of the poetry centres on the theme of love, in a manner consistent with the Marinist aesthetic of the mid-17th century, which valued wit, linguistic virtuosity, and erotic imagery. Her one collection of sacred motets, the Sacri musicali affetti (1655), was linked to the notion of Christian caritas, which represents the church as a benevolent mother; the volume was also connected to the devotional practices of its dedicatee, Anna de’ Medici, archduchess of Innsbruck.
Although she never married, Strozzi had four children; her two daughters joined a convent, and one of her sons became a monk. Barbara died in 1677 leaving behind a body of work praised for its wit, linguistic virtuosity, and erotic imagery.
Sources : Rebecca Cypess Encyclopedia Britannica
DIED November 11, 1677 (aged 58)
Francesca Caccini was born 18 September 1587 and was an Italian composer, singer, lutenist, poet, and music teacher of the early Baroque era. She was also known by the nickname “La Cecchina”, given to her by the Florentines and probably a diminutive of “Francesca”. She was the daughter of Giulio Caccini. Her only surviving stage work, La liberazione di Ruggiero, is widely considered the oldest opera by a woman composer.
Born 6 October 1591 – ca. 1638, Italy, Settima was a well-known Italian singer and composer during the 1600s being one of the first women to have a successful career in music. Caccini was highly regarded for her artistic and technical work with music. She came from a family of well-known composers and singers, with her father being Giulio Caccini and her sister Francesca Caccini. Steam Caccini was less well-known as a composer because she never published her own collection of works. Instead, nine works are attributed to her in two manuscripts of secular songs. Settimia was known much more for her talent as a singer, and she performed for nobility with the Caccini family consort and as a soloist. Coming from a musical family, she was able to lead herself to her own fame and success.
Giovanna Bassi – Ballet Dancer, Mother and Spy
Flowers, Theatre and Fashion – Fanny Abington
Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 and on Kindle Also available on:
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The 18th century saw an explosion of opera across Europe. Opera houses were built in all the major European cities and new operas were commissioned for each season. The King’s Theatre in London became the home of opera in the 18th and 19th centuries where operas were the main offering in the evening’s entertainment, usually interspersed with dances and sometimes a short play or farce as an afterpiece.
It was the music of Frederick Handel that really established the popularity of opera in London. Operas were composed for individual singers who were the great stars. The composer’s job was to produce music to show off the star’s voice and many composers could write an opera in just two or three weeks. These star singers had considerable freedom to improvise within the music. Indeed certain passages of ornamentation were left to the singer’s own inclination and would change from night to night.
Going to the opera was a social occasion in the 18th and 19th centuries. The rise in the popularity of theatre and opera reflected the growing leisure time and wealth of the upper middle classes. Theatres were noisy, chaotic places and the aim was to see and be seen. The stage and the auditorium were lit from great chandeliers that hung from the ceiling and the audience was as visible as the performers. Audiences would chat, walk around and play games. It wasn’t unknown for ladies to have a card table in the box for a game of cards during the performance.
The aisles in the pit were known as ‘Fops Alley’ and young men would cruise up and down flirting with the ladies. In addition there was standing room on stage for audience members which provided another distraction from the focus of the performance. Audiences stopped talking to listen to the aria which was the great show piece that everyone recognised. Then they would resume their conversation, card game or perusal of other members of the audience.
Here is a scene from my novel Sinclair which is based on the programme of an actual show in 1787.
“Frank Greenwood joined Sinclair and Bowman at the Sadler’s Wells theatre, buoyed up by the eight guineas in his pocket he had earned from Lord Wroxeter. The atmosphere was vibrant and expectant as the fashionably dressed audience took their seats. A pair of red velvet curtains hung across the gilded proscenium, hiding the delights to come, and in the pit there were two enormous A frames supporting a slack line that ran front to back, high above the audience’s heads, ready for a display of rope-walking.
“Goodness, I haven’t been to the theatre for years,” Greenwood gushed, taking his seat. “I’ve spent far too long in barracks or in the country chasing foxes. This is wonderful,” he rejoiced, gazing at the tiers of ornately gilded boxes opposite and admiring the young women playing coyly with their fans.
“As a married man I have no interest in the ladies,” said Bowman with happy resignation. “One woman is more than enough for me.”
“But looking is permitted,” said Sinclair, “and from what I can see is positively encouraged. I prefer it that way if I’m honest. I find that admiration from afar is often preferable to an actual encounter with the female of the species.”
“In your situation, Sinclair, it would be wise to stay well out of Cupid’s range. Wives have many delights and great benefits, but they’re fearfully expensive creatures to keep and you, my dear friend, are broke.” Bowman turned to Greenwood. “I blame Sinclair for my addiction to the theatre; he drags me out whenever he’s in town.”
“Aye,” Sinclair chuckled. “I’m making up for all those years of misery in Scotland.”
The drums rolled, and the Master of Ceremonies stepped in front of the curtain. “Tonight for your delight and delectation, ladies and gentlemen, we have a show featuring breathtaking rope-walking from Naples; death-defying tumbling, acrobats from China and the music of an angel, the virtuoso Madame de Chanson with her timeless songs of amour.” The three men roared their approval with the rest of the audience, the red curtains opened and the show began.
The friends watched open mouthed as Signor Romeo and Adriani walked the rope at the same time as they juggled with batons and hoops. The act finished with Signor Romeo performing the splits above the heads of the audience, who thundered their applause. The Joseph Brothers somersaulted and rotated across the stage at amazing heights in their yellow and red costumes, and the Chinese acrobats made a tower of human flesh ten men high. Finally, Madam de Chanson, a buxom woman dressed in white with flowers in her hair, played a golden harp and sang French songs with an exquisite and lilting voice that moved the audience so much that even the hardest hearted of them were forced to wipe a tear from their eyes.
When the performances were over, the friends made their way to the lobby feeling happy and relaxed, enjoying the jostling crowd with its smell of perfume and powder and the opportunities for surreptitious bodily contact with the ladies and girls as they made their way out onto the crowded street. Bowman managed to attract the attention of a driver with an empty cab, and soon they were on their way to Bread Street. “I’m sorry I can’t ask you in at the moment,” he apologised. “It’s just that Emma has banned Sinclair from the house for stealing one of her father’s patients.”
Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £2.29 Also available on:
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English society expected, even encouraged, men to pay for sex in the 18th century. Prejudice and the law barred women from all but the most menial of jobs so prostitution with all its dangers was a career option worth exploring for some becasue a typical harlot could earn in a month what a tradesman or clerk earned in a year. For a few beautiful and savvy women, this gamble paid off. Some became successful matrons of ‘Disorderly Houses’ while the occasional woman came up trumps and married a duke.
One girl who got her man was Lavinia Fenton. Lavina was born in 1708; the illegitimate daughter of a naval lieutenant named Beswick, her mother’s name is not recorded. When her mother’s lover died at sea she married a Mr Fenton, a man who ran a coffee house near Charring Cross. Mr Fenton it seems was a good sort who sent his adopted daughter to boarding school. Therefore, Lavinia had the advantage of not only her beauty and wit but of education.
By 1725 she had attracted the attentions of a Portuguese nobleman who, having run up debts catering for her desires, ended up in the Fleet Prison. It was after this, in 1726, that another unnamed aristocrat used his influence to launch her career on the London stage. Her first appearance was as Monimia in Thomas Otway’s The Orphan: or The Unhappy Marriage, in March 1726.
Shortly after she appeared as Cherry Boniface in The Beaux Stratagem and went onto join the company of players at the theatre in Lincoln’s Inn Fields but it was as Polly Peacham in John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, she found her greatest success. The play was a runaway success. Politicians smarted at being portrayed as highwaymen, fences, pickpockets and molls, but the public loved it and bought playing cards, fans and parlour screens imprinted with scenes or lyrics of the dashing MacHeath, or of Polly Peachum’s true-love.In her first season as Polly Peacham, Lavinia became the talk of the town and the object of Charles Powlett, 3rd Duke of Bolton’s desire.
Like many men of his rank he was locked in a loveless marriage to Lady Anne Vaughan, a daughter of the 3rd Earl of Carbery. Lady Anne, Lady Montague wrote, was “educated in solitude with some choice books, by a saint-like governess: crammed with virtue and good qualities, she thought it impossible not to find gratitude, though she failed to give passion; and upon this she threw away her estate, was despised by her husband and laughed at by the public.”
Contemporary accounts describe Bolton as “a handsome, agreeable libertine” and, “absolutely a fool” and a rogue. Memoirs of the Reign of George II records him as “being as proud as if he had been of any consequence besides what his emploments made him, as vain as if he had some merit, and as necessitous as if he had no estate, so he was troublesome at Court, hated in the country, and scandalous in his regiment. The dirty tricks he played to cheat the Government of men, or his men of half-a-crown, were things unknown to any Colonel but his Grace, no griping Scotsman excepted.” So, perhaps he wasn’t that much of a catch after all.
Lavinia became Bolton’s mistress during the first season of The Beggar’s Opera in 1728 and gave up the stage to become a ‘kept woman’ in 1729. William Hogarth used the scandal in his series pictures of the Beggar’s Opera showing Lavinia looking past Mackheath, to the Duke standing in his box.
The pair eloped to the continent in 1729. John Gay commented on the event in a letter to Jonathan Swift: “The Duke of Bolton, I hear, has run away with Polly Peachum, having settled £400 a year on her during pleasure, and upon disagreement £200 a year.”
Lavinia gave the Duke three illegitimate children. When his wife Anne died in 1751 Lavinia finally got her man and the pair were married in Aachen. By then the Duke had lost most of his income. He died three years later in 1754. Their sons Charles, Percy, and Horatio had no estate or wealth to inherit. Consequently, Charles went into the church, Percy the navy, and Horatio the army. Lavinia, now the duchess, died in 1760. She spent her last days at Westcombe House in Greenwich which she and Charles had shared since their marriage, and was buried in the nearly church of St Alfege. Peachum Road, close to the site of Westcombe House, was named in honour of her role as Polly Peachum.
Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £2.29 Also available on:
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Character’s Theater: Genre and Identity on the Eighteenth-Century English Stage, Lisa A. Freeman
http://thepeerage.com/ Cokayne, and others, The Complete Peerage, volume II, page 214.