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.
SEX AND DEATH
RICH OR POOR A WOMAN’S FATE COULD BE THE SAME
WOMAN PLYING HER TRADE
There were two ways for a girl to get on in the 18th century and they both involved sex and the risk of disease followed by the likelihood of an early death.
The choice for most women was either wife or city prostitute. Prostitution was the riskier option and the option most likely to taken by the poor – women who had been abandoned and those who were widowed.
The 18th century saw the birth of commerce and a huge expansion of trade in the great cities of the world. The goods on offer were not only tea and sugar – there was a thriving trade in sex as well.
Sex was the commodity most often traded in 18th-century cities – sex with women, sex with men, and, sex with children.
Sex and the Age of Marriage
Since the 12th century in Europe, the onset of puberty was the acceptable time for marriage. This was about 12 for girls and around 14 for boys.
The first recorded age-of-consent law appeared in 1275 in England in the Statute of Westminster. It made it a misdemeanor to “ravish” a “maiden within age,” with or without her consent. The phrase “within age” was later interpreted by jurist Sir Edward Coke as meaning the age of marriage.
The American colonies followed the English tradition, but the law was more of a guide – Mary Hathaway (Virginia, 1689) was only 9 when she was married to William Williams.
In Europe, the situation was much the same.
Sex and the French Revolution
The advent of the French Revolution hardly changed at a thing for women and girls. The age of consent for sexual intercourse was set at 11 years for girls in 1791. How enlightened was that? In the 18th-century there was little understanding of childhood as a concept. Children were seen as “little adults” who were born sinful and subject to the corruptions of the flesh.
Sex and the Job Market
Women and female children were barred by law and convention from all but the most menial jobs in Europe and in the colonies. There was no chance of a woman making a decent living on her own so many were forced to make an indecent living for themselves.
Some women inherited property from their families when there was no male heir, there are plenty of examples of female innkeepers and shop owners but most of them were widows. The problem for a woman with property was that when she got married it became her husband’s. If the marriage was not a success she could be left with nothing.
With odds stacked against women economically, the trade in sex thrived. Thousands of women needed to make a living and the only thing most men would pay for was sex or sex with housework.
The Harlot’s Progress
William Hogarth’s six-part Harlot’s Progress of 1732 makes the lot of the prostitute visible in a straightforward way. The representation of Moll Hackabout’s journey into prostitution, from the innocent country girl we see arriving in London on the first plate through to her subsequent career as a harlot and her decline towards death in plate six, is generally acknowledged to mark a turning point both in British visual culture and in Hogarth’s career but it changed little for women like Moll.
Charlotte Hayes’ Nuns
Of course, taking control of their commercial assets was somewhat more difficult for the women, the commercial world was designed for men. However, some did. One such was a woman called Charlotte Hayes. Hayes ran a brothel or ‘nunnery’ in the parlance of the day. She grew wealthy on her girls, keeping a carriage and liveried servants for her ladies of the night. She taught her girls the manners and graces of elite London society to get a better price for them. One of these so-called ‘nuns’ was Emily Warren, an ‘exquisite beauty’ who became the muse to the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds. She was discovered by Hayes leading her blind beggar of a father through the streets of London. The Georgian memoirist William Hickey described sleeping with her as follows;
‘Never did I behold so perfect a beauty. I passed a night that many would have given thousands to do. I, however, that night, experienced the truth – that she was cold as ice, seemingly totally devoid of feeling. I rose convinced that she had no passion for the male sex.’
Little wonder, perhaps. Emily Warren had, like so many other girls, become a prostitute at the age of 12.
Hayes dressed her girls in French silks and lace and promised they would ‘satisfy all fantasies, caprices, and extravagances of the male visitor, carrying out their every wish’.
Masquerade parties were a popular cover for anonymous sexual encounters. Among the most sought-after of these risque gatherings were those held by one Mrs. Cornley, reputedly a lover of Casanova; they were held in a grand house or ‘fairy palace’ in Soho Square. The parties were honeypots for prostitutes and pimps and saw peers of the realm mix with streetwalkers.
Inspired by the explorer-of-the-day James Cook‘s accounts of Tahitian erotic rituals, Charlotte Hayes organised a tableau in which ’12 beautiful nymphs, unsullied and untainted’. These nymphs were to be publicly deflowered by 12 young men as in ‘the celebrated rites of Venus’. Her disreputable business earned Hayes, a teenage prostitute herself, a fortune of £20,000 – a sum a working man would have to work 500 years to earn.
The Harris’ List
The centre of the Georgian sex trade was Covent Garden. There, men could not pass it without being accosted by women silently offering their arm or making lewd suggestions in their direction.
In the Covent Garden coffee shops and jelly houses, where exotic concoctions were eaten from tall glasses, hundreds of lavishly adorned women sat looking for business.
The infamous Harris’ List of Covent Garden Ladies was a directory of London prostitutes, circulating from the late 1740s. It detailed each girl’s charms. A typical entry in 1788, described Miss Lister, of 6 Union Street, Oxford Road. ‘She is painted by the masterly hand of nature, shaded by tresses of the darkest brown, with the neighbouring hills below full ripe for manual pressure, firm and elastic, and heave at every touch.’
A German visitor of the time observed prostitutes in the West End with these words. ‘Usually, a crowd of female creatures stand in front of the theatres, amongst whom may be found children of nine or ten years, the best evidence of moral depravity in London. In general, the English nation oversteps all others in immorality, and the abuses which come to light through addiction to debauchery are unbelievable.’
The dawn of the Victorian age and new attitudes to morality meant that prostitution gradually went underground but it did not go away. Streetwalking was made an imprisonable offence in the 1820s. For the whores, harlots, pimps, and courtesans of Georgian London, the party was over but their abuse was not.
The Secret History Of Georgian London, Dan Cruickshank
Prostitution and Eighteenth-Century Culture: Sex, Commerce, and Morality, edited by Ann Lewis, Markman Ellis
Infamous Commerce: Prostitution in Eighteenth-century British Literature and Culture, Laura J. Rosenthal
Find Books by Julia Herdman myBook.to/TalesofTooleyStreet
Bonnie Prince Charlie and Toad – What do they have in common?
It is a surprising thing to say but Bonnie Prince Charlie and Kenneth Graham’s character Toad, (Wind in the Willows, 1908) have much in common. Both were good-natured, kind-hearted and not without intelligence but they were also spoiled, reckless and obsessive. Although one is a character of fiction and the other of history and legend they both escaped the forces of law enforcement dressed as a woman – a washerwoman in Toad’s case, and the Bonnie Prince as an Irish seamstress, Betty Burke. Both left a trail of destruction behind them but of course the Bonnie Prince’s was real.
Copy of the Declaration of Miss MacDonald, Apple Cross Bay, July 12th 1746
Miss Mc. Donald, Daughter in Law of Mc. Donald of Milton in Sky, [Skye] being, by General Campbell’s order, made Prisoner for assisting the eldest son [Bonnie Prince Charlie] of the Pretender in his escape from South Uist, & asked to declare the Circumstances thereof, says, That about six weeks ago, she left her Father in Law’s house at Armadach [Armadale] in Sky, & went South to see some friends.
Being asked, if she had any Invitation from those who persuaded her to do what she afterwards ingaged [engaged] in for the young Pretender or any Body else, before she left Sky; answered in the Negative, and says that at the time of her leaving Sky, she did know where the young Pretender was, but only heard He was Some where on the long Island: that she stay’d at (what they call) a Sheilling [small hut or cottage] of her brother’s, on the hills, near Ormaclait [Ormacleit] the house of Clan Ronald; and that, about the 21of June, O Neil, or as they call him Nelson, came to where she stay’d, & proposed to her, that as he heard she was going to Sky, that the young Pretender should go with her.
With her in Woman’s cloathes [clothes], as her servant which she agreed to. O Neil then went and fetched the young Pretender who was on the Hills not far off, when they settled the manner of their going.
Miss MacDonald says, that after this she went & stay’d with Lady Clan Ranold [Ronald], at her House, three days, communicated the scheme to her, & desired that she would furnish cloathes for the young Pretender, as her own would be too little. During Miss MacDonald’s stay at Ormaclait, O Neil came frequently from the young Pretender to Clan Ronald’s House to inform her where he was, what stepps had been taken for their voiage [voyage], and at the same time to hasten her to get her affairs in Readiness for going off.
Miss Mac Donald says, that the 27th past, she, Lady Clan Ronald, her eldest Daughter, & one John MacLean, who had by Lady Clan Ronald’s order, acted as Cook to the Pretender, during his stay on the Hills, went to a place called Whea where they expected to meet the young Pretender; but not finding him there, they went on to a Placed called Roychenish, where they found him, taking with them the women’s Apparel furnished by Lady Clan Ronald, he was dressed in. Here they heard of General Campbell’s being come to South Uist, & that Captain Fergussone was within a mile of them. When they got this Information, they were just going to Supper. But then went of very precipitately, & sat up all night at a Sheilling call’d Closchinisch.
Saturday, June 25th: the Cutter and Wherrier, which attended General Campbell having got from Bernera [Berneray], near the Harris, through the last side of the long island, & passing not far from them, put them again into great Fears, least anybody should land there. However, they continued there ’till about 9 at Night, when the Young Pretender, Miss Mac Donald, one MacAchran, with five men for the Boat’s crew, imbarked [embarked] & put to sea, Lady Clan Ronald having provided Provisions for the voyage.
The 29 about 11 in the Morning they got to Sky near Sir Alexander MacDonald’s House. Here Miss Mac Donald and Mac Achran landed, leaving the young Pretender in the Boat, they went to Sir Alexander Mac Donald’s House; and from thence Miss MacDonald sent for one Donald Mac Donald, who had been in the Rebellion, but had delivered up his arms some time ago. She imployed this Person to procure [get] a Boat to carry the young Pretender to Rasay, after acquainting him with their late voyage & where she had left the young Pretender . Miss Mac Donald stay’d & dined with Lady Margaret Mac Donald, but Mac Donald & Mac Achran returned to the Boat, to inform what was done.
Miss Mac Donald being asked why Rasay was pitched upon for the young Pretender to retreat to, she answered that it was in hopes of meeting Rasay himself, with whom he was to consult for his future security.
After dinner, Miss Mac Donald set out for Portree it being resolved that they should lodge there that Night; but on the Road overtook the young Pretender & Mac Anchran of Kingsbury. She told them she must call at Kingsbury’s House, & desired they would go there also. Here, Miss Mac Donald was taken sick, & therefore with the other two, was desired to stay all night, which they agreed to. She had a Room to herself; But the young Pretender & Mac Achran lay in the same Room. At this time he appeared in women’s Cloathes, his Face being partly concealed by a Hood or Cloak.
Being asked, if while they were at Kingsbury’s House, any of the Family inquired who the disguised Person was; answers, that they did not ask; but that she observed the People of the Family whispering as if they suspected him to be some Person that desired not to be known and from the Servants she found they suspected him to be Mac Leod of Bernera, who had been in Rebellion. But, being pressed to declare what she knew or believed of Kingsbury’s knowledge of his Guest, owns, that she believes, he must suspect it was the young Pretender.
The 30th of June, Miss Mac Donald set out on Horseback from Kingsbury’s House for Portree, having first desired the young Pretender might put on his own cloathes somewhere on the Road to Portree, as she had observed that the other dress rather made him more suspected. Miss got to Portree about 12: at night, where she found Donald Mac Donald, who had been sent before to procure a Boat then The young Pretender & Mac Ancran arrived about an Hour after. Here he took some Refreshment, changed a Guinea [twenty-one shillings], paid the Reckoning [bill], took his Leave of Miss Mac Donald & went out with Donald Mac Donald, but who, after seeing him to the Boat returned. She believes he went to Rasay [Raasay, an island between the Isle of Skye and the mainland of Scotland], but cannot tell what is become of him since.
Source: The National Archives
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
Amazon New Zealand
Amazon South Africa
Jeanne Baret was born on July 27, 1740, in the village of La Comelle in the Burgundy region of France. Her record of baptism survives and identifies her as the legitimate issue of Jean Baret and Jeanne Pochard. Her father is identified as a day labourer and seems likely to have been illiterate, as he did not sign the parish register.
Housekeeper and Servant
At some point between 1760 and 1764, Baret became employed as housekeeper to naturalist, Philibert Commerson, who had settled in Toulon-sur-Arroux, some 20 km to the south of La Comelle, upon his marriage in 1760. Commerson’s wife, who was the sister of the parish priest, died shortly after giving birth to a son in April 1762, and it seems that Baret took over management of Commerson’s household at that time, if not before.
Lover and Friend
It seems Baret and Commerson shared a more than an interest in his household as she became pregnant in 1764. French law at that time required women who became pregnant out of wedlock to obtain a “certificate of pregnancy” in which they could name the father of their unborn child. Baret’s certificate, from August 1764, survives; it was filed in a town 30 km away and witnessed by two men of substance who likewise had travelled a considerable distance from their homes. She refused to name the father of her child, but historians do not doubt that it was Commerson and that it was Commerson who had made the arrangements with the lawyer and witnesses on her behalf.
Paris and a Child
Shortly afterward, Baret and Commerson moved together to Paris, where she continued in the role of his housekeeper having left his legitimate son in the care of his brother-in-law in Toulon-sur-Arroux and never saw him again in his lifetime. Baret apparently changed her name to “Jeanne de Bonnefoy” during this period. Her child was born in December 1764 and was given the name Jean-Pierre Baret. Baret gave the child up to the Paris Foundlings Hospital and he was quickly placed with a foster mother. The child suffered the fate of so many at that time and died in the summer of 1765.
That year Commerson was invited to join Bougainville’s expedition to circumnavigate the globe to claim territory for the French king similar to the expeditions of his contemporary the English Captain Cook. Commerson hesitated in accepting because he was often in poor health; he required Baret’s assistance as a nurse as well as in running his household and managing his collections and papers. Finally, he accepted and as his appointment allowed him a servant, paid as a royal expense, he decided to take his companion and helpmate Jeanne with him. The problem was that women were completely prohibited on French navy ships at this time. Together they devised a plan for Jeanne to disguise herself as a man and join the ship just before it sailed. Before leaving Paris, Commerson drew up a will in which he left to “Jeanne Baret, known as de Bonnefoi, my housekeeper”, a lump sum of 600 livres along with back wages owed and the furnishings of their Paris apartment.
Breaking the Rules
The pair boarded the ship Étoile in December 1766 and because of the vast quantity of equipment Commerson brought with him the ship’s captain, François Chesnard de la Giraudais, gave up his own large cabin to Commerson and his “assistant”. This fortuitous act gave Baret significantly more privacy than she might otherwise have expected on board and she did not have to use the shared heads like other members of the crew to relieve herself.
Surviving accounts of the expedition differ on when Baret’s gender was first discovered. According to Bougainville, rumours that Baret was a woman had circulated for some time, but her gender was not finally confirmed until the expedition reached Tahiti in April 1768. As soon as she and Commerson landed on shore to botanize, Baret was immediately surrounded by Tahitians who cried out that she was a woman. It was necessary to return her to the ship to protect her from the excited Tahitians. Bougainville recorded this incident in his journal some weeks after it happened when he had an opportunity to visit the Étoile to interview Baret personally.
Another account says that there was much speculation about Baret’s gender early in the voyage and asserts that Baret claimed to be a eunuch when confronted directly by the Captain, La Giraudais (whose own official log has not survived). After crossing the Pacific, the expedition was desperately short of food. After a brief stop for supplies in the Dutch East Indies, the ships made a longer stop at the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. This island, known as Isle de France, was then an important French trading station. Commerson was delighted to find that an old friend and fellow botanist Pierre Poivre was serving as governor on the island, and Commerson and Baret remained behind as Poivre’s guests, probably encouraged by Bougainville as it allowed him to rid himself of the problem of a woman illegally on board his expedition.
Assistant and Housekeeper
On Mauritius, Baret continued in her role as Commerson’s assistant and housekeeper. It is likely that she accompanied him to botanize on Madagascar and Bourbon Island in 1770-1772. Commerson continued to have serious health problems, and he died in Mauritius in February 1773. After Commerson’s death, Baret seems to have found work running a tavern in Port Louis for a time. Then, on 17 May 1774, she married Jean Dubernat, a non-commissioned officer in the French Army who was most likely on the island on his way home to France.
Marriage and Return to France
There is no record of exactly when Baret and her husband arrived in France, thus completing her voyage of circumnavigation. Most likely it was sometime in 1775. In April 1776, she received the money that was due to her under Commerson’s will after applying directly to the Attorney General. With this money, she settled with Dubernat in his native village of Saint-Aulaye where he may have set up as a blacksmith.
State Recognition of Services to Botany
In 1785, Baret was granted a pension of 200 livres a year by the Ministry of Marine. The document granting her this pension makes clear the high regard with which she was held by this point:
Jeanne Baret, by means of a disguise, circumnavigated the globe on one of the vessels commanded by Mr de Bougainville. She devoted herself in particular to assisting Mr de Commerson, doctor and botanist, and shared with great courage the labours and dangers of this savant. Her behaviour was exemplary and Mr de Bougainville refers to it with all due credit…. His Lordship has been gracious enough to grant to this extraordinary woman a pension of two hundred livres a year to be drawn from the fund for invalid servicemen and this pension shall be payable from 1 January 1785. She died in Saint-Aulaye on August 5, 1807, at the age of 67.
Honours and Publications
Commerson named many of the plants he collected after friends and acquaintances. One of them, a tall shrub with dark green leaves and white flowers that he found on Madagascar, he named Baretia Bonafidia. But Commerson’s name for this genus did not survive, as it had already been named by the time his reports reached Paris; it is currently known as Turraea. While over seventy species are named in honour of Commerson, only one, Solanum baretiae, honors Baret.
For many years, Bougainville’s published journal – a popular best-seller in its day, in English translation as well as the original French – was the only widely available source of information about Baret. More recent scholarship has uncovered additional facts and documentation about her life, but much of the new information remained little-known and inaccessible to the general public, particularly outside France. The first English-language biography of Baret, by John Dunmore, was not published until 2002, and then only in New Zealand. Other articles appeared only in scholarly journals.
The 2010 biography of Baret by Glynis Ridley, The Discovery of Jeanne Baret, brought Baret to the attention of a wider audience and helped to overturn some of the old misconceptions about her life.
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
Amazon New Zealand
Amazon South Africa