Monday, August 19, 2013

A Beauty or Not?

Beauty is, as the saying goes, in the eye of the beholder. Personal preferences guarantee that no matter how gorgeous a woman may be, she's bound to have her detractors. But whether beholders agree or not, both admirers and detractors should be able to recognize the same woman in a portrait and perhaps describe her in similar terms to a police sketch artist. That's why Fanny Crewe (later Lady Crewe) leaves me scratching my head. Was she a beauty or not?

She certainly had the reputation of a beauty. Born in 1748 to the diplomat Fulke Greville and his poetess wife, also named Frances, she married John Crewe, the son of a Cheshire landowner and MP, when she was 18. Crewe had been elected to Parliament the year before (with Fanny's help, he would go on to earn a barony in 1806, making her Lady Crewe), and Fanny quickly became the toast of Whig society. Quite literally the toast--after the politician Charles James Fox won the hotly contested Westminster election of 1784, a race in which Fanny had daringly canvassed for him, the Prince of Wales attended the victory party and raised his glass with the words, "True blue and Mrs. Crewe."

A popular hostess and enthusiastic campaigner, Fanny was the subject of three portraits by Sir Joshua Reynolds. The playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan dedicated his most famous work, The School for Scandal, to Fanny. Sheridan had a beautiful wife of his own (painted more than once by Gainsborough), but that didn't stop him from having an affair with Mrs. Crewe. Sheridan wrote in his dedication:

Vain Muse! couldst thou the humblest sketch create
Of her, or slightest charm couldst imitate--
Could thy blest strain in kindred colours trace
The faintest wonder of her form and face--
Poets would study the immortal line,
And Reynolds own his art subdued by thine...

Here's one of Reynolds's paintings of Fanny before her marriage, in which (as Miss Greville) she's portraying Hebe to her young brother's Cupid:

If my math is correct, Joshua Reynolds painted Fanny as Hebe when she was only thirteen.

She looks quite pretty, and capable of growing into the woman her friend Fanny Burney praised by saying she "uglified everything near her." She looks even lovelier in the painting Reynolds did some twelve or thirteen years later, when Fanny was a married woman in her mid-twenties (here reproduced in an etching):

Lady Crewe was the model for St. Genevieve in this painting by Reynolds.

On the other hand, author Amanda Foreman writes in The Duchess, a biography of Fanny's contemporary Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, that Lady Douglas described Fanny as "very fat with a considerable quantity of down about her mouth." She does look a bit plump, albeit pleasingly so, in this caricature of 1784, in which she's shown canvassing for Charles James Fox:

"The Devonshire, or the Most Approved Method of Securing Votes" by Thomas Rowlandson. Lady Crewe is on the left, saying "Huzza - Fox for ever"; the woman on the right is Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.

Then there's this portrait by Thomas Lawrence. It may just be the lighting, but she does seem to have a faint mustache:

Thomas Lawrence painted Lady Crewe circa 1810.

The painting that really makes me wonder, however, is this portrait by Gainsborough:

Does this even look the least bit like the same woman from the Rowlandson caricature?

There's no sign of either fat or down in the painting, but I wouldn't call the subject a great beauty, either.

Which brings me to the point: I'm convinced Fanny Crewe's beauty was the kind best appreciated in person, because in addition to being an energetic hostess, she was also an intelligent and lively conversationalist. Her admirers included not just Fox, Sheridan, Burney and Reynolds, but also the philosopher Edmund Burke. Charles Arbuthnot called her "amazingly well-informed."

At a time when women held no direct political power, Frances, Lady Crewe was friend and counselor to the great. And I suspect it's due to that intelligence and energy, and not just due to her changeable looks, that she was so ardently admired.

Alyssa EverettAlyssa Everett's upcoming regency romance, A Tryst With Trouble, will be released on September 23. It will join her current release, Lord of Secrets, and her debut regency, Ruined by Rumor. Alyssa hopes you'll visit her website and follow her on Twitter and Facebook, where she promises not to spam you.

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