Last weekend we finally got around to digging out The Duchess on Virgin's pay-for facility (I'm slow off the mark, I know) and what a disappointment... I mean, it looked gorgeous, but Keira Knightley made Georgiana look, unfortunately, like a pouting airhead. Ralph Fiennes did a fine job, but his role was one-dimensional and really did the Duke of Devonshire a disservice. The special UK spin (namely, Princess Diana 'there are three people in this marriage') was tiresome, and lines like 'Any sign of a Revolution yet?' [addressed to Charles Grey on his return from France] made me hoot with laughter. I thought Georgiana was a woman passionately interested in politics? Com'on Paramount, credit us with some intelligence!
I am, as you know, a cat-lover (or ailurophile to be accurate), but history has not always been kind to moggies. Take Athanasius Kircher's cat piano (or katzenklavier, pictured above).
Designed in the mid 17th-century, it comprised a line of cats sat in six to eight cages, which were in turn sunk into the body of a piano. Each cat had its tail stretched underneath the instrument's keyboard. Nails were placed under the keys, causing the cats to cry out in pain when the keys were pressed. The animals were organised by the respective tones of their voices to create a harmonic sound.
Needless to say, this was a hypothetical instrument which Kircher seems not to have made; it was designed by the German Jesuit scholar purely as an elaborate joke (and it's testament to the robustness of the age that animals in pain were considered amusing - see Hogarth's The Four Stages of Cruelty for more on that subject).
Interestingly, the idea was then taken up in the 18th century by German physician Johann Christian Reil who felt the katzenklavier would be useful in his treatment of insanity, in particular patients who had lost the ability to focus their attention. He believed that the katzenklavier was so ridiculous that if his patients were forced to see it, it couldn't fail to capture the attention and thus cure them.
It's not clear whether Reil knew of Kircher's design or independently came up with the same idea, but either way, it must be one of the weirdest theories in the history of psychiatry. Incidentally, Reil is often credited with coining the term psychiatry (meaning 'healing the soul') in 1808.
I live in the English cathedral city of Lichfield, which, despite having a population of fewer than 5,000 during the Georgian period, was home to many important artists and intellectuals including Samuel Johnson, David Garrick and Erasmus Darwin. I generally blog about the short 18th century (1715-1789), feisty Georgian ladies and Lichfield's 18th-century heritage. If you have any comments, feel free to email me at woffington [at] gmail [dot] com.
Virtually forgotten today, Margaret Woffington (also known as Peg or Peggy) would rise from humble origins to become one of Georgian London’s most famous actresses, sharing the stage with the likes of David Garrick and excelling in so-called ‘breeches roles’. Born around the year 1720 in Dublin, her childhood years were marred by the death of her father, which plunged her family into poverty. Having reputedly sold watercress barefoot in the streets of the Irish capital, she was soon talent-spotted by a tumbler known as Violante, who staged populist entertainments in booths around the city. Violante had a troupe of child actors called the Liliputians, and before long Woffington was making her debut as Polly Peachum in their version of The Beggar’s Opera. Moving to London, she gained plaudits for both her outstanding beauty and her talent – particularly in comedy – appearing at both Covent Garden and Drury Lane. Known for her quick wit and no-nonsense attitude, she had high-profile affairs with Garrick, Lord Darnley and Charles Hanbury Williams; she was also a generous benefactor, supporting her elderly mother and may even have endowed some almshouses in Teddington, where she had settled at the height of her success. She died, unmarried, in 1760, having suffered a long wasting illness, and is buried in Teddington's parish church of St Mary’s.
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