The Portrait of a Lady: A Victorian Masterpiece

A Guest Post by Joanne Major

The Masterworks Blog Tour

Portrait of a Lady, c.1840/50, Franz Xaver Winterhalter. Minneapolis Museum of Art.

My background is in historical nonfiction. I have authored – and co-authored – six works for Pen and Sword Books. However, I have also just completed an MA in Creative Writing (at the University of Lincoln), during which I have focused on fiction. When the Historical Writers Forum announced the Masterworks short story anthology and asked for submissions, I knew I wanted to give it a go. I am thrilled that Elizabeth invited me to her wonderful blog, to tell you about my piece, ‘Portrait of a Lady.’

The brief was a story inspired by a work of art. My area of research is primarily the Georgian and Victorian periods. Rather than ‘reinvent the wheel,’ I decided it should be based on these eras. The first problem, however, was finding that work of art, and waiting for inspiration to strike.

I have always been fascinated by portraits of unknown people, wondering what their backstories are. I spent an evening looking through the collections of online museums and art galleries. It was on the Minneapolis Museum of Art’s (MIA) website that I saw the portrait that suggested my story.

Queen Victoria, c.1843, studio of Franz Xaver Winterhalter. National Gallery of Art.

It is by a German artist, Franz Xaver Winterhalter who painted exclusively those from the European royal courts, and the upper echelons of society. The portrait’s title, as with my story, is ‘Portrait of a Lady.’ A little research found a 1950s report written when the MIA acquired the painting. The writer dated Winterhalter’s portrait to c.1840/50 and said that the subject was a woman who ‘fluttered’ about the young Queen Victoria’s court. More curious, she holds a mantle edged with ermine, a device in art that usually denotes royalty or a high peerage. The fact that, within a century, this woman had gone from someone important enough to be painted by Winterhalter to nameless seemed crazy to me. It still does.

As I wondered how this might have happened, the idea for my story became clear. It is set in 1844, in England, but harks back to the history of the French monarchy from the Revolution to their restoration following Napoleon Bonaparte’s exile. The conclusion jumps forward to 1880, so I managed to cover about a century’s worth of history. I used real people, Queen Victoria, and the Bourbon dynasty, for example, and invented others. My protagonist, Jeanne, ties everything together.

Franz Xaver Winterhalter, c.1865. Gallica, Bibliothèque nationale de France.

In terms of research, it was more of a case of refreshing my knowledge than starting from nothing. Having said that, I discovered that when writing historical fiction, the smaller details can be the most troublesome. Hours were devoted to checking currency, and working out how long it would take to travel between destinations, etc. There ended up being edits to correct plot holes, but the result was true to my original synopsis. (I also took the liberty to bend one or two facts; this is fiction, after all.)

Lord Henry Webster became one of my favourite characters. He was supposed to have a minor role; his wife, Sylvie, takes Jeanne under her wing and introduces her to Queen Victoria. To my surprise, Lord Webster had quite a dry sense of humour and so ended up having more dialogue than intended.

I would have loved to follow Jeanne on her further adventures. I would also like to revisit the Websters. Perhaps (watch this space!) these characters might form the basis of the historical fiction novel that I would very much like to write.


About Joanne Major

Joanne Major is the author, and co-author, of several works of historical nonfiction published by Pen & Sword History, set mainly in the Georgian era. Her latest book is the biography of an eighteenth-century courtesan whose name is remembered in a nursery rhyme, Kitty Fisher: The First Female Celebrity. Joanne holds a BA (First Class) in Creative Writing from the University of Lincoln and is studying for an MA in the same, focusing on crime/thriller writing. She lives in Lincolnshire with her family and dogs.

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