Friday, June 29, 2012

Vivandieres & Why I hate Lady Macbeth

Daughter of the Regiment
19th century audiences found cantinieres quite romantic
I have a soft spot for vivandieres. A friend of Mrs Kinch's remarked on this once, though she couchedit in somewhat unkind terms. "Was it normal for the prostitutes to wear uniforms?*" 
As it happens, no it was not, though no doubt someone can produce an example somewhere. I suspect Massena's name will crop up. 
Vivandieres and Cantinieres (for our purposes the terms are effectively interchangeable) were women who had a contract to supply spirits, shaving kit and other small necessities to the regiment to which they were attached. Strictly speaking the girls didn't have this contract themselves, it was held by a Sergeant who was known as a Cantinier. The Cantinier's wife was known as the Cantiniere and was definitely not a prostitute. She took up the job as the Cantinier was too busy with his duties, marching up and down and so forth and staring at terrified recruits and saying things like "Zis eez ze brown bess musket, eet eez ze preferred wepon ov yur enemy and it make a verey diztinktive zound when fired at you, mon brave."

An S Range Vivandiere

This figure represents a typical vivandiere/cantiniere with her basket and little barrel of brandy. She was a gift from Foy over at Prometheus in Aspic, who no doubt noted my somewhat unwholesome interest in the breed. She was painted by Krisztian, whose skill and craftsmanship is almost getting monotonous in its excellance.

 For your titilation, the ladies uncovered ankles.
Put them away you dirty, dirty girl...

As it happened Cantiniere's were rather better at surviving battles than their husbands were and as such (as well as I suspect their access to a legitimate source of booze may also have played a part) were highly sought after as spouses. Nicholette, the vivandiere, in RF Delderfields "Seven Men of Gascony" is married several times and is unabashedly unsentimental about the process.

 Just pull yourself together dear...

Which brings me to the second point of this post, what does Kinch have against Lady Macbeth? Nothing per se, I like Macbeth. It's not my favourite or the one I know best, but it is very, very good. However, I don't care for the usual casting of Lady Macbeth, who is often a painfully young, screechy creature who uses the sleepwalking scene to take her hysterics for a walk.

All of which misses one of the essential truths of soldiers wives - they are tough women.

Isuzu Yamada's performance in Kurosawa's Throne of Blood is a notable exception to this somewhat depressing rule and Dame Judi Dench in Trevor Nunn's 1979 production is suitably flinty, but what makes those two stand out is that while they do portray women in a state of mental breakdown, they don't make a meal of it. To paraphrase Victoria Wood, you can't just rub some blood on your hands, scream a bit and go,  "Don't mind me, I'm a looney".

 A second Vivandiere, 
based on the facings I'd say attached to a regiment of dragoons

No-one has made a film of Seven Men of Gascony, which is a pity as it's rather good and with the exception of Gerard, certainly the best fiction I've read about the period from the French point of view.  I fear however, that if one was made today, that poor old Nicolette would be hammered into the same tired "beautiful, but deadly" formula that seems to be rule for heroines these days.

This lady was a gift from Old John of 20mmNostalgic Revival and she does look fine. She's been used as an objective marker (with attached donkey) for Command & Colours Napoleonics games so far, though I think it will take a skirmish game for her to come into her own.

"I hate to see you leave, 
but I love to watch you go."

I think the point about the portrayal of Lady Macbeth that annoys me so much is that it is unfair. Sir Terry Pratchett wrote about women like her in his fantasy novel, "Guards, Guards".

"Sybil's female forebears had valiantly backed up their husbands as distant embassies were besieged, had given birth on a camel or in the shade of a stricken elephant, had handed around the little gold chocolates while trolls were trying to break into the compound, or had merely stayed at home and nursed such bits of husbands and sons as made it back from endless little wars. The result was a species of woman who, when duty called, turned into solid steel."

Sir Terry is writing about a policeman's wife, rather than a soldiers and I see a lot of Sybil in Mrs Kinch sometimes. It may no longer be fashionable or popular and I can't think of an example in popular culture in recent years, but I'll be damned if I don't give these ladies their due. 

*Whereupon my mother in law (who is reading this over my shoulder, yes you Mary) says something uncharitable about the Guards Division.


  1. I agree with your thoughts on Lady MacB - she was clearly a tough bird who managed to manipulate her (war hero) husband into becoming a regicide. So it was all her fault then.

    1. Well it takes two to tango - but she wasn't blameless. I'd be certainly aiming for joint enterprise in the prosecution.

  2. I thought the Throne of Blood performance was spot on - a calculating and sly woman whose machinations brought initial fortune but eventual downfall and the realisation of which (that she'd brought it all onto herself) was the cause of her insanity.

    The picture of the actress just screams 'coarse actor' (look up Michael Green's hilarious book on the interweb. And would ALdy Macbeth stroll round in bra and panties? I think not! What would the servants say.

    And finally just a note of thanks re: the information. I knew of camp followers but did not realise the role was as formalised as it was. You literally learn something new each day.

    1. Thanks Phil - camp followers in the British service might merit a post in their turn.

  3. My dear Kinch:

    How wonderful that you combined the subjects of Shakespeare and viviandieres. Such esoterica is the very quintissence of this charming blog, which keeps legions of fans captivated.
    You are quite right about army wives being a tough breed, and Mrs. Padre is a good example. The toughest army wife I ever met was in my wife's aunt's nursing home. In chatting with her, she told me that her husband was a US Marine officer in Pearl Harbour when it was attacked. The next day, massively pregnant, she loaded up her Studebaker and set off from the east coast, determined to drive across the US and get herself to Hawaii. Somewhere in the US western desert, she had to pull over and deliver her baby by herself, after which she kept driving. They don't make many like that any more.

  4. Whereas Miranda in The Tempest has a certain naive charm, while Iago's wife (whose name escapes me, and I'm too lazy to find Othello on my shelves) is just the sort of soldier's wife you have in mind, I would say.