From A Legend To A Lady
Updated: Feb 10, 2021
This week on the pod, our episode featured a faithful feline named after a Greek mythical character. In How the Marquess was Won by Julie Anne Long, our heroine's cat Charybdis was her talisman. She had acquired the cat as a young girl growing up in the slum of Seven Dials, and he had been with her through everything since. One of the only books she'd had to read growing up had been a collection of Greek myths. But our titular Marquess was still confused and surprised with her choice of name, asking "Why didn't you name the kitten something precious, like Daphne, or Apollo?" Her answer:
"I suppose it's because I always wished I had an ally, someone to protect me and Charybdis the monster was the most fearsome thing I could imagine...I supposed I had little faith that even the Greek gods would be much of a match for the likes of St. Giles. I wanted something truly nasty as a familiar."
A harsh upbringing for our leading lady, but a memorable name for a character. So who was this Charybdis of legend?
The Legend of Scylla and Charybdis:
Scylla (which is pronounced “Sill-ah” or “Skee-lah”, depending on what country you live in) and Charybdis (generally pronounced kar-ib-dis) were monsters who haunted the Straits of Messina, which is the narrow sea between Sicily and the Italian mainland. Scylla was a terrible creature with six heads and twelve feet who was known to prey on those who tried to pass her, while Charybdis, who lived on the opposite side of the straits, was a monster who over time came to be described as a whirlpool. These monsters are featured in Homer's Odessy, as they gave Odysseus a difficult time as he worked to navigate a passage past them.
There’s a bit of ambiguity surrounding Chardybris’ legend, and she is described as “a monster of unknown description.” But she was thought to be the daughter of Poseidon and Gaia (Mother Earth). She was thrown to her position opposite Scylla in the straights there after being struck by Zeus' thunderbolt, perhaps as punishment for her "lustful character." Her ambiguity caused descriptions of her to turn to natural terrors, and she was often described as a whirlpool or a maelstrom. She was said to be so powerful and so vicious that no ship was able to survive her wrath.
Charybdis in Art
When researching this episode, I was curious to see how artists had interpreted this indescribable monster over the centuries. And while I did find many vague sea scapes and lots of eerie, enigmatic digital renditions, one piece in my search stood out - a political satire printed in 1793 - not particularly far away from the Regency setting of our book!
As I have no qualifications to interpret art myself, I'll defer to the experts here to describe the context of what we're seeing here. The Art Institute of Chicago, who owns this etching, describes the scene as thus:
The prolific James Gillray often included Classical nautical references in his contemporary political satires. Around the time of the French Revolution, Gillray depicted the British prime minister William Pitt as the wandering Odysseus, who pilots a small vessel holding the buxom Britannia through a dangerous strait toward the “Haven of Public Happiness.” Pitt attempts to steer between two conflicting forms of government: a whirlpool (Charybdis) on the right, symbolizing the crown and absolute monarchy, and a perilous rock with lurking monster (Scylla) on the left, representing democracy.
A pretty fun way to discover a piece of art that describes the political landscape that our characters would have been born into. But that was not where my interest stopped, for I noticed something interesting about the name of the publisher:
Is that a woman's name I spy as publisher? Well, follow me down this rabbit whole, because she sure is a lady. Hannah Humphrey was the sister of a print shop owner who eventually opened her own print shop that became the most successful print shop in London. She negotiated an exclusive contract with the artist of this print James Gillray, who rose to fame as a political satirist during his career largely thanks to Miss Humphrey. A smart businesswoman, she recognized the appeal of his work, and displayed them in the windows of her shop - for entertainment and marketing, as the only way to buy any Gillray print was directly from her store. Hannah Humphrey never married and remained completely self-sufficient until her death. An independent, working woman of the Regency with a lasting legacy. What a lovely, unexpected find - and all thanks to a cat.
If you'd like to learn a little more about any of the information featured in this musing, please see the references below.
Image courtesy of The Art Institue of Chicago, CC0 Public Domain Designation
Brittania Between Scylla and Charybdis - The Art Institute of Chicago
Women’s History Month: Hannah Humphrey, fl.1745-1818 by C. McGurk