Standard-Bearer to the Regency – Part One

Her name was Sarah Sophia Child Villiers, Countess of Jersey (1785 – 1867). As Patroness of Almack’s, the portal to Regency ton, she was first among equals. Contemporary observers recorded more accounts of her than just about every other female of note in the ton.

She was (and still is) the standard-bearer to the Regency.

In a highly structured society like late Georgian England, persons with money and birth were furthered sorted by reputation and social connections. Someone had to make these decisions. One negative signal from Lady Jersey spelled disaster for the social climber.

She was human, however–fallible and often contradictory.

I’ve heard so many varying accounts of your character as to puzzle me exceedingly.” Lizzie to Darcy in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice

Born Sarah Sophia Fane, she had all the advantages noted above from the start. Her mother, Sarah Anne Child, was the sole heiress to the immense banking fortune of the Child family. Her father, John Fane, 10th Earl of Westmorland, a prominent Tory. Had her character not been so distinctive, scarcely a footnote would be written of her. This series of blog posts focuses on the personality of Lady Jersey, so often described in correspondence and diaries from the Regency era.

We’ll also take a look at her role as a pivotal character in Regency romance.

Her parents’ high profile elopement shows what DNA we have to work with. Independent, perhaps impetuous, certainly determined. The bride’s father strongly disapproved of the match, but was tricked into giving his permission when the young earl put the question to him as a seemingly innocuous hypothetical.

Some accounts tell how Mr. Child himself chased after the couple with the result that one of his horses got shot by Westmorland’s pistol.

“..a traveling-carriage drew up outside the house, Lord Dolphinton alighted from it and after casting around him a glance suggestive of a hare hotly pursued by hounds, hurried up the steps to the front door.” — Cotillion, Georgette Heyer

Money and the brains to keep it are other important attributes. Mr. Child wasn’t about to allow his banking fortune to go to an earldom. He made it so that Sarah Sophia, as Sarah Anne’s oldest daughter, inherited it (in the absence of a second son). It was a sizeable amount and came with great responsibility.

As one of the principals in the Child firm, Sarah Sophia would make influential decisions for the business.

Sarah Sophia Child Villiers by Chalon                                ‘It was your family that pushed you into banking–it was their dream for you. ‘ — Seinfeld

Her mother died when Sarah Sophia was about eight years old. It fell to the second Countess of Westmorland to shepherd her first season in London. However, it seems likely Sarah Sophia was the one who did the shepherding. Her stepmother was an indiscreet, garrulous woman who once threatened commit suicide:

“..to which Lord Westmorland replied pooh, pooh, and went away, not thinking any such good fortune would happen to him (!)… (she survived)…of that probably Her Ladyship took very good care.”
— Henry Williams Wynn to his mother, Lady Williams Wynn on Aug. 11, 1810*

As you might guess, Sarah Sophia’s debut was an eagerly anticipated event and she had several high-profile suitors. One of them left behind a wealth of correspondence from this period. In it are glimpses of the heiress’ teen-aged personality:

“Lady Sarah Fane is looking in great Beauty this year, but I am more inclined than ever to believe she has a strong Partiality for Villiers, which he endeavors to confirm by much attention. She is not yet presented, but is generally at the opera with Lady Westmoreland.”
— Lord Granville Leveson Gower to Lady Stafford, February, 1802 **

Lord Granville Leveson Gower, a Whig and diplomat, courted Sarah Sophia under the aegis of two older women in his life. The first being his mother, Lady Stafford. The other was his long-time lover, Henrietta Ponsonby, Lady Bessborough.

Granville by T. Lawrence. Lady Bessborough ‘loved him to idolatry,’ even though he loved her the least, so she believed.

Lady Bessborough threw herself wholeheartedly into the campaign. Avidly following her lover’s efforts, she both encouraged and teased him. She chided him once for choosing a seat at the opera that put him squarely between a former object of his matrimonial pursuit–and Sarah Sophia.

She even imagined herself to be a part of the action. Maybe she was.

As Granville’s letter indicates, George Villiers, 5th Earl of Jersey was the main competition. The same age as Granville, Villiers was a Conservative and Lord Chamberlain of the Household. Mad for hunting and racing, his riding skills were unparalleled.

Villiers is very jealous of you, Lady B wrote to Granville. So much so he was ‘less than cordial than he us’d to be.” Granville’s mama concurred, scrupulously repeating an accusation Villiers made, but one she probably feared Sarah Sophia would come to believe.

“Spectators fancy you the favor’d Lover, and take Occasion to report how much Lord Villiers is to be pitied, for that he is well and truly in Love with her, and scruples not to own himself miserable, but that you were attach’d elsewhere and follow her for her Fortune.” — Lady Stafford to G

George Child Villiers, 5th Earl of Jersey. Lady Bessborough thought him ‘in great beauty.’ He, on the other hand, had no illusions about her and Granville’s pursuit of Sarah Sophia.

One has a sense that Sarah Sophia was aware of this background scheming. Lively and intelligent, she must have derived some pleasure in leading more than just the men on a merry dance. As the courtship progressed, Lady Bessborough responded to this impertinence with something very like jealousy.

“..in a long walk with Anne she told me some things which have again made me furious with Lady Sarah. I cannot bear her..” — Lady B to G

Just as Granville and Villiers were of an age, so was Sarah Sophia with Lady Bessborough’s daughter, Caroline. The dynamics of the Ponsonby household could not have escaped her notice, even if she wasn’t bosom bows with Caro. Lady Bessborough’s involvement with Granville no doubt raised a red flag in her mind. The prospect of sharing the marriage bed with an older, managing sort of female, however intelligent and accomplished as Lady Bessborough was, could not be appealing to an independent, ambitious miss like Sarah Sophia.

There would come a day when she would have to lower the boom on Lady Bessborough’s troubled daughter, married to a husband who was also once her ladyship’s lover.

Perhaps because he was tired of the suspense, Beau Brummel apparently started a rumor that positively alarmed the Granville camp. Lady Bessborough feared a fortune might be slipping away. She sent Granville reassurances that his suit was not lost yet, calling Sarah Sophia your Sally and your Jewel. She sent her notorious sister Georgiana to Lady Westmorland to gain the confidence of Sarah Sophia’s foolish stepmother, plying her with assurances of deep friendship.

“Lady Westmorland has written a long letter of seven sides to G. (Georgiana Spencer Devonshire) …Lady Sarah is perfectly indifferent to both (Villiers and Granville) and both she and I feel extremely offended at Mr. Brummel’s impertinence, who chuses to set it about that there is an attachment subsisting between Lord V. and Lady S. which is perfectly groundless.”
– Lady B to G

Reporting the results to Granville’s mama, Lady Bessborough said that her son visited Berkeley Square twice and and Sarah Sophia was “very gracious and encouraging.” And yet Sally kept everyone guessing, to her ladyship’s disgust. Still, she grudgingly gave credit to the heiress for a strong presence of mind that precluded any hasty decision or undue influence by others.

For the present, Sarah Sophia declared she wouldn’t choose a husband until she comes of age.

* Correspondence of Charlotte Grenville, Lady Williams Wynn and her three sons, et al 1795 – 1832

** Lord Granville Leveson Gower (first earl Granville): private correspondence, 1781 – 1821, by Granville Leveson Gower, et al; Countess Castalia Leveson-Gower, ed. 1916

 

Immunologist to the Regency

For most of his life, he tirelessly fought against the smallpox, a highly contagious disease with a fearsome mortality rate. But Dr. Edward Jenner (1749 – 1823) had to wait until late in life to finally get some recognition.

That’s when he became the celebrated Immunologist to the Regency.

To put Dr. Jenner’s celebrity in perspective, it bears examining how things used to be. It wasn’t just the mortality rate of smallpox that was so bad. Those who survived the disease were often scarred, maimed or blinded.

Mary Dudley, Lady Sidney caught the pox while attending to a very ill Elizabeth I. Her husband was much aggrieved. “..I found her as fowle a ladie as the smale pox could make her..”

You get a sense of how appalling its ravages were from the lines of a sonnet, written in tribute to Dr. Jenner:

“In village paths, hence, may we never find
their youth on crutches, their children blind;
Nor, when the milk-maid, early from her bed,
beneath the may-bush that embowr’s her head,
sings like a bird, e’er grieve to meet again
The fair cheek injur’d by the scars of pain..”
Good tidings, or, News from the farm, a Poem by Robert Bloomfield (1805)

The practice of inoculating against smallpox had been around for some time but it was quite a risky procedure and not always reliable. Indeed, the treatment was often worse than the cure. Fingers must have been crossed when young Edward Jenner received his own inoculation.

Thank God it didn’t kill him.

As a practicing physician, Dr. Jenner was an keen observer of nature and not afraid to try out ideas. Using scientific experiments, he perfected the work of others to promulgate safe and effective vaccination.

Dr. Jenner’s vocation for zoology led him to discover how the cuckoo chick uses its back to push his rivals’ eggs out of the nest.
Photo By Anderson, et al – CC BY 4.0 Wikimedia

It took awhile for his alternative immunization technique to catch on. Understandably, patients resisted the notion of accepting diseased material from an animal (the cowpox virus) into their bodies. A lay person might view such a procedure in the same way as being bitten by a rabid dog.

Dr. Jenner had to work pretty hard to get folks to trust him.

Trust me, I’m a doctor.

Objections to this newfangled procedure abounded. No less a physician than the Surgeon Extraordinary to the Prince of Wales voiced his concern. Dr. John Birch’s efforts to discredit vaccination bear a strong resemblance to the ones today.

Check out Vaxopedia.org for a great run-down on this.

It must have caused the royal physician no end of chagrin when the Prince Regent, along with his royal brothers of York and Clarence, voiced their support for the Jennerian practice of inoculation:

“His Royal Highness was pleased.. to declare his admiration of this invaluable discovery; to patronize and to cherish it in every way; and at the same time, to announce the highest esteem for the worth and character for its author.”
The life of Edward Jenner, MD, etc., physician extraordinary to the King..with illustrations of his doctrines, and selections from his correspondence, Vol I
by John Baron (1827)

Dr. Jenner rode on a wave of celebrity, fêted by Regency society. Admired to such a degree, many important persons sought his advice and assistance in ways that had nothing to do with getting a shot.

For instance, it was well known that the man behind the vaccine was held in high esteem on the Continent. In 1803, The Marquess of Hertford’s son, young Lord Yarmouth, managed to get himself detained in Paris after hostilities between France and England resumed. Dr. Jenner, upon the marquess’ request, interceded with the French.  Lord Yarmouth was released, going on to a rather dubious career of “undisguised debauchery,” as described in diarist Charles Greville’s scandalous memoirs of the times.

When Thackeray’s Vanity Fair came out, Lord Yarmouth threatened to sue for libel. It seemed the nasty character of Lord Steyne bore a remarkable resemblance to his lordship. — print from the National Portrait Gallery

But fame can be a double-edged sword.

Dr. Jenner’s voluminous correspondence shows how weary he became during the latter part of his life, patiently answering questions and soothing fears expressed in letters from all over the world. He attended to them all, endlessly providing vaccine of his own making, and instruction on how to properly administer it.

Inevitably, there were some failures out of the thousands he immunized.

The most famous case concerned one of Lord Grosvenor’s sons. All the children had been vaccinated years before, yet Master Robert came down with a violent case of the smallpox. Attended by Sir Henry Halford, prominent physician of the ton, the boy survived. It was an event that shocked the ton, delivering a blow to Dr. Jenner’s reputation.

In a letter to one Miss Calcraft* he laments:

“And now this single solitary instance has occurred, all my past labours are forgotten, and I am held up by many, perhaps the majority of the higher classes, as an object of derision and contempt.”
The life of Edward Jenner, MD, etc., physician extraordinary to the King..with illustrations of his doctrines, and selections from his correspondence, Vol II
by John Baron (1827)

Escaping the tumult of fame, Dr. Jenner returned to his medical practice in rural Berkeley, Gloucestershire. From his residence in Chantry Cottage, he treated and vaccinated poor families in a little hut that served as his clinic.

Apart from his correspondence, his meditations and poems show a humble, yet perceptive preoccupation with the natural world, and with the human body. He continued searching for answers, goaded by insatiable curiosity, entreating us all to carry on.

“If we fear all things that are possible, we live without any bounds to our misery.”
— Edward Jenner

 

*Presumably Mary Elizabeth Calcraft, daughter of John Calcraft, MP for Rempston.

 

 

 

Regency-era University Freshman

Hugh Fortescue (1783 – 1861), Viscount Ebrington and heir to the first Earl Fortescue moved in the circle of the powerful Grenville family of Whigs. His viscountcy was a courtesy title, giving him the opportunity to sit in the Commons as an influential MP during the Regency.

Just call him Ebrington
By Frederick Christian Lewis Sr, after Joseph Slater stipple engraving, 1826 or after

He was very good friends with Lady Williams-Wynn’s son, Henry. Among her correspondence is a collection of letters exchanged between the two, going all the way back to their school days and into college. Lady W. W. avidly followed Ebrington’s career in the military, suffering considerable anxiety when he went missing for awhile in Lisbon.

Ebrington’s letters to Henry provide a window into the lifestyle of a young nobleman in the early Regency period. His observations of important events and persons are illuminating. The 1797 Frogmore gala, he reported, was marred when one of the actors putting on a play accidentally shot another actor, to the great disappointment of the Prince of Wales.

On the famous Williams-Wynn cousin, Lady Hester Stanhope:

“..a great strapping ugly girl, talking incessantly on every subject, though sometimes (!) not without sense and humor, and descanting with as much learning on the get of a horse as any Newmarket Jockey.”

Correspondence of Charlotte Grenville, Lady Williams Wynn, and her three sons, et al 1795 – 1832, edited by Rachel Frances Marion Leighton (1920)

She’s been called Desert Queen and Star of the Morning. Ebrington was not impressed.
—Lady Hester Stanhope by Beechey

While Henry was employed in the Foreign Office, Ebrington wrote several letters to him from college. On the whole, Oxford suits him, he reports. Breakfast and prayers in the morning, followed by lecture, dinner at 3, more prayers at 5 and supper at 9 in the evening. He begs Henry to send snuff and copies of parliamentary speeches. He complains that the bursar rations bread.

His first night as a freshman is amusing.

Celebrations began the moment Ebrington’s father dropped him off. After dinner at 4 o’clock, he retired with fourteen other lads to a colleague’s room and drank bumper toasts in his honor, being a newcomer. They then proceeded to a supper at 9:30 in the evening, where he was expected to drink a glass of wine with each person present, and there were many.

I’m starting to feel queasy just reading this.

To Ebrington’s dismay, supper’s end did not mean the evening was over. Several bowls were brought, filled with a drink called tiff, which he describes as a “very strong and spicy” negus. As an aside, The Esquire recipe is my favorite–lemon, sugar and ruby (as opposed to tawny) port.

He was obliged to imbibe a good deal of the stuff:

“–this lasted til past eleven when the party broke up and retired to the enjoyment of sickness, night-mares, blue devils, Head-aches & the other attendants upon overloaded stomachs and overheated Brains.”

“..feverish with hopes and fears, soups and negus...” Mansfield Park, Jane Austen

Ebrington admits to Henry that he hasn’t the stomach for that sort of thing very often. To avoid being called poor-spirited, he escapes future festivities on the excuse of meeting his tutor for some “chop-logick.”

*chop-logick: an extremely detailed argument with overly complex reasoning. — yourdictionary.com