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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Regency Valentine Scrooge

“..well, to speak roundly, sir, she imagines herself to be violently in love with him..”
This book is fast supplanting Cotillion in my affections.

Topographer Edward Wedlake Brayley (1773 – 1854) compiled Regency-era social customs he gleaned from past road-trip publication notes. In this new book, he approaches Valentine’s Day rituals with mixed emotions. A pity the celebrations of the day do not spring from chivalrous motives, he laments, nor do they encourage courteous behavior as they ought.

Indeed, Valentine’s Day customs tend to inspire far more dangerous feelings:

“..as they tend too early to awaken those strong desires which nature has implanted in the human heart, but which are far better developed by exuberant health than by an inflamed imagination.”

Popular Pastimes, being a selection of picturesque representations of the customs & amusements of Great Britain, etc. by Edward Wedlake Brayley (1816)

February 14th was the day illiterate and superstitious pagans believed birds chose their mates. Brayley puzzles over the assignment of a venerable saint to a day associated with such an earthy theme as mating. It is not surprising, he surmised, that Chaucer would transfer the practice from birds to men.

Consider how foolish the latter become on Valentine’s Day.

A near-contemporary of Chaucer, the Monk of Bury, composed a Valentine poem to Queen Catherine, Henry V’s consort. Brayley does not find much to fault with Lydgate’s method of currying political favor. Curious that he passes over one particularly tantalizing compliment the monk pays to his queen: “but I love one whiche excellith all.”

The wood effigy of Catherine of Valois, carried at her funeral, is on display in the new Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Gallery in the Westminster Abbey triforium.

The general practice of sending valentines, Brayley surmises, seems to have arisen when the Hanoverians came to the throne. Such greetings early on consisted of the following:

“..slight engravings (from emblematical designs expressive of affection), printed on one side of a sheet of letter paper, and coloured; but others are curiously cut, or stamped, into different forms, chiefly of true lovers’ knots, hearts, darts, altars, lace-work..”

By the time of the Regency, valentines had become far more intricate. Brayley marvels at how the paper is contrived in such a manner as to resemble baskets of flowers, nosegays and birds; in particular the dove of Venus.

For an example of the cut paper valentine of the day, see this lovely post on the matter.

Things go downhill, however, once the sender attaches a verse to the confection. Some of these messages are witty, Brayley admits. Others, he notes with strong disapproval, are down-right ridiculous. He further complains that the post office must be made to transport such nonsense all ’round the country, further compounding the folly of the day.

Even worse, valentines are expensive. A valentine greeting can range from a few shillings to upwards of a guinea. Those who can least afford the time and money (serving maids) are precisely the ones who indulge in the practice of sending valentines the most.

“.. yet no inconsiderable portion of these articles are sold to young men, whose education and stations in life would seem to have kept them far removed from such kinds of folly (!)”

Valentine’s Day Scrooge.

 

When an Old Man Elopes

He fled to Gretna Green in a veiled leghorn bonnet, his eldest son in hot pursuit.

Lady Williams Wynn couldn’t resist mentioning an event that scandalized all the ton. An elderly lord, well-known and well-connected, eloped with his housekeeper of much lower station.

“It is a melancholy proof of dotage..”

— Lady W-W to her daughter, Fanny (January 17, 1819)*

Lawyer and Whig politician, Thomas Erskine, 1st Baron Erskine (1750 – 1823), enjoyed considerable influence during the Regency. The Ministry of All Talents appointed him Lord High Chancellor. When the Whigs fell out of power, he retired from politics but remained active in various public causes, among them animal rights and George IV’s attempted divorce.

Lord Erskine’s real bread and butter came from practicing law at the Bar (arguing before judge and jury, as opposed to drawing up contracts). His strong advocacy for the role of the jury secures his place in legal history. So does his defense of Thomas Paine, tried for a variety of offenses stemming from the publication of Rights of Man.

His contemporaries knew him best for his courtroom drama.

Early on in his career, he developed an affinity for the kinds of cases litigating matters of a certain delicacy. He had no trouble presenting the facts as he saw them, sparing no colorful detail. Indeed, he spared none of his own clients with his blunt, yet eloquent speeches supporting their cause.

His appearances at Bar piqued and entertained juries and courtroom audiences for years.

Take, for example, the case of Mr. Fenn’s housekeeper. She sued her employer for breaking his promise to marry her. She was a respectable widow, but he induced her to cohabit with him based on his assurances they would soon be wed. The jury awarded her two thousand pounds for the loss of reputation and other damages she suffered as a result of his breach of promise, an award the court tried to set aside for being excessive.

Erskine took up the woman’s case, arguing it didn’t matter that she was old and ugly, or that the defendant wasn’t worth a farthing. The man enjoyed her society in his bed and the jury was well within its right to tally up his bill for same. As for her damages, these were scrupulously enumerated–being the loss of her reputation, her health, the society of her friends, the comfort of retirement.

For good measure, Erskine played to the gallery when he condemned the defendant’s string of false promises–a charade which continued right up until he married another woman:

“..young enough to be his daughter, and who, I hope, will manifest her affection by furnishing him with a pair of horns..(!)”

Speeches of Lord Erskine: When at the Bar, on Miscellaneous Subjects, ed J. Ridgway (1812)

As Erskine’s reputation grew, his clients became more tonnish, seeking his services in matters that had become his specialty–cases of the crim. con. variety. And he represented both sides of the aisle, cuckolded husbands and the lovers who led wives astray.

The rakehell Sir John Piers won a bet when he seduced the wife of a old school chum. He lost twenty thousand pounds when the old school chum sued him.

Mr. Eston was a naval purser and often away at sea. His wife, an actress and theater manager, was the Duke of Hamilton’s mistress. The bereft husband sued for loss of his wife’s affections. Sentiment was on the side of a man in service to his country. Erskine didn’t cringe, however, from defending His Grace’s seductive depredations, arguing the plaintiff brought this on himself for choosing an occupation that kept him gone for long periods of time.

As if that wasn’t enough, he argued the wife wasn’t really a wife at all:

“..as long as the line is fast to the fish, the fish is yours..but the moment she is a loose fish, any body may strike her….I will show you Mrs. E was a loose fish(!)”

— The Times, 23 Feb. 1797**

In the end, the jury awarded the plaintiff seven thousand pounds in damages. The purser never got his money, however. The duke had fled abroad.

Exactly what he has turned out to be,’ said Freddy. ‘Not a Chevalier at all: deuced loose fish, in fact!’

In another case, Erskine defended the heir of the earl of Lucan, Richard Bingham. Bernard Howard, heir to the Duke of Norfolk, sued for losses amounting to over a thousand pounds when his wife left him for Bingham. Erskine argued that in order to show a loss, there has to be affection in the first place.

After the trial, nearly everyone knew just how bad Lady Elizabeth’s marriage was.

Erskine brought several servants to testify to the “sorry state of marriage” that existed between her ladyship and Norfolk’s successor. The maid spoke of Lady Elizabeth’s great unhappiness with her marriage, that her parents forced her to marry Mr. Howard when she loved Mr. Bingham, the flood of tears the night after the wedding, her avoidance of the marriage bed, her walks in Kensington Gardens with the defendant.

A neighbor, probably glowing bright red with embarrassment, testified the angry husband once told him that Lady Elizabeth ‘would not allow him to have any connexions with her.’

” ‘There she goes,’ said Mr. Howard, ‘God damn her–I wish she may break her neck..’ ”

Speeches of Lord Erskine: When at the Bar, on Miscellaneous Subjects, ed J. Ridgway (1812)

 

The jury’s award of five hundred pounds for Mr. Howard was considered negligible, a triumph for Erskine. His client, Mr. Bingham, married Lady Elizabeth and had several children with her before they separated.

Their son, George, Lord Bingham, as painted by his sister. He later became known as ‘The Exterminator’ for evicting large numbers of his tenants in Ireland.

One cannot be surprised that Lord Erskine should conduct his own marital affairs with a bit of theater. There are many versions of the story of his elopement and a lot of speculation on just why he did it. He already had a family from a previous marriage, his finances were in bad shape, and he had to don a disguise to do it.

Lady W. W. surmised he was senile. Others have been more charitable, attributing his hasty trip to Gretna Green as a means to legitimize, at least under Scottish law, his two children by his mistress. That his eldest son tried to prevent the marriage must have chafed the old man and he rebelled.

His descendant wrote a time slip novel about his life, blaming the whole on the supernatural.

The devil made him do it.

 

*Correspondence of Charlotte Grenville, Lady Williams Wynn, and her three sons, Sir Watkin Williams Wynn, bart, et al,1785 – 1832 (1920)

**This and other interesting quotes from Lord Erskine’s legal career can be found reproduced in Sarah Pearsall’s Atlantic Families: Lives and Letters in the Later Eighteenth Century (2008)

Regency Gambols

 

The games kids play.

During the Regency,  the conduct of young persons, particularly in company, was a topic of intense discussion. Any prospect of activities between eligible females and males was of primary concern.

The onset of Christmas amusements was viewed as particularly dangerous:

“..there are employments which pass under the name of gambols that are quite unworthy of engaging the attention of rational creatures, and ought at least to be confined to children.”

The Repository of arts, literature, commerce, etc. by Rudolph Ackermann Ser.2,v.7(1819)

What are these gambols that elicit such alarm? They are physical activities, not unlike Twelfth Night dancing. What objection is there to games such as blind man’s buff or drawing king and queen?

Blind Man’s Buff: as popular as ever

Why must such diversions as hunt the slipper and its “co-evel and co-savage companion,” hunt the whistle be consigned to children?

“..hot cockles, questions and commands, and the various modifications of forfeits, ..may do very well for such as are only two or three degrees removed infancy, either in age or intellect.”

The Repository of arts, literature, commerce, etc. by Rudolph Ackermann Ser.2,v.7(1819)

How very lowering!

The very thought of engaging in such games seemed to arouse intense disparagement. Particular contempt was reserved for those country cousins consigned to such silliness. The very nature of their holiday celebration was looked down upon by their sophisticated town relatives:

“..the thoughts of all your grotesque sports, Christmas gambols, mistletoe kissing, stupid rubbers, starched parties, and scandal manufactories, so operated in my mind… for me to take the chance of another season in town.”

-The Repository of arts, literature, commerce, etc. by Rudolph Ackermann, Vol II (1809)

“..a circle game in which players attempt to pass a slipper from one to another without being discovered by the player who is it.”

It wouldn’t be until the Victorian period that sentiment for gambols, extended festivals and decorations for Christmas would come into full-fledged favor. A flowering, if you will, of the Dickensian image we know and love today.

“A Christmas gambol oft could cheer–The poor man’s heart through half the year.”
Sir Walter Scott

 

 

A Haunted Regency Setting

In my neighborhood, the residents spend weeks in advance of Halloween erecting elaborate displays at great expense and effort to attract trick-or-treaters. Adjoining neighborhoods grumble that their simple pumpkins and baskets of candy are forsaken, year after year, for elaborate treat dispensing displays, adults in mid-century throwback costumes and a recreational vehicle converted into a walk-thru haunted house.

Setting is key.

Two years ago this blog posted a Halloween discourse on the Regency’s rising infatuation with the supernatural. As my last post playfully points out, the popularity of wild, haunted settings in works of early Romantic literature was largely responsible for this trend.

Sir Walter Scott was probably the first well-known writer to tap into the power the untamed, natural setting had on readers at the time:

“….the living I fear not, but I trifle not nor toy with my dead neighbours of the churchyard. I promise you, it requires a good heart to live so near it: worthy Master Holdforth..had a sore fright there the last time he came to visit me..”  — Kenilworth, Sir Walter Scott (1821)

Long before Kenilworth sparked the Regency’s penchant for ghost hunting, there was Scott’s Rokeby. By the time of its publication in 1813, the poet’s work was beginning to pale. The readers of the Regency saw it as an ill-disguised marketing ploy for English country house tourism. Nevertheless, Scott once again turned to setting for inspiration in a work that was highly anticipated, with the potential to topple even Childe Harold.

The titular name of Rokeby comes from a real country house once owned by Regency-era antiquarian J. B. S. Morritt, a particular friend to the Wizard of the North. His Rokeby Park was and remains a perfect gem of Palladian architecture.

Rokeby Park’s neighboring river, The Greta. Another noted Romantic, Coleridge, called it Loud Lamenter for the distinctive sound its waters make running over the rocks. Photo via RokebyPark.com

A dobie, or dobby, is said to walk the ravine of the Greta. Much like a brownie or fairy, this spirit is rooted to the place and yet capable of startling passersby. Some traditions say it is the ghost of a murdered heiress to the nearby peel tower of Mortham, an earlier residence of Rokeby’s builders.

“Others say it was a Lady Rokeby, the wife of the owner who was shot in the walks by robbers, but she certainly became a ghost and under the very poetic nom de guerre of Mortham Dobby, she appeared dressed as a fine lady with a piece of white silk trailing behind her, without a head indeed though no tradition states how she lost so material a member, but with many of its advantages for she had long hair on her shoulders and eyes nose and mouth in her breast.”

 

—  Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott: In Three Volumes, Volume 1’ John G. Lockhart

Morritt was understandably gratified by the poet’s determination to give his home such splendid notoriety, living as he did in the age of Romanticism. Perhaps he was less gratified  when he discovered Scott looked elsewhere to beef the thing up.

Old Littlecot Park as printed in Views of the Seats of Noblemen, vol. V — by John Neale (1820)

The contributing setting was Littlecote House in Wiltshire, as revealed in Scott’s notes to the fifth canto. Scott visited the Elizabethan house and was struck by a particular bedroom there, whose furnishings were done up in blue, much tattered and worn by the Regency. Its hangings in one place were marred by a hole deliberately made, and clumsily patched again with the cut-out material.

The reason for the patch concerned a midwife during the latter part of Elizabeth I’s reign. She was summoned late in the night (an appropriately stormy one in November), blindfolded, to a location unknown to her. Once her eyes were uncovered, she saw that the bedchamber she’d been brought to was clearly of some wealth and consequence. A masked man of terrifying aspect ordered her to minister to a woman in disguise, giving birth.

In a most horrific act, the man grabbed the newborn baby from the midwife. After several torturous attempts, he finally dispatched it in the room’s blazing fireplace.

Upon her return home, the midwife made a deposition before the local magistrate, ‘strongly agitated by the horrors of the preceding night.’ Blindfolded during departure, she was able to identify the mysterious house of murder by taking away a swatch of the bed hanging.

Such a small piece of setting served to damn a man already consigned to the devil.

He was “Black” Will Durrell, the owner of Littlecote, his activities devoted to amorous and litigious interests. He escaped the gallows by bribing the judge of his case. He couldn’t bribe justice, however. Again it was the story’s setting that served as the instrument of revenge.

Black Will’s own horse threw and killed him, spooked by the dead infant’s ghost.

Happy Halloween!

 

 

 

Regency Spoof – Night Mare Abbey

Halloween approaches and time to revisit the Gothic novel bookshelf.

“Women with great hair fleeing Gothic houses.”
via @PulpLibrarian

Examples of the genre on my shelf are mostly from the 1970s. Their covers feature almost identical elements, enhanced to a degree that seems a bit much these days. Perhaps that’s a reminder it’s all too easy to exaggerate what is meant to inspire mystery and a sense of danger.

One too many stormy nights and you risk bringing forth a giggle instead of a gasp.

Thomas Love Peacock (1785 – 1866), Regency-era novelist famous for satire, viewed the Gothic with benevolent amusement. He was a close friend of Percy Bysshe Shelley, that lion of the Romantic movement. Naturally Peacock spent a good deal of time in the poet’s circle, comprised of those heavily concerned with expressing over-wrought feelings and tortured obsessions.

Peacock wrote his 1818 Night Mare Abbey to spoof the efforts of his Romantic friends, albeit in the most amiable way. The story is not frightening in the least, so you can disregard suggestions from internet bots that it is one of the scariest stories of the nineteenth century.

Think of it as the comedic cousin of Northanger Abbey.

The abbey itself is a caricature of the Gothic setting. Servants are deliberately trained to absolute silence, with the most absurd results. Only the sound of the hall clock penetrates, the closing of a distant door resounding throughout the gloomy corridors as if it had been slammed. There is a ruined tower, clad with ivy that rustles in the wind, owls providing ‘the plaintive voices of feathered choristers’ and, of course, the sea pounding against the rocks below.

The Old House, prominent setting of the Gothic TV series Dark Shadows (a scrumptious Halloween treat for me) was the Colonnades, one of many Gilded Age mansions along the Hudson River that have since vanished.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not surprising, we have warnings of evil afoot, wrapped up in a clever commentary of society and its pleasures. The character Mr. Toobad (perhaps John Frank Newton–who advocated Shelley practice vegetarianism) expresses these while lamenting the goodness and simplicity of the past. Now we are in a time when good wrestles with evil:

“The devil has come among us and has begun by taking possession of all the cleverest fellows.”

Abbey also makes sport with the Gothic reader of Peacock’s day, manifested in Mr. Listless, a fashionable dandy who has a penchant for reading and re-enacting the genre. Like Sir Lumley Skeffington illustrated below, Listless can’t decide if he’s really into the metaphysical or just pretending to be. On the one hand, he solidly declares there’s no such thing as a ghost, and yet admits he’s apt to mistake his dressing-gown for one.

Sir Lumley Skeffington and his band of dandies, affecting melodramatic ‘wounds.’
Image – Wellcome Library no. 10767i

 

 

 

The most powerful element in the Gothic drama, the Byronic hero, receives a masterful treatment in Abbey. He is Scythrope, with an air of appropriately pervasive dissatisfaction. Other characters act as a foil for him, namely the vicar and Scythrope’s love, Marionetta, whose gaiety remains impervious to the melancholic setting and the moody behavior of the hero.

Scythrope’s struggle with deep and dark Disappointment manifests itself in a variety of ridiculous ways. He writes Byzantine essays on mystical subjects. He builds labyrinthine passages in the Abbey that would “defy even the most intrepid of Parisian police.” His un-heroic antics enhance his difficulties. His behavior borders on the anti-social.

Peacock’s spoof of the Gothic reminds his friends not to over-do it. Too much world-weary aloofness can become tedious. More importantly, don’t be Friday-faced. The pain of the past does not excuse unpleasant behavior nor rejection of your family, your friends. Misanthropy, he illustrates, springs from nothing particularly heroic, but from:

“..overweening and mortified vanity, quarreling with the world for not being better treated than it deserves.”

I guess that makes my tortured hero a self-absorbed narcissist.

*Comparisons have been drawn between Abbey and Shelley’s time spent on the Continent with two ladies in his train–Mary Godwin, his new wife, and Claire Clairmont, the comet that disturbs the newlyweds’ orbit. See a previous blog post here for a summary of this amusing junket.

All quotes are taken from the literary criticism of this work of Peacock, published in La Belle Assemblée, Vol. 17 & 18, Jan-Dec 1818.

Regency Era Servants – Details, Details Part 2

This post is a continuation of the previous one, concentrating on the character of Regency-era servants when working under duress. I think these details are quite illuminating.

The following anecdotes, unless otherwise noted, come from the letters of Lady Williams-Wynn, (Correspondence of Charlotte Grenville, Lady Williams Wynn; edited by Rachel Frances Marion Leighton, 1920 – my copy is from archive.org).

In 1820, her ladyship wrote in horrified tones to her daughter-in-law concerning the destruction of Wotton House. This fine Queen Anne mansion in Buckinghamshire was the ancestral home of the politically powerful Grenville family.

Built in the English Baroque style, with square apartments and high ceilings, Wotton’s design readily explains its destruction, although that circumstance was not apparent right away. A fire started in the room next to the nursery and soon flames were shooting straight up through the ceiling. Unfortunately, the copper roof confined the heat and flames to the attic, which ran the length of the mansion, and so the fire spread outwards from end to end of Wotton. The fire then traveled back down into the house by the only avenues of escape–the wooden staircases at either end and down the center of Wotton.

A fire that might have damaged one part of the house ended up burning the whole to the ground.

Wotton House, rebuilt by noted architect John Soane, neo-classical architect to the Regency
photo by By Mark Edwards, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia

Lady Williams-Wynn grew up at Wotton. She witnessed many poignant events there, including the untimely deaths of her parents.

“You will easily believe what a pang it has given me to think that all which was associated with my earliest and tenderest recollections should be wiped off from the face of the earth..”

— Lady W.W. to Fanny W.W. Nov. 5th, 1820

Wotton was the home of Lord Temple, son and heir to the duke of Buckingham and Chandos. He, along with his wife and baby daughter, Lady Anna, were in residence at the time of the fire. Their child was only nine months old, having been born earlier in the year in February. Lady W.W. expressed great astonishment that Lady Anna might have died in the fire but for the efforts of his lordship’s valet.

“We are all wonder at hearing from all sides of the peril of the poor Baby without one word being said of its Nurse..”

Imagine the chagrin of poor Nanny. Of all persons present in the house, she should have been the one to rescue her charge. Instead, the business had been left to the valet. One must wonder at Lady Temple’s domestic arrangements for the valet to be present at that particular moment in that part of the house (!)

Moseley, my favorite valet. He had other occupations as well, and now he returns to Downton Abbey to serve the King and Queen.
photo from fandom.com

Such a destructive fire bore investigation and Nanny provided an important clue. It was she, and not the valet, who was the first to see the smoke traveling across the wooden beams of the nursery ceiling. It was she, and not the valet, who picked up Baby and fled. I surmise she delivered her charge into the care of his lordship’s man in order to race back to the nursery to save irreplaceable mementos, such as the child’s christening gown.

Holding the Lady Anna in his arms, the valet could not refuse the hero’s mantle.

Several years earlier, in 1814,* Lady W.W. described the following incident concerning the eccentric daughter-in-law of fellow Whigs, Lord and Lady Melbourne. Apparently, this unfortunate occurrence was all the ton could talk about–the on-dit of that autumn.

The ‘wretched’ Lady Caroline Lamb, as Lady W.W. called her, was already a figure of scandal by the time this latest outrage occurred. Earlier in the year she’d embarked on a well-publicized affair with Lord Byron, having met him in that Whig stronghold, Holland House.

Lady Caroline Lamb by Phillips
She had a thing for pages.

After the affair ended, a surgeon was called to Lady Caroline’s house. One of her pages had suffered a serious injury. Apparently the lad refused to make proper obeisance to her ladyship and received a blow to the head. The offender insisted her instrument of correction was a broomstick and not the poker lying nearby.

In any case, all doubted the boy’s survival.

“It is certainly an extraordinary test of the good humour and kindness of Lord and Lady Melbourne to endure such an inmate, but it is said they do now profess they can bear it no longer.”

It appears Caro’s abusive behavior toward her servants, particularly her pages, was well-known among the ton. Her fellow novelist and confidante, Sydney, Lady Morgan recorded as much in her diary. Caroline did nothing to dispel this, admitting that when she and her page played with squibs, (little firecrackers shaped into balls), the horseplay was often quite boisterous.

On one occasion, the boy threw his squib in the fire. Scolding him, Lady Caroline threw hers at his head.

“It hit him on the temple, and he bled. He cried out, ‘O my Lady, you have killed me!’ Out of my senses, I flew into the hall and screamed, ‘Oh God, I have murdered the page!’ ”

Lady Morgan’s Memoirs: Autobiography, diaries and correspondence by Sydney, Lady Morgan, ed. W. H. Dixon

Vol II (1863)

“The Page Affair,” as Lady Caroline called it, is very well explained here. Some scholars believe these tales of abuse were really a metaphor to describe Caro’s relationship with Lord Byron–that the “pages,” hers and Byron’s, were their literary creations.

Lady W.W. was not impressed, but Lady Cork, famous for her salons and conversation, was.

“..she has persuaded the ton she is a second Lady Cork, to whose salons it is an honor to be invited..She sounds very disagreeable.”

She told Lady Morgan, perhaps teasingly, that she meant to send one of her own naughty pages to Lady Caroline to be reformed. She heard the Melbournes’ daughter-in-law was well-qualified in this regard:

“..’tis said she broke her page’s head with a teapot the other day.”

Loyal to dear Caro, Lady Morgan protested the whole thing was quite untrue–a Tory rumor.

Lady Cork didn’t care if the tale was true or not.

“..all pages are better for having their heads sometimes broken.”

 

*This letter describing the poker incident is undated. The editor placed it among the writer’s correspondence in the fall of 1814.

Regency Era Servants – Details, Details

There are many great blog posts out there detailing the life of a servant during the Regency era. Hopefully these anecdotal bits and pieces from the correspondence of Lady Williams Wynn (1754 – 1832) will be illuminating on the subject as well:

“Has Harriet told you of the accident which has prevented Sir Samuel Hood from taking his seat in the House or Hoisting his Flag? (!)”

Correspondence of Charlotte Grenville, Lady Williams Wynn, etc.. (1920)

Sir Samuel was the cousin of the more famous Admiral Hood. He commanded 74-gun ships of the line with great intrepidity during the Napoleonic wars. However, he was no match for his maid servant. She placed the warming pan in his bed whilst he occupied it. He rolled over and, well, ouch.

The naval hero was unable to stand or sit for three weeks, her ladyship tittered.

Gilray’s caricature of Sir Samuel Hood’s contest for one of the Westminster seats in the Commons. Along with Sheridan, he is pictured tossing the reform candidate, duelist James Paull, up in the air.

In January of 1808, Lady W.W.’s son was able reassure his mama he was present at the  the reception and dinner for Louis XVIII of France. This took place at Stowe House and given by the Earl Temple (later Marquess of Buckingham). In order not to be late, Henry arrived quite early, around mid-afternoon, only to find the exiled monarch was already on the front steps of the great house, a jam of carriages and people along the driveway.

He was bound to catch a scolding from Mama if he failed to represent the family.

Stowe House, via geograph.uk.org
© Copyright Kevin Gordon and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License

Henry’s post boy, acting with singular intelligence, drove the carriage around to the back door to avoid the crush. There his master was able to quickly sneak into the house and be part of the delegation when His Most Christian Majesty entered.

The post-boy couldn’t do a thing about the meal, however.

“The dinner, entre-nous (although there are four French cooks in the house) was the worst I ever saw put upon a table, and worst-served than anything I ever saw before.”

After Queen Charlotte’s death, there was a period of time when some of the King’s jewels in her possession went missing. The set, including the Garter, had been put away in a box and forgotten until someone needed that very container to pack up some other odds and ends belonging to the dead Queen.

The box was located in a window seat, the jewels inside.

It was lost for a bit.
Photo via Royal Collection Trust

Lady W. W. relates a similar incident to her eldest daughter, Fanny. Mrs. Ormsby-Gore, of an ancient Welsh aristocratic family, left her family’s country estate Porkington* to go up to London . She left her entire household behind with instructions to perform the various tasks that might otherwise be noisy and bothersome to her ladyship whilst at home.

One such project involved tuning the pianoforte. The tuner arrived but was obliged to break the lock on the pianoforte to perform his service.

“The first thing he beheld was Mrs. G’s full set of jewels, which in the presence of the Butler and Housekeeper he sealed up and delivered to their care.”

Lady W.W.’s ‘Stowe Junket’ story reveals the exhausting labor of servants during large gatherings. The one she relates to her son also took place at Stowe, for her nephew was the Duke of Buckingham. He had invited all the extended family and friends to the christening of his grandson, the ‘Young Hero,’ destined to be the last Duke of Buckingham.

Not even illness could prevent her ladyship’s other son from attending, having gotten permission from his doctor, Sir Henry Halford.

Even Apphia, Lady Lyttleton (see her diamond earrings here) was present, although:

“…why or wherefore nobody knows or could make out, excepting the Duke and Duchess’ having met her in Malvern and having been in her society in the first moment of Ebulletion (ebullience?) on hearing of the birth of the boy.”

A hundred guests were in attendance. Ladies were quartered in the bachelor gallery, men in the Duke’s various houses around Buckinghamshire. Her ladyship records her compliments to Stowe’s old housekeeper, Mrs. Nicholson. This lady, beaming, boasted she gave the maids 190 pairs of sheets to prepare all the beds.

The servants apparently got little sleep. The Duke told her ladyship that ‘not one had their clothes off from Monday to Saturday.’

“I’m the perfect servant–I have no life.”
Mrs. Wilson, housekeeper in the Edwardian country house mystery, Gosford Park

*Later known as Brogynton Hall, the house had been in the family of Ormsby-Gore since the 17th century until they abandoned it in 1985 due to death taxes and the like. Called the House of Tears, it has witnessed an eerie succession of deaths to the occupants.  Pictures of the house can be found here, including the round music room (now demolished) that probably contained the pianoforte.