Standard-Bearer to the Regency, Part Three

Sarah Sophia Child Villiers had birth, wealth, connections and the foresight to choose Lord Jersey for her husband. These were all necessary to become the Standard-Bearer to the Regency. Getting the ton to acknowledge her as Queen Sarah was another matter.

For the moment, everyone was calling her Silence.

Excessive volubility, at first blush, might be a drawback. Sarah Sophia talked, and quite a lot. Henrietta Ponsonby, Countess of Bessborough (Lady B, as I’ve been calling her in this series of posts) noticed this emerging tendency soon after Lady Jersey married.

Your Sally, she wrote Granville, talks a great deal.

On further examination, Lady B wasn’t just referring to the quantity of Sarah Sophia’s conversation, but how she deliberately talked over others. She often interrupted, monopolizing all the attention. She dominated conversation to assert her authority and emphasize her importance.

When the queen is talking, people shall listen.

Two of the Duke of Bedford’s Sons and Miss Vernon acting out ‘Saint George and the Dragon.’ This large portrait by Reynolds was apparently destroyed in transit from Osterley, which the Earl of Jersey had just vacated in favor of the National Trust. Photo via National Trust Collections.

She also spoke with relentless purpose. She talked a rival banker into giving her a massive Reynolds portrait of the young Duke of Bedford. The painting appraised for double the value of what it originally sold for, but her persistent cajolery drove its owner to give it up for nothing.

Lady B was so sick of hearing about Sarah Sophia’s financial triumph she could scream:

“I do not know how it is, but I always find, when I have not seen your Sally for some time, that she tries me, she talks so much, and often, I think, so foolishly, and she has a way of exclaiming goodness, me! every minute that wearies me.”
Lord Granville Leveson Gower, first Earl Granville: private correspondence, 1781 – 1821

As time went on, this so-called foolish talk became more and more imperious. Sarah Sophia was not merely prattling, expecting little or no response. You couldn’t ignore her or let your mind wander while she was talking. And she still had the habit of making demands on people’s services, if not their possessions. Whether she meant to or not, she commanded others’ compliance, proving the authority she sought to achieve.

Sarah Sophia thought nothing of setting Lady B to the task of translating a French recipe for partridges in cabbage. The following demonstration shows how to prepare this Regency-era dish, including a method for wringing the bird’s neck.

Lady B’s niece also recorded her observations.* Harriet “Harry-O” Cavendish married Granville, an awkward business given he was her aunt’s former lover. As the wife of a diplomat, she often saw the Jerseys while abroad, especially in Paris. She agreed with her aunt–Sarah Sophia talked as if she was ‘a watch after the mainspring has broken.’ But particularly striking was the frenetic pace Lady Jersey set about conquering Parisian society.

Harry-O felt sorry for Lord Jersey.

George Villiers, 5th Earl of Jersey was a well-connected Tory closely aligned with the Crown. His twin passions were hunting and racing. He was an agreeable man and not insensible to the great amount of money his wife spent to restore his country estate Middleton Park and its vast stables. When his countess beckoned, he hastened to her side and remained there as long as she required, whether it be for the London Season or junkets abroad.

If Sarah Sophia was the Standard-Bearer to the Regency, Lord Jersey was her squire.

George Child-Villiers, 5th Earl Jersey — “..not only one of the hardest, boldest, and most judicious, but perhaps the most elegant rider to hounds the world ever saw’. — Crack Riders of England
Photo via National Portrait Gallery

Every year, Sarah Sophia pushed them both through a brutal schedule of social activities. She was seen everywhere and all the time, becoming a fixture at the most exclusive gatherings of the ton. Thomas Moore, that Regency era poet of wine and love, told of the dread the Jerseys’ porter in Berkeley Square suffered as the London Season approached. Sarah Sophia, being a lady of fashion, was expected to come home late at night (translate – early in the morning).

The problem was Lord Jersey.

“..’ My lord is the earliest gentleman in London, and between the two I get no sleep at all.’ ”
— Anecdotes, Bon-mots, and Epigrams, from the Journal of Thomas Moore, ed Wilmot Harrison, (1899)

Sarah Sophia’s efforts were rewarded when she became Patroness of the exclusive social club Almack’s. But her rising authority over the ton was bound to be tested. Lady B’s daughter published an infamous novel Glenarvon, attacking Sarah Sophia’s well-known imperious and talkative temperament. Caro’s caricature Lady Augusta was an instrument of torture in the hands the villain Lord Glenarvon, tormenting and oppressing the heroine, his former lover Calantha.

This would not be the first time Sarah Sophia’s mannerisms and character traits found their way into literature, a subject that will be discussed in a later post. The point here is how she dealt with the unflattering portrait made of her. She bore down on said portrait, becoming more Lady Augusta than Lady Augusta. Life imitating art.

“God forgive you, but I never can.” Elizabeth I

Behind closed doors, Sarah Sophia refused to speak to Lady B’s daughter, even when she was a house guest (as she often was) at the Bessborough country estate in Roehampton. She paid little heed to the strained atmosphere that resulted nor did she quake at Lord Bessborough’s extreme annoyance.  In public, she barred Caro from Almack’s. Some said this act only gave credence to the libel. Sarah Sophia paid no heed.

She had no problem calling down the thunder.

Can’t see Sarah Sophia barring the charming Freddy Standen. I rather fancy Tom Hiddleston as the hero of Georgette Heyer’s Cotillion.

By 1819, Sarah Sophia had made a powerful impression on Regency society, perhaps more than any other woman of the day, judging from the wealth of contemporary observations of her (and they are far too numerous to mention here.) Of her demeanor, Charles Greville summed it up best:

“..(Lady Jersey) is deficient in passion and in softness (which constitute the greatest charm in women) so that she excites more of admiration than of interest..”
the Greville Memoirs, Charles C.F. Greville, Esq (1875)

She wasn’t the sentimental, tragic heroine poets praised, nor was she the staid matron content with a supporting role to her lord and husband. She was Queen Sarah, and she wasn’t done yet.

* See Letters of Harriet, Countess Granville, 1810 – 1845; ed. by her son, the Hon. F. Leveson Gower, (1894)

 

The Salon of Nature – Kenwood House

Sometimes one must get away from the salons of London’s great houses.  Elegant Lansdowne with her sculpture and paintings.  The convivial meals at Holland House.  Even the bohemian conversation at No. 10 St. James.  Let us repair to the country just outside the metropolis and follow in the footsteps of Constable and Coleridge.  To the northern end of Hampstead Heath and a creation in the highest order of Palladian design.  To Kenwood House, I say.

They called it Caen Wood in the old days.  Caen from an old Norman town, the place where the Conqueror’s body rests, if in a somewhat scattered state by tomb raiders.  Wood from that part of the old county of Middlesex, a “very wild and darlking region.”

Kenwood was close to London but remained as it was when it was buiilt, protected from urban expansion and development by the uneven terrain of Hampstead Heath. A nearby hill was called Highgate:

“The old green of Highgate yet boasts its old buildings, it old elm and lime-tree avenue, and has an air of quiet and of the past.  Around stretch fields, and hills, and glades that possess an eminent beauty, which on Sundays and holidays suddenly make the Londoner think himself a countryman, and almost poetical.” — The northern hieghts of London:  or Historical associations of Hampstead, Highgate, etc. Howitt, 1869

Purchased by Baron Mansfield in 1754, Kenwood House was remodelled by Robert Adam, and contains one of the finest libraries that master artist had ever designed.   It was a fitting residence for the baron, even more so when he was raised to an earldom in 1776.

Robert Adam library at Kenwood House

In that year, his nephew married the third of seven daughters sired by Lord Cathcart (try saying that nine times).  Louisa (1758 – 1843) would soon be in a position to do a service for the earl.

His lordship had it in his mind to bequeath Kenwood and his earldom to David, but at the time there was a strong aversion to passing an English peerage to a Scot.   Thus, the earldom of Mansfield seemed destined to end.

Happily, Lord Mansfield was Chief Justice of the King’s Bench and a rather clever lawyer.  The earl cast his eye over his nephew’s pretty wife.  No Scot was she.  So he devised a special remainder to his own title so that it could pass to her upon his death and save the earldom for the family.

Louisa became a countess in her own right.

But her real value lay in being hostess at Kenwood, happy to receive the weary tourist to Hampstead Heath.  She was also a Patroness of Almack’s, hostess to the weary debutante.

Altogether Her Ladyship was a rather accomodating person.

A Bastard in Lansdowne House

Henry Luttrell (1765 – 1851) was the illegitimate son of the earl of Carhampton.  As if that were not bad enough, he had little funds and showed even less promise as an Irish politician.  But in Lansdowne House “he set the table at a roar” and became the “great London wit,” as Sir Walter Scott dubbed him, of the Regency.

Sketch by Count d'Orsay, French amateur artist and dandy

“I know of no more agreeable member of society than Mr. Luttrell.  His conversation, like a limpid stream, flows smoothly and brightly along, revealing the depths beneath the surface, now sparkling over the object it discloses or reflecting those by which it glides.  He never talks for talk’s sake.  The conversation of Mr. Luttrell makes me think, while that of many others only amuses me.”  — Lady Blessington

“Full of well-bred facetiousness and a sparkle of the first water.”  — Tom Moore

“He delighted in society and was the delight of it.”  —  R. R. Madden

“The best sayer of good things, and the most epigrammatic conversationist I ever met.” — Byron

His poetry was equally admired.  His Advice to Julia (1820) was more than just “Letters of a Dandy to a Dolly,” this poem made him a “wit among lords and a lord among wits.”  It also contained some rather good advice to a young lady and how she should treat her lover, couched in a popular discourse on fashionable society during the Regency.   In one amusing anecdote, Luttrell tells of a hopeful applicant to Almack’s.  Evidently the young lady, “a stranger to London” sent her portrait to the Patronesses, along with a letter requesting a subscription.

“But Beauty itself is seldom current in high life without the stamp of Fashion; and the device, though ingenious, was not successful.”

Sadly, no one remembers Luttrell, unless one comes across his name, which one frequently does, in the memoirs of Byron, the diaries of Moore and echoed in the halls of Lansdowne House.