Standard-Bearer to the Regency – Part Five

This is the final installment of a series examining the personality of Sarah Sophia Villiers, Countess of Jersey. For two centuries she has played a role in late Georgian-themed literature–a remarkable testament to her character’s powerful influence. Writers rely upon her time and again to establish a challenging setting for their plots because she is the symbol of an immovable, rigid society of unbending rules and top-of-the-trees elites.

To repeat: Sarah Sophia was–and still is–the Standard-Bearer to the Regency.

“The devil himself was not more handsome or seductive than this man who called himself Glenarvon. From the moment she met him, Calantha knew she was damned..” –from the back cover

As described in a previous post, Sarah Sophia makes her most significant appearance in the first of many works: Glenarvon (1816). Among the members of the Regency ton, there were plenty of society figures who possessed a penchant for talking excessively and interrupting ongoing conversations, or an obsession with secrets and frenetic socializing. As Lady Holland wrote to Mrs. Creevey1, the libel lay in the way such traits were so cleverly packaged. Future authors would emulate this unique method of characterization.

Lord Worth chides her: “Don’t talk, Sally, you interrupt Miss Crewe.”

Like the intrepid fox-hunting Corinthian in a Heyer romance, Caro showed us all the way.

Sarah Sophia, in the guise of Lady Augusta, deplores Glenarvon’s cruel seduction and expresses sympathy for Calantha, “dying alone, upbraided, despised and deserted.” She recognizes injustice done to another woman but does nothing about it.

It is a virulent portrait of an unfeeling creature, very like contemporary diarist Charles Greville’s2 description of Sarah Sophia–devoid of feminine softness.

“I am like a deer, and ever fly with the herd; there is no excuse..ever, for those who are wounded and bleeding and trodden upon.” — Lady Augusta Selwyn, Glenarvon

When Sarah Sophia was about sixty years of age, she made another appearance in literature, this time as Lady St Julians in Benjamin Disraeli’s Coningsby and Sybil.  Both works reflect the author’s dissatisfaction with established political parties, where members exist only to serve their own interests and not the people they represent.

Lady St. Julians is a creature of the system, ignoring the principle of the thing in favor of her family’s interests, constantly maintaining a network to promote them:

“..she made it a rule to go everywhere and visit everybody, provided they had power, wealth and fashion…” — Coningsby (1844)

Her efforts to influence Conservative politics reflect Sarah Sophia’s, and not in a complimentary way:

 “…driving distractedly about town, calling at clubs, closeted with red tapers*, making ingenuous combinations that would not work, by means of which some of her sons was to stand in coalition with some great parvenu, to pay none of the expenses, and yet come in first.” — Sybil (1845)

” ‘Oh, goodness me! Don’t, I implore you, give her vouchers for Almack’s. ..she presents such a very off-appearance, doesn’t she? ..she looks stupid. I’m persuaded she’s not awake upon any suit!’ “

Thirteen years after her death, Disraeli gave Sarah Sophia immortality as Zenobia in his  Endymion (1880). For all his fascination for her, his published correspondence rarely mentions Lady Jersey, apart from seeing her ablaze with jewels at Queen Victoria’s coronation, and observing her husband’s (bless him) flood of tears when their eldest son married Prime Minister Peel’s daughter.3

 Some have said Zenobia is a composite portrait of Disraeli’s Whig patronesses.4 This is unlikely given his masterful rendition of Lady Jersey’s political efforts–they are hers almost to the life. When Endymion’s Whigs are in the ascendant, Zenobia gnashes her teeth. And when the Whig government resigns, Zenobia triumphs.

Sarah Sophia’s every idiosyncrasy is recalled with exactitude:

“..to listen, among her many talents, was also her rarest…she liked flattery, and always said she did..she liked handsome people, and even handsome women, and persons who were dressed beautifully.. she never liked her male friends to marry..and it was her habit to impress upon her noble fellows of both sexes that there were relations of intimacy between herself and the royal houses of Europe, which were not shared by her class.” — Endymion (1880)

Georgette Heyer resurrected Sarah Sophia to become a powerful utility character in many a Regency romance novel. As Caro did in Glenarvon, Heyer makes Lady Jersey a source of external conflict (society’s strictures) for intrepid heroines to overcome. She is also a tool manipulated by Heyer’s heroes, frequently men she adores, to steer other characters into position for season after season of excellent plot maneuvers.

“Hero would have been astonished, and indeed indignant, had she been aware that she was the object of Lady Jersey’s sympathy.”

Beloved Cotillion mentions the queen of society only in passing, but a chance remark Sarah Sophia makes ‘off-camera’ is telling, putting a very special hero to the blush. Freddy’s sister Meg may proclaim him the best dancer in all London, but for Lady Jersey to add her tribute warrants an exquisite “By Jove!” from him.

In Arabella, Lady Jersey fans the flames of internal conflict. “Vivacious, restless and scintillating,” Sarah Sophia enjoys the hero’s company, rousing jealousy in the breast of a heroine who has just rejected the hero’s marriage proposal out of hand.

One last observation of her character, before we leave her, comes from Henry Edward Fox, son of the aforementioned Lady Holland, appearing in a previous installment of this series. Of all the writers who have described Sarah Sophia, whether in fact or fiction, he is the most eloquent. He gives us the real woman, with all her faults, by the very reason he deeply admired her:

Dined tête-à-tête with Lady Jersey, whose wonderful garrulity does not bore me. I have such an affection for her and feel such perfect confidence in her sincerity that I like what many people cannot endure.” June 30, 1823

The Journal of Henry Edward Fox 1818 – 1830

“Lady Buxted remembered impertinent little Sally Fane, a wretched schoolroom miss to whom she had administered a number of well-deserved setdowns..”

 

*red Toryism – conservative with a small (c)

1 The Creevey Papers Vol I by Thomas Creevey (1904) Sarah Sophia’s Whig rival uses the term amplisagge to describe Caro’s clever rendering.

2 The Greville Memoirs, Charles C.F. Greville, Esq (1875)

3 Lord Beaconsfield’s correspondence with his sister, 1832-1852 by Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881); edited by Ralph Disraeli

4“Endymion, A Review,” Tullidge’s Quarterly, by Edward Tullidge, editor (1881). Tullidge was a Mormon who emigrated from England to Utah. He wrote extensively on a variety of topics and ran several magazines. Known as the Mormon feminist historian, it is ironic that his widow was said to have died penniless from his bankruptcy, her body found on the cold ground with scarcely a blanket to cover her.

Standard Bearer to the Regency – Part Four

Sarah Sophia Child Villiers, Countess of Jersey, achieved everything she set out to do as a young woman. She married the Earl of Jersey in her own drawing room. She gave him an heir and a spare, besides three beautiful girls.

She convinced most of Regency-era society she was their de facto ruler.

Portrait of Sarah Sophia’s daughters via National Galleries of Scotland: Frederica (later Princess Esterhazy), Adela (eloped with her own ‘Mr. Wickham’) and Clementina (her face appeared in all the era’s Books of Beauty)

The streak of restlessness in her character did not subside as she headed into matronhood, nor her powerful motivation to lead. These traits found an outlet in politics–an activity to promote her deeply held Tory principles. Many criticized her for being headstrong, imperious and meddling. Such hurly-burly behavior was unbecoming in a female of rank.

I wager being a Tory wasn’t the problem. Being female was.

To supplement her husband’s modest political activities,* Sarah Sophia put on lavish parties. Her townhouse was filled to the brim for the triumphant celebration she put on after the (practical) nullification of the Marriage Act of 1754. Prominent Whig hostess Lady Holland bemoaned the fact her Tory rival’s gatherings were better attended than her own, by members of both parties.+

It seems the atmosphere in Berkeley Square was more relaxed than Holland House in Kensington. At No. 38, observers noted how even foreign diplomats, like the great Talleyrand, freely discussed policies that might otherwise be too sensitive to bandy about at a party.++

Gossip had it that Sarah Sophia did some of her politicking in other men’s arms.

Much of this speculation rests on an often cited misquote of a remark made by, oddly enough, Lord Jersey himself. When challenged to a duel, he refused to defend his wife’s honor.+++  Somehow the purpose for the challenge got lost in the translation. Sarah Sophia’s husband might fight a duel over sex, but not over vouchers to Almack’s.

“Lord Jersey replied in a very dignified manner, saying that if all persons who did not receive tickets from his wife were to call him to account for want of courtesy on her part, he should have to make up his mind to become a target for young officers, and he therefore declined the honor of a proposed meeting.”– Captain Gronow, by R. H. Gronow, 1794-1865

Mild-mannered Lord Jersey appears to have held Sarah Sophia’s affections throughout their long (55 year) marriage.

Marble bust of George Child-Villiers, 5th Earl of Jersey by Nollekens — photo via UK Government Art Collection — “Looking in great beauty” —Lady Bessborough observed.  I, too, am a fangirl.

In any event, one has to think Sarah Sophia’s forceful, talkative nature would have made it difficult for her to execute political maneuvers in such an intimate setting as the bedroom.

The strategy she did employ had a much better chance of success. It was far more efficient to carry the war straight to the combatants since she already attended a staggering round of social events. Of course, it put people in a bustle if one discussed politics at routs, turtle breakfasts, balls and so forth. Very bad ton.

Yet Sarah Sophia managed to carry the thing off.

Lady Holland’s son Henry Edward Fox recorded a wealth of society’s doings at this time, including Lady Jersey’s. To the vexation of his Whig parents, he greatly admired the leading Tory hostess, albeit with some qualifications:

‘There is no fine lady I love so much; she never tells what is not true yet talks more than anybody in England.’
–The Journal of Henry Edward Fox 1818 – 1830, by Baron Henry Edward Vassall Fox (1923)

Those aborted attempts to discourage her are among his best anecdotes.

One in particular blew up in a duke’s face. His Grace of Devonshire planned a Whig celebration for newly crowned George IV and was well aware the Countess of Jersey expected to attend. The problem arose when she came out in strong support of Queen Caroline, the estranged wife of the new king. The duke suddenly ‘took fright’ and against Lord Jersey’s advice, tried to rescind the invitation.

Sarah Sophia vowed to go anyway–if only because His Grace didn’t want her there.

After proceedings in the House of Lords, the gallery spectators were permitted to descend to the floor and mingle. Queen Sarah’s place was (naturally) on the throne steps, where she could easily listen in on post-debate conversations. Other ladies inhabited the throne area as well, but it was Lady Jersey’s presence that some men found objectionable. On one occasion Lord Anglesley loudly warned those nearby to avoid talking politics around her because she might carry tales to the newspapers.

Anglesley apologized but the incident shows Sarah Sophia knew enough to be dangerous.

It didn’t help that Anglesley left Sarah Sophia’s sister-in-law for another woman (landing him in the basket not only with Sarah Sophia but Wellington as well). Lady Caroline Villiers (pictured here with her eldest son) later married the Duke of Argyll, a union that moved her to declare she never knew marriage could be so blissful. Portrait by Hoppner, via National Trust

Another diarist of the time, Henry Greville, thought Sarah Sophia a self-delusional know-it-all:

“Lady Jersey affects to be entirely in the Duke (of Wellington’s) confidence. She said to Lord Granville at Madame de Lieven’s the other night that ‘she made it a rule never to talk to the Duke about affairs in public.” ..I doubt whether he tells her much of anything.”
— Leaves from the Diary of Henry Greville, edited by Viscountess Enfield (1883)

Greville preferred Mrs. Arbuthnot, her cousin and a close confidant of the rising political star Lord Wellington. Of all the Fane women, she got the lion’s share of discretion and good sense, in his opinion. He admired how calm she remained in times of crisis. In Sarah Sophia’s defense, anyone with sense would be upset if Wellington were to die in a stupid duel. Not only would that destroy the Tory government, it would throw the country into economic and political turmoil.

Sarah Sophia was among the first to hear the Duke of Cumberland tried to assault Lady Lyndhurst in her own house. She mentioned it to Greville. Perhaps she already knew what a dreadful gossip he was (Queen Victoria tried to sensor his diary). As expected, he set about discovering all the salacious details of His Highness’ bad behavior. These he took care to share with others, while making sure Lady Jersey would be the last he informed. Suddenly and without warning he found himself in hot water, having to explain why he was spreading slanderous gossip concerning the brother of the King!

Oops.

Bust, marble, of a Lady (probably Sarah Sophia Child-Villiers, Countess of Jersey), by William Behnes, English, signed and dated 1827 — photo via the V&A Collection

It seems Sarah Sophia put Regency-era correspondent and Lord Brougham supporter Thomas Creevey in a quake. Why else would he be paranoid about committing to paper his candid impressions of her?

“Shall I tell you what Lady Jersey is like? She is like one of her many gold and silver musical dickey birds..On the merits of her songs I shall say nothing until we meet.”
–The Creevey Papers Vol II, by Thomas Creevey (1904)

He grew bolder in a subsequent letter, expressing great satisfaction over the clever way Lady Brougham gave Sarah Sophia a smart set-down. To paraphrase: No, her ladyship told Lady Jersey, my husband cannot attend your party in Berkeley Square to meet Prince d’Arenberg. He is attending Lady King’s dinner with me,and I NEVER go anywhere without him!

Both Creevey and Lady Brougham had to eat crow. The evening of Lady King’s dinner, the Brougham carriage arrived–minus Lord Brougham. It was an awkward business for his wife:

“..she made Lord Brougham’s apologies to Lady King for his unavoidable absence on account of business.”

Sarah Sophia’s dust-up with Lady Brougham was mild compared to the epic battles she waged against Lord Brougham. Simply put, he was a great advocate for reform and she decidedly was not. Creevey disapproved, and not just because he was a supporter of his lordship. He deplored the way Lady Jersey gave the vulgar press fodder by interfering in men’s affairs, particularly because such conduct gave females unnatural ideas.

Sarah Sophia may have been on the wrong side of history, but she was on the right side of the war between the sexes. She didn’t let gender stop her from advocating what she thought was right. Creevey remain unimpressed.

Sarah Sophia, he declared, was ‘going to the devil as fast as she can.’

“What I hate more than anything is a liar, a charlatan, someone who doesn’t believe in what they say.”  —–  Lucifer Morningstar (aka the Devil) via Netflix

 

 

*George Villiers, 5th Earl of Jersey did hold important Tory offices throughout his adult life. It is telling, however, that he was content with whatever scraps remained after the other peers fought over appointments in the new King George IV’s household.

+ The Creevey Papers Vol II, by Thomas Creevey (1904)

++The Journal of Henry Edward Fox 1818 – 1830, by Baron Henry Edward Vassall Fox (1923)

+++ The award-winning biography Palmerston, by Jasper Ridley (2008)

 

 

 

“The Hostess from Hell” – Holland House Part Two

Elizabeth Fox, Baroness Holland, was the daughter of a Jamaican planter.  Married off to Lord Webster, a man twenty years her senior, she gave birth to three children before falling in love with another man, bearing him a child out-of-wedlock.  Not two days divorced, she married her lover Lord Holland.

Lady Holland with her son – Louis Gauffier

The ton could not forget her scandalous past and so declined to receive her.  No matter, Lord and Lady Holland did their own receiving, hosting the most influential men of the day at Holland House.  The few women who came were fellow Whigs, the Duchess of Devonshire and that fashionable marchioness from Berkeley Square, Lady Lansdowne.

Baroness Holland was the complete opposite of her husband.  She was gruff where he was affable, imperious when he would give way.  Long, boring discourse was not tolerated at her table–her ladyship was known to dispatch her footman to admonish the offending guest.

Thomas Moore, which this blog christened Regency Poet of Wine and Love, once said, “poets inclined to a plethora of vanity would find a dose of Lady Holland now and then very good for their complaint.”

“I’m sorry you are going to publish a poem,” she said to Lord Portchester.  “Can’t you suppress it?”

And to the great English poet, Samuel Rogers, she advised, “You’re poetry is bad enough, so pray be sparing about your prose.”

Lady Holland reminds me of the Gosford Park character Constance, Countess of Trentham.  There is something sinfully joyous about her acidic observations.  This one she offers to the American film and radio star Ivor Novello:

LadyTrentham: It must be hard to know when it’s time to throw in the towel… What a pity about that last one of yours… what was it called? “The Dodger”? Novello:   The Lodger. LadyTrentham:   The Lodger. It must be so disappointing when something just flops like that.

Lady Holland lived to the age of seventy-four.  When tentatively shown Byron’s memoirs, which were none too complimentary of his hostess at Holland House, she shrugged.

“Such things give me no uneasiness; I know perfectly my station in the world, and I know all that can be said of me.  As long as the few friends I am really sure of speak kindly of me, all that the rest of the world can say is a matter of complete indifference to me.”