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)

 

Standard-Bearer to the Regency – Part Two

Sarah Sophia Child Villiers, Countess of Jersey (1785 – 1867) was still young Lady Sarah Fane when the character we recognize from Regency-era history and fiction began to emerge. Part one of this series illustrates a singularly independent female still in her minority, chaperoned by a step-mother only nominally in charge. Add a good dose of guile and the future Patroness of Almack’s becomes even more recognizable.

Especially when she bamboozled even the most sophisticated of society matrons.

Angelica Kauffman’s 1774 portrait of the Spencer girls, Georgiana and Henrietta, along with their brother George, Viscount Althorp.

The matron in question was the Countess of Bessborough, formerly Henrietta Spencer and long-time lover of Lord Granville. She was more than encouraging when his lordship set his sights on Sarah Sophia. No doubt thinking the heiress to the Child banking fortune was all but his, Lady B left Granville to wind up the business while she enjoyed Paris and the fruits of a temporary peace between Napoleon and the allied powers. A pity Granville was still at it when the Treaty of Amiens broke down.

Lady B’s return made his laborious courtship a dashed awkward business.

His mother was fond of her son’s lover as she was of fashion. She certainly appreciated Lady B’s gift of a pelisse in the latest French mode. Yet one senses from Lady Stafford’s correspondence that she wished his paramour had stayed the hell in Paris. She cautioned Granville that tongues were wagging:

“Opportunities are taken to remind Lady S. F. (Sarah Sophia) of Lord G’s (Granville’s) attachment to that Person.” *

Private Correspondence, 1781 to 1821, by Granville Leveson Gower, Earl of Granville, et al; edited by Countess Castalia Rosalind Campbell Leveson-Gower (1916)

 

French silk pelisse, 1815 – via the Metropolitan Museum of Art

A woman of the world, Lady Bessborough dismissed such fears. Sarah Sophia was just out of the schoolroom and surely in awe of such a sophisticated, eligible suitor. If she knew about his liaisons, the gel would have been advised they need not concern her. Indeed, a young and inexperienced mind could not be expected to understand how two persons outside of marriage can share so much intellectually as well as physically.

Besides, such arrangements were part of life in the ton.

Still, Lady B refrained from openly hanging onto Granville’s sleeve. She kept herself busy wrangling with her former lover Sheridan while lending a soothing ear to the Prince of Wales’ complaints, nursing her sick sister Georgiana and giving advice on the best way to invade France to whoever would listen.

Her daughter Caro, also a debutante, kept her informed of Granville’s progress:

” ‘ I never saw anything so coquettish as Lady S. F.’s manner toward Lord G. Wednesday night. She never took her eyes off him, and I am sure saw nothing that was going on. He seem’d either angry or sorrowful, I do not know which.’ “

Lady B’s sister added her own observations. The Duchess of Devonshire thought Sarah Sophia’s conduct scarcely becoming in a prospective bride for Granville. Her use of the old French term agace (to irritate — like a magpie) to describe the chit amused Lady B. She told Granville she didn’t wonder your Sally irritated him. Naive, silly girls often employ this kind of tactic to hide their true attachment.

Sarah Sophia adores you even if she is acting like a little magpie.

Granville was “inclined to despond,” as he informed his mama. But hope continued to spring anew whenever Sarah Sophia showered him with fresh encouragement. Lady Stafford echoed Lady B’s praises in a letter that put priority on his efforts right up there with Russia’s neutrality toward Napoleon and the newly published Montague’s Life and Letters.

Sarah Villiers, Countess of Jersey — drawing by H.T Ryall after the painting by E.T Parris

Sarah Sophia promised to announce her choice upon attaining her majority. When that time came, Granville had just emerged from mourning for his late father and was on the short list for an ambassadorship to Russia. Villiers, as it turned out, won the day. It seemed an anticlimactic conclusion to a contested courtship. Granville’s correspondence gives no hint as to why Sarah Sophia chose the Earl of Jersey’s son over him.

Perhaps she had little liking for the foreign service.

The truth came out a year later when Villiers’ father, Lord Jersey died. Lady Bessborough went to pay her condolences to the dowager countess, the former flame of the Prince Regent. Whether from an agitation of the mind or pure spite, Sarah Sophia’s mother-in-law made a surprising admission. Lord Granville’s pursuit of Sarah Sophia was in vain right from the start. All that time he courted her, the heiress and Villiers were secretly planning their wedding.

Lady Bessborough wrote to Granville:

“..how could she walk and talk with you as she did, and assure you she was free, if this was the case?”

Was Sarah Sophia a coquette as Caro claimed, coveting men’s admiration even when her own feelings were engaged elsewhere? Or was this dissembling over her true marital intentions an early attempt at manipulating others? Sarah Sophia perhaps discovered that guile, combined with independence, might come in handy someday.

A tool of manipulation for the future arbiter of Regency society.

Elizabeth I never intended to marry, conducting an elaborate pretense to the contrary for many years.

* all quotes taken from the above-referenced correspondence of Lord Granville

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.

 

 

 

Holland House – A Rival to Lansdowne House (part one)

Its turrets and gables lacked the elegance of London’s newer, Palladian town homes.  Its “relics and curios” were dusty books and historic English papers.  Its location was staid Kensington, not fashionable Mayfair.  Its mistress was not even received at court.  But this Regency seat of influence was nontheless a formidable rival to glittering Lansdowne House:

Holland House

Yet great things were done at Holland House–reforms planned and accomplished, literary lions fed with appreciation and encouragement.  All the great names of that period may be found on the lists of the Holland House entertainments.

—  Charles Dickens, “Holland House,” All the Year Round, A Weekly Journal, Vol. 66, 1890

With the Regency barely on the horizon, the house was known as Cope Castle and practically a ruin when it came into the possession of Lord Henry Richard Fox, third Baron Holland.  He was a mere baby and presumably not ready to take on any renovations even though the house had an illustrious history.  Its best days, it seemed, were behind it.

Those days began when Queen Elizabeth I granted a part of Kensington Manor to one Walter Cope–that part that once belonged to the Abbot of Abingdon–and built a multi-turreted Jacobean mansion that others mockingly called Cope’s Castle.  The Renaissance had penetrated English architecture by the time of its construction in 1607 but classical features like columns, arcades, parapets and the like were applied in a more freeform style rather than with any strict order that characterized the later Palladian movement.  Cope Castle, unlike Lansdowne House, was more like a free spirit.

the haunted Gilt Room

Cope’s daughter inherited the house and it became greatly enlarged upon her union with the Rich family, also grown wealthy on confiscated church property when its patriarch had prosecuted Sir Thomas More on Henry VIII’s behalf.  Her husband was Henry Rich, Earl of Holland, from whom the house takes its present name.   He negotiated the marriage of Henrietta Maria to Charles I and built the house’s famous gilt-room in expectation of entertaining the new Queen there.  This did not come to pass, nor was the Earl to survive the coming storm.  His ghost was said to be seen in that very room, richly dressed as he had been on the scaffold, holding his head in his hands.

After the Restoration of Charles II, the house was sold to Henry Fox, whose sire had the distinction of fathering this first of three sons at the age of seventy-three.  Fox eloped with one of the famous Lennox sisters and it was his grandson, also named Henry, third Baron Holland, who made Holland House a rival in Regency gatherings, as we shall soon see.  Today, Holland House is a ruin, destroyed by a fire-bomb in World War II.

Holland House library – World War II