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.
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.
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.
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!
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.’
*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)