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 Real Regency Vampire

At the dawn of the Regency, vampires had little to show for themselves in literature. What had been written of them was neither compelling nor seductive. There was the bat that had attacked the king in Sir Burges’ poem Richard the First (1801). The slave dealer in Montgomery’s 1807 The West Indies was a “bloated vampire of a living man.” In 1810, His Grace the Duke of Norfolk found himself the embarrassed object of an obscure poem’s dedication about a goblin entitled The Vampire. Miss Aiken, in her 1811 Epistles on Women, decried those polluting “vampire forms.”

Then came The Vampyre in 1819. Critics promptly gave it the kiss of death:

Villa Diodati - watering hole of the junta

Villa Diodati – where the junta rusticated

“a flat and feeble tale of supernatural horrors.” Edinburgh Monthly Review

“one (and we are happy to believe the last) of that travelling junta of our country-folk..” Antheneum

That “travelling junta” would be Mary Shelley (Frankenstein), Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron, who spent part of 1816, that “year without a summer” in a scandalous interlude at a Swiss villa. To be part of a junta was not what bothered Byron. It was the fact that the “vampyre” was neither a bat nor parasitic slave trader, but a suave English aristocrat.  Not unlike himself:

“A bustling inhabitant of the world..restless and erratic..subject to pecuniary embarrassments.” — Monthly Review, 1919

Pecuniary embarrassments aside, the fact the creature had been christened Ruthven left no doubt in anyone’s mind as to its identity. This was entirely due to the efforts of Lady Caroline Lamb a few years before in 1816’s Glenarvon. Her character was also named Ruthven, but everyone knew him as Byron–the villain who had so cruelly abandoned her.

To add insult to injury, the publisher had the effrontery of passing off The Vampyre as Byron’s own work.

The devil!

The notion was not so farfetched to the average Regency reader. It must be remembered that Byron had written of vampires before. His Giaour (1813) featured an infidel who indulged in an illicit affair with a pasha’s harem girl. She had been tossed into the sea to die whereupon the giaour killed the pasha. Byron’s narrator predicted the giaour would eventually suffer the fate of the vampire, rise from the dead and suck the blood of his loved ones, to his everlasting torment.

Perhaps Byron might not have added the following footnote to Giaour if he knew one day he might be made into a vampire himself:

“The Vampire superstition is still general in the Levant…I recollect a whole family being terrified by the scream of a child, which they imagined must proceed from such a visitation. The Greeks never mention the word without horror. The freshness of the face, and the wetness of the lip with blood, are the never-failing signs of a Vampire. The stories told in Hungary and Greece of those foul feeders are singular, and some of them most incredibly attested.”

This picture of the modern vampiric nobleman is provided courtesy of Find a Grave

This picture of the modern vampiric nobleman is provided courtesy of:               Find a Grave

Amid a flurry of protestations and recriminations over the vile Vampyre and his story, it was eventually revealed that one Dr. John Polidori was the true author, whom “we cannot imagine what mental disease could induce Lord Byron to endure for a moment.” The good doctor was in attendance during the interlude at the Villa Didorati (the lodging of the aforementioned junta). There he had served in the capacity of Byron’s own personal sawbones before they parted in ways less than amicable.

Dr. Polidori was astonished at the vindictive hurled in his direction, which went something like this:

“The publication of that vile abortion, ‘The Vampyre‘ under the name of the greatest of living geniuses, was a wrong… which will not be easy for the perpetrator to expiate.”

He hastily insisted that the work was never meant to see the light of day, that he had placed the manuscript into the care of an unnamed lady, who later gave it to an unscrupulous publisher, who unleashed it upon an unsuspected Public wholly and wantonly without permission.

Amid the flurry of these protestations and recriminations, the aforementioned Public devoured the work, giving it an astounding success.

It was the birth of a new subgenre within the Gothic novel.