A future prime minister on the subject of love:
“…I’m pretty sure I am not born to die of love and I am quite sure I shall never be a lover.”
That was the impression George Canning (1770-1827) certainly gave, for he made little or no attempt to be agreeable to women. The patroness of his own party, Lady Elizabeth Leveson-Gower, Countess of Sutherland, ‘thoroughly disliked’ him. Canning believed all women of fashion were depraved and corrupt, as Lady Holland noted in her diary, July 4, 1799.
Canning was mean to her, Lady Bessborough complained to her lover Granville:
“What possible chance have I of escaping under the eye of a person who judges everyone with severity, women particularly and me perhaps more than any other woman?” — August 1798
That all changed when Canning attended a Tory gathering at Walmer Castle upon the invitation of his mentor, Pitt. There he met Miss Joan Scott, the heiress of a tremendous fortune in gambling proceeds (over £500,000) won by her father, General ‘Pawky’ Scott. Her sister had made a grand match, marrying the heir to the Duke of Portland and former prime minister. The same was expected of Miss Scott but so far she had rejected every suitor for her hand, including that handsome devil Sir Arthur Paget.
Contemptuous of the courtship business, Canning refused even the appearance of dangling after Miss Scott.
“Perhaps it was in some measure this very circumstance of having her so constantly in my thoughts as something to be avoided, perhaps it was an observation of something I cannot put into words..probably it was the observation which I could not but make of her beauty, and good sense, and quiet, interesting manners…” Canning to Granville Leveson Gower, August 1799
‘Seized by a passion that would last the rest of his life,’ Canning sought out Miss Scott. Unfortunately, embarrassment overcame him and the master parliamentary orator was unable to Speak. He fled to Dover, trying to talk himself out of his infatuation, reasoning that he couldn’t offer for her hand. Their financial circumstances were too disparate. He shuddered to think he might appear as a fortune hunter, particularly when he didn’t have a proper job. She would reject him anyway, leaving him open to jeers and mockery, for Canning’s sharp wit had made him plenty of enemies.
Somehow he had to keep the ‘violent secret of Miss Scott’ to himself.
At Dover, Canning saw Lady Susan Ryder, his good friend Granville’s sister. Reluctantly, and in the strictest confidence, he told her about his predicament. Fortunately Lady Susan had a slight acquaintance with Miss Scott and volunteered to sound her out for him. Her response, ‘she found me so different from what she expected,’ threw him into a paroxysm of doubt and perplexity.
What did that mean? He knew he had his detractors. Sometimes he carried a joke too far. He even made his own friends cry. That d—d Charles Greville, her relative, must have said something disparaging:
“…he amuses himself by representing me as a compound of satirical and ill-natured and insolent feelings and manners and particularly with stating himself to be an object of my contempt..”
What did it matter, anyway? Miss Scott made it clear she didn’t want to marry a politician. So, Lady Susan advised Canning to give it up. He returned to Walmer anyway, unable to contemplate a future without Miss Scott. He reasoned that no objection was ‘sufficient to make it a matter of duty or delicacy in me to see her no more.’ He promised he wouldn’t harass or embarrass her but he had to have her definitive answer, to ‘learn his fate.’
That was when
“..I first touched my own Love’s hand–and put my arm ’round her, & drew her to me–and she was not very angry (!)–not very angry I think–though it was very saucy in me to do what I did.”
Nevertheless, on the question of marriage Miss Scott prevaricated. She would defer to her sister’s husband, Marquess Titchfield, a man who wasn’t her guardian but whom she relied upon for advice. Canning told her he would not retire from the field unless and until he had her repudiation–not something half-hearted and dependent on others.
She would remain ‘an object so dear to me.’
Meanwhile, the government offered him a real job–an ambassadorship to Holland. He agonized, knowing it was an opportunity he shouldn’t decline and yet if he left England Miss Scott would slip away forever. Then she fell dangerously ill, her life was despaired of. Perhaps her recovery was the catalyst for surrender. She agreed to marry him in the summer.
“It is the one Event most essential to my happiness that has ever yet occurred in the course of my life.” — Canning to Granville’s mother, Lady Stafford, May, 1800
The secret was out.
Postscript: Before his marriage, Canning mentioned to Granville an entanglement he had with a married lady, a relationship that seemed to demand some reluctant reciprocation on his part, for he planned to use the excuse of a pending marriage to escape it. The lady’s identity remains uncertain, but many believe she was Caroline of Brunswick, Princess of Wales. On the other hand, Lady Holland pointed to the Earl of Malmesbury’s wife who hosted her husband’s cadre of foreign affairs protégés, including Canning and another future prime minister, Lord Liverpool. Lady B begged Granville to reveal her identity, having just discovered ‘the violent secret of Miss Scott.’
The Rise of George Canning by Dorothy Marshall (1938) – particularly his letters to Lady Susan Ryder and containing the quote in the photo of South Hill Park above.
George Canning: Three Biographical Studies by P. J. V. Rolo (1965) — best for a glimpse of his devotion to his wife and children ‘if anything should happen to (Canning’s daughter) it would kill him on the spot.’
Private correspondence, 1781 – 1821 by Granville Leveson Gower, Earl Granville, et al and edited by Castalia Leveson-Gower, Countess Granville (1916) for all other quotes.