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 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

Standard-Bearer to the Regency – Part One

Her name was Sarah Sophia Child Villiers, Countess of Jersey (1785 – 1867). As Patroness of Almack’s, the portal to Regency ton, she was first among equals. Contemporary observers recorded more accounts of her than just about every other female of note in the ton.

She was (and still is) the standard-bearer to the Regency.

In a highly structured society like late Georgian England, persons with money and birth were furthered sorted by reputation and social connections. Someone had to make these decisions. One negative signal from Lady Jersey spelled disaster for the social climber.

She was human, however–fallible and often contradictory.

I’ve heard so many varying accounts of your character as to puzzle me exceedingly.” Lizzie to Darcy in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice

Born Sarah Sophia Fane, she had all the advantages noted above from the start. Her mother, Sarah Anne Child, was the sole heiress to the immense banking fortune of the Child family. Her father, John Fane, 10th Earl of Westmorland, a prominent Tory. Had her character not been so distinctive, scarcely a footnote would be written of her. This series of blog posts focuses on the personality of Lady Jersey, so often described in correspondence and diaries from the Regency era.

We’ll also take a look at her role as a pivotal character in Regency romance.

Her parents’ high profile elopement shows what DNA we have to work with. Independent, perhaps impetuous, certainly determined. The bride’s father strongly disapproved of the match, but was tricked into giving his permission when the young earl put the question to him as a seemingly innocuous hypothetical.

Some accounts tell how Mr. Child himself chased after the couple with the result that one of his horses got shot by Westmorland’s pistol.

“..a traveling-carriage drew up outside the house, Lord Dolphinton alighted from it and after casting around him a glance suggestive of a hare hotly pursued by hounds, hurried up the steps to the front door.” — Cotillion, Georgette Heyer

Money and the brains to keep it are other important attributes. Mr. Child wasn’t about to allow his banking fortune to go to an earldom. He made it so that Sarah Sophia, as Sarah Anne’s oldest daughter, inherited it (in the absence of a second son). It was a sizeable amount and came with great responsibility.

As one of the principals in the Child firm, Sarah Sophia would make influential decisions for the business.

Sarah Sophia Child Villiers by Chalon                                ‘It was your family that pushed you into banking–it was their dream for you. ‘ — Seinfeld

Her mother died when Sarah Sophia was about eight years old. It fell to the second Countess of Westmorland to shepherd her first season in London. However, it seems likely Sarah Sophia was the one who did the shepherding. Her stepmother was an indiscreet, garrulous woman who once threatened commit suicide:

“..to which Lord Westmorland replied pooh, pooh, and went away, not thinking any such good fortune would happen to him (!)… (she survived)…of that probably Her Ladyship took very good care.”
— Henry Williams Wynn to his mother, Lady Williams Wynn on Aug. 11, 1810*

As you might guess, Sarah Sophia’s debut was an eagerly anticipated event and she had several high-profile suitors. One of them left behind a wealth of correspondence from this period. In it are glimpses of the heiress’ teen-aged personality:

“Lady Sarah Fane is looking in great Beauty this year, but I am more inclined than ever to believe she has a strong Partiality for Villiers, which he endeavors to confirm by much attention. She is not yet presented, but is generally at the opera with Lady Westmoreland.”
— Lord Granville Leveson Gower to Lady Stafford, February, 1802 **

Lord Granville Leveson Gower, a Whig and diplomat, courted Sarah Sophia under the aegis of two older women in his life. The first being his mother, Lady Stafford. The other was his long-time lover, Henrietta Ponsonby, Lady Bessborough.

Granville by T. Lawrence. Lady Bessborough ‘loved him to idolatry,’ even though he loved her the least, so she believed.

Lady Bessborough threw herself wholeheartedly into the campaign. Avidly following her lover’s efforts, she both encouraged and teased him. She chided him once for choosing a seat at the opera that put him squarely between a former object of his matrimonial pursuit–and Sarah Sophia.

She even imagined herself to be a part of the action. Maybe she was.

As Granville’s letter indicates, George Villiers, 5th Earl of Jersey was the main competition. The same age as Granville, Villiers was a Conservative and Lord Chamberlain of the Household. Mad for hunting and racing, his riding skills were unparalleled.

Villiers is very jealous of you, Lady B wrote to Granville. So much so he was ‘less than cordial than he us’d to be.” Granville’s mama concurred, scrupulously repeating an accusation Villiers made, but one she probably feared Sarah Sophia would come to believe.

“Spectators fancy you the favor’d Lover, and take Occasion to report how much Lord Villiers is to be pitied, for that he is well and truly in Love with her, and scruples not to own himself miserable, but that you were attach’d elsewhere and follow her for her Fortune.” — Lady Stafford to G

George Child Villiers, 5th Earl of Jersey. Lady Bessborough thought him ‘in great beauty.’ He, on the other hand, had no illusions about her and Granville’s pursuit of Sarah Sophia.

One has a sense that Sarah Sophia was aware of this background scheming. Lively and intelligent, she must have derived some pleasure in leading more than just the men on a merry dance. As the courtship progressed, Lady Bessborough responded to this impertinence with something very like jealousy.

“..in a long walk with Anne she told me some things which have again made me furious with Lady Sarah. I cannot bear her..” — Lady B to G

Just as Granville and Villiers were of an age, so was Sarah Sophia with Lady Bessborough’s daughter, Caroline. The dynamics of the Ponsonby household could not have escaped her notice, even if she wasn’t bosom bows with Caro. Lady Bessborough’s involvement with Granville no doubt raised a red flag in her mind. The prospect of sharing the marriage bed with an older, managing sort of female, however intelligent and accomplished as Lady Bessborough was, could not be appealing to an independent, ambitious miss like Sarah Sophia.

There would come a day when she would have to lower the boom on Lady Bessborough’s troubled daughter, married to a husband who was also once her ladyship’s lover.

Perhaps because he was tired of the suspense, Beau Brummel apparently started a rumor that positively alarmed the Granville camp. Lady Bessborough feared a fortune might be slipping away. She sent Granville reassurances that his suit was not lost yet, calling Sarah Sophia your Sally and your Jewel. She sent her notorious sister Georgiana to Lady Westmorland to gain the confidence of Sarah Sophia’s foolish stepmother, plying her with assurances of deep friendship.

“Lady Westmorland has written a long letter of seven sides to G. (Georgiana Spencer Devonshire) …Lady Sarah is perfectly indifferent to both (Villiers and Granville) and both she and I feel extremely offended at Mr. Brummel’s impertinence, who chuses to set it about that there is an attachment subsisting between Lord V. and Lady S. which is perfectly groundless.”
– Lady B to G

Reporting the results to Granville’s mama, Lady Bessborough said that her son visited Berkeley Square twice and and Sarah Sophia was “very gracious and encouraging.” And yet Sally kept everyone guessing, to her ladyship’s disgust. Still, she grudgingly gave credit to the heiress for a strong presence of mind that precluded any hasty decision or undue influence by others.

For the present, Sarah Sophia declared she wouldn’t choose a husband until she comes of age.

* Correspondence of Charlotte Grenville, Lady Williams Wynn and her three sons, et al 1795 – 1832

** Lord Granville Leveson Gower (first earl Granville): private correspondence, 1781 – 1821, by Granville Leveson Gower, et al; Countess Castalia Leveson-Gower, ed. 1916