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.

Regency Furnishings: the Trafalgar Chair

Another great Pan cover — truth in advertising

“She wanted to be hearing of Lord Nelson, who had naturally been the hero of her school-days. It was her uncle’s only merit in her eyes that he must actually have spoken with the great man, but she could not induce him to describe Nelson in any other but the meanest of terms… a wispy fellow: not much to look at, he gave her his word.”

–Regency Buck by Georgette Heyer (1935)

 

The Royal Navy’s defeat of the French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar was the stuff of legend, in part because Lord Nelson died on the altar of victory. What followed was a paroxysm of hero worship. The flag that draped his sarcophagus had been torn to pieces by sailors craving a memento. Poems and sermons in his memory were composed and distributed through recitals and magazines.

Legrand’s Apotheosis of Nelson — you get the idea

The cult of Nelson even penetrated the realm of Regency furnishings. Already present and popular among the ton, the classic, clean artistry of the Grecian style provided a perfect canvas for demonstrating hero worship.  Distinctive, yet blending well with surrounding furniture, the chairs made in this mode were particularly functional, as the following print shows.

The Greek influence is evident by the shape of the legs. They are carved outward, like sabres. Smaller in scale, they could easily be moved, and pressed into service for large gatherings.

The chair on the far right is a Trafalgar–the back, seat and leg carved as if in a single stroke down to the floor. The back features a patera ornament, a symbol of reverence, surrounded by the wreath of victory.

A bespoke Trafalgar would display symbolic ornamentation, demonstrating the owner’s refined taste. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has such a chair on display, with a back carved to look like a rope that might serve as a ship’s rigging.

V&A Trafalgar Chair

The ebony and gilt paint make the flower-like anthemione and rope carving particularly distinctive.

Nelson himself preferred a chair upholstered in leather, with side pouches that contained dispatches. A gift from his mistress, Lady Hamilton, it was known as the Emma, and kept in his cabin on board ship. The relic was put up for auction last year, still in its original leather upholstery. 

Today, it is the wing-backed, post-modern upholstered chair that Lord Nelson is known for. This one is on sale at 1stDibs.com

Claiming a connection to Trafalgar and its Hero, however trifling, was a mark of distinction, even if Judith’s uncle deplored it.

“Can’t understand what women see in him.”

 

 

Regency Fashion: The Gentleman’s Fancy Dress

“Not only was he wearing the frilled shirt, the longtailed coat, the knee-breeches, and the silk stockings which constituted the fashionable attire of a gentleman bound for Almack’s; he carried a chapeau-bras  under one arm, and one of his snuff boxes in his pocket.”

— False Colours by Georgette Heyer (1963)

Kit Fancot, the hero of False Colours, impersonates his older brother, Evelyn, Lord Denville, as a favor to his mama. He arrives at a fancy dress party held by the relatives of Denville’s betrothed. Unfortunately, he has no clear idea of what Miss Stavely looks like.

However, everyone at the party believes him to be Evelyn, particularly since he is dressed in his brother’s fashionable dress rig, starting with the frilled shirt. No, not the pirate shirt sported by a well-known comedian in the 1990s, but similar, I daresay:

From Le Beau Monde, 1807

From Le Beau Monde, 1807

The longtailed coat was designed to set a fine figure to advantage. The tails in the back were almost an afterthought, forgotten in the evolution of the formal coat from its original function–to separate when riding a horse . What was important was the fit over the shoulders, perhaps enhanced by padding discretely inserted in strategic areas. In the same way, the cutaway design revealed the upper thighs and slim (corseted, if necessary) waist of the gentleman.

Knee breeches were de rigueur if one expects to be admitted to Almack’s, and thus the standard for all fancy dress parties. They were critical for Kit to pass himself off as his brother, all while meeting the approval of the venerable Dowager Lady Stavely, (grandmama to Miss Stavely). Therefore, pantaloons worn on the street would be right out in such company.

Besides, the advantage of wearing knee breeches becomes immediately apparent when a well-formed man pairs them with white silk stockings. The little ties just below the knee, combined with the clinging material of the stockings, draw the eye to his shapely leg, the black slippers just the thing to command admiring attention when among one’s peers (and cross old ladies).

from the Claremont Colleges Digital collection, featuring selective plates of Regency dress

from the Claremont Colleges Digital collection, featuring selective plates of Regency dress

Kit carries a hat, a three-cornered affair called the chapeau-bras. The fellow pictured above has a two-cornered (bicorn) hat. Both collapse and can easily be kept in good order by the butler or other man-servant while the wearer enjoys the party.

Snuff-boxes are very personal items in the Regency. Snuff itself can come in a variety of flavors (I’m thinking of Miss Taverner’s Sort in Heyer’s Regency Buck). Heyer completes Kit’s disguise as his brother by having him take along, in his pocket, a recognized trinket of Lord Denville’s. Indeed, a snuff box conveys much about a man’s identity in the Regency–witness a Cyprian’s attempts to engage the affections of a dour, northern Scotsman through two years of ‘tedious’ courtship, her stamina continuously as she:

‘anticipated the grandeur of which his massy snuff-box and mode of living distinctly conveyed.’

— “Clarissa, A Tale,” The Ladies’ Monthly Museum, Vol. 16 (1822)

 

 

snuff box

This silver and mosaic snuff box sold for almost $3000 recently. It was made in London, 1815.

 

 

Oatlands – Honeymoon House

Sometimes it just makes sense to honeymoon close to home.

Kate and Wills went no farther than Anglesey.  Vivien, my heroine of Welsh descent in Notorious Vow, would approve.  There is much to be said for the privacy afforded by a windswept island off the coast of her family’s native homeland.

File:Fashionable contrasts james gillray.jpg

Entitled "Fashionable Contrast," this 1792 cartoon of TRHs' relationship was less than accurate.

Princess Charlotte and Prince Leopold honeymooned just outside London in Weybridge, at her uncle’s estate of Oatlands.  The manor had been the site of a royal palace built for Queen Anne of Cleves by Henry VIII, long since demolished.  A house remaining on the estate was enlarged and eventually leased by Prince Frederick, the Duke of York.  This burned down and a Gothic mansion was erected in its place and became the primary residence of his wife, Princess Frederica Charlotte of Prussia.

The following is an amusing illustration of what things must have been like at Oatlands:

‘The Duke was used to bring down parties of his friends to spend the week-ends at Oatlands.  The Duchess had not the least objection, and without making any change in her own manner of life, entertained her guests in a charming and unceremonious way that endeared her to everyone who knew her.  No one was ever known to refuse an invitation to Oatlands, though the first visit there must always astonish, and even dismay.  The park was kept for the accommodation of a collection of macaws, monkeys, ostriches, kangaroos; the stables were full of horses which were none of them obtainable for the use of the guests; the house swarmed with servants, whose business never seemed to be to wait on anyone; the hostess breakfasted at three in the morning, spent the night in wandering about the grounds, and was in the habit of retiring unexpectedly to a four-roomed grotto she had had made for herself in the park. ‘

from Regency Buck, by Georgette Heyer

Princess Charlotte and Prince Leopold remained at Oatlands until summoned back to London by Queen Charlotte.  The princess’ grandmother planned a “drawing-room,” or presentation to receive the congratulations of the nobility and gentry on the marriage.  The Asiatic Journal from 1816 further reports that between two and three thousand people were present for the occasion and Buckingham House, as it was then called, was filled with “expecting spectators.”Oatlands Park Hotel, Weybridge Surrey

Their honeymoon must have seemed as remote to the young couple as Wales.

Today, Oatlands is a hotel.  You can even have a wedding there!