Animal Rights and Lansdowne House

“Mama, I’m as concerned about Diana as you are.  If she truly needs me, I will always be there to help her.”

“Of course.”  She poked her elegant finger among the brooches and earrings in the ornate box.  “You’ve managed everything quite well up to now, have you not?  But beware, my darling.  We have only just arrived in London.  Inevitably, Diana is bound to choose another improper friend.  One that may not be as amenable to your carte blanche as Miss Swynford.”

“Did you say Diana’s gone out riding?  I should go call for my horse.”

The dowager cocked her head.  “Your niece is all the way to Hyde Park by now, most likely.   Quite keen, she was, to try out her new mare.”

“That wretched animal she picked up from the horse knackers?  The dealers at Tattersall’s were glad to be rid of her after she injured one of their grooms.”

“The very one.  She tried to kick one of ours in the head just this morning.”

Diana’s Garnet was never a favorite of her Uncle Russell’s.  She was an ill-tempered mare and he always said Diana rode her just to spite him.   But in his heart he was proud of his niece for saving the animal from the knackers, and for trying to make something of the tall, angular chestnut.  He knew Diana needed Garnet, just as Garnet needed Diana.   The Marquess of Wimberley was only too aware that the victim of abuse, be it man or beast, can sometimes be set upon the road to healing when given a purpose–a destiny.  And his lordship fervently hoped this first step for Diana would lead her toward recovery.  Little did he know it would lead him there as well.

The notion of rescuing animals–saving them from ill-treatment–was a topic of considerable discussion in the Regency period.   Philosophy was motivated in those days by new ideas about the rights of man.  A century before, Locke, and later Kant, had already raised the notion that animal abuse was a bad thing–not for the animals, but for man.  In the mid-eighteenth century Rousseau argued the matter one step further.  The beasts of nature, by virtue of them being sentient, have their own right to the mercies of natural law, even if they cannot reason on their own.

The entire idea of introducing laws to protect animals remained, however, purely philosophical.

It was also something of a comedy.  Wollstonecraft’s In Defense of the Rights of Woman at the close of the eighteenth century was met with another tract published under the satirical title, Vindication of the Rights of Brutes.   In other words, if we give rights to women, we shall dashed well have to give them to the beasts!

Enter Lansdowne House and one of the Marquess’ most illustrious guests–Jeremy Bentham (1748 – 1832).  He was a philosopher well-known for his radical notions about freedom and equal rights, getting the C out of the E (ie, separating church and state), and abolishing slavery.  When it came to animal rights, he brushed aside natural law as “nonsense upon stilts” and made an argument that was unanswerable:

“…The question is not, Can they reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”

It must be said he did not oppose the use of animals for medical research.  He gave his own body to a medical college for public dissection and ordered that his corpse be put on display in an auto-icon.

When not engaged in philosophical dialogue, Bentham was known for courting women with “clumsy jocularity” (Michael St. John Packe’s The Life of John Stuart Mill).  The women in particular were members of the Marquess of Lansdowne’s family.  It appears from some of Bentham’s correspondence the ladies had refused to receive him when he called at Lansdowne House.  His style of rebuke, a mixture of pleasantries and irony so typical of the Regency, is amusing:

“I am glad to find you have begun to feel something like remorse; it is a virtuous sentiment–do not struggle to suppress it.”

The Most Popular Man of the Regency

Richard Sharp (1759 – 1835), born in Newfoundland, was a hatter and later prominent merchant in London.  He was also a Dissenter, becoming the champion of adult education.  His powers of persuasion were responsible for establishing the forerunner of the University of London, the London Institution, open to scientific scholars who were denied entrance to Cambridge and Oxford because of their unorthodox religious beliefs.

Richard "Conversation" Sharp - he quite looks like Geoffrey Rush, does he not?  Delightful man.

Richard "Conversation" Sharp - he quite looks like Geoffrey Rush, does he not? Delightful man.

Lansdowne House, along with its rival Holland House, drew Sharp into its orbit not only for these accomplishments, but because of his conversation.

Yes–conversation.  A highly sought-after quality in Regency England

You must remember from Anne Elliott’s declaration from Jane Austen’s Persuasion.  And William Elliott’s equally fine rejoinder:

“My idea of good company…is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company.’

‘You are mistaken,’ said he gently, ‘that is not good company, that is the best.”

London was filled with good conversationalists.  Town wits, they were called, frequently evaluating one another and publishing their findings in essays and other periodicals for the delectation of the ton.

Byron (1788 – 1824) was a notable practitioner of the art–his poetry the vehicle for satirizing other conversationalists.  Wordsworth was frequently a target for his notions of solitude and the love of the sublime.  But when it came to describing Sharp, Satire completely failed her master, giving way to her cousin, the Simple Truth.

“A man of elegant mind.”

Indeed, this is where we find not just the good, but the best.

But how?  The key lies in the recollection from a fellow Lansdowne House intimate, Thomas Babington Macauley, 1st Baron Macauley (1800 – 1859)

“One thing I have observed in Sharp which is quite peculiar to him among Town wits and diners-out – he never talks scandal. If he can say nothing good of a man he holds his tongue. I do not of course mean that in confidential communications about politics he does not speak freely of public men, but about the follies of individuals I do not believe that – as much as I have talked with him.”

Richard Sharp remained single all his life.  Yet he was moved to adopt a little girl, orphaned in a volcanic eruption in the West Indies.

He never wanted to be remembered after he died.

Sadly, his wish was granted, with one or two notable exceptions, like the following admonishment from a reader of Gentlemen’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle 1869) that reads like a Who’s Who list of the Regency:

“…your serial is calculated to mislead your numerous readers by giving them the idea that (Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe) was the celebrated person who obtained the sobriquet of ‘Conversation Sharp’ ….. From his extraordinary conversational powers, and his attainments generally, he became the intimate friend of all the leading men of his time, especially of the Whig party, of whom space will not permit me to name more than a few–as Lord Holland, Marquis of Lansdowne, Duke of Somerset, Earl of Darnley, Lord Eskine (who consulted him constantly), Grattan, Curran, Plunkett, Campbell, the poet Moore, Sir James Scarlett, afterwards Lord Abinger, Wordsworth, Rev. Sydney Smith, &etc….A reference to the memoirs (amongst others) of Francis Horner, James Macintosh, Sir Samuel Romilly, Samuel Rogers, the poet, and Moor’s Life of Byron, will at once settle the identity of Mr. Richard Sharp.”