Standard Bearer to the Regency – Part Four

Sarah Sophia Child Villiers, Countess of Jersey, achieved everything she set out to do as a young woman. She married the Earl of Jersey in her own drawing room. She gave him an heir and a spare, besides three beautiful girls.

She convinced most of Regency-era society she was their de facto ruler.

Portrait of Sarah Sophia’s daughters via National Galleries of Scotland: Frederica (later Princess Esterhazy), Adela (eloped with her own ‘Mr. Wickham’) and Clementina (her face appeared in all the era’s Books of Beauty)

The streak of restlessness in her character did not subside as she headed into matronhood, nor her powerful motivation to lead. These traits found an outlet in politics–an activity to promote her deeply held Tory principles. Many criticized her for being headstrong, imperious and meddling. Such hurly-burly behavior was unbecoming in a female of rank.

I wager being a Tory wasn’t the problem. Being female was.

To supplement her husband’s modest political activities,* Sarah Sophia put on lavish parties. Her townhouse was filled to the brim for the triumphant celebration she put on after the (practical) nullification of the Marriage Act of 1754. Prominent Whig hostess Lady Holland bemoaned the fact her Tory rival’s gatherings were better attended than her own, by members of both parties.+

It seems the atmosphere in Berkeley Square was more relaxed than Holland House in Kensington. At No. 38, observers noted how even foreign diplomats, like the great Talleyrand, freely discussed policies that might otherwise be too sensitive to bandy about at a party.++

Gossip had it that Sarah Sophia did some of her politicking in other men’s arms.

Much of this speculation rests on an often cited misquote of a remark made by, oddly enough, Lord Jersey himself. When challenged to a duel, he refused to defend his wife’s honor.+++  Somehow the purpose for the challenge got lost in the translation. Sarah Sophia’s husband might fight a duel over sex, but not over vouchers to Almack’s.

“Lord Jersey replied in a very dignified manner, saying that if all persons who did not receive tickets from his wife were to call him to account for want of courtesy on her part, he should have to make up his mind to become a target for young officers, and he therefore declined the honor of a proposed meeting.”– Captain Gronow, by R. H. Gronow, 1794-1865

Mild-mannered Lord Jersey appears to have held Sarah Sophia’s affections throughout their long (55 year) marriage.

Marble bust of George Child-Villiers, 5th Earl of Jersey by Nollekens — photo via UK Government Art Collection — “Looking in great beauty” —Lady Bessborough observed.  I, too, am a fangirl.

In any event, one has to think Sarah Sophia’s forceful, talkative nature would have made it difficult for her to execute political maneuvers in such an intimate setting as the bedroom.

The strategy she did employ had a much better chance of success. It was far more efficient to carry the war straight to the combatants since she already attended a staggering round of social events. Of course, it put people in a bustle if one discussed politics at routs, turtle breakfasts, balls and so forth. Very bad ton.

Yet Sarah Sophia managed to carry the thing off.

Lady Holland’s son Henry Edward Fox recorded a wealth of society’s doings at this time, including Lady Jersey’s. To the vexation of his Whig parents, he greatly admired the leading Tory hostess, albeit with some qualifications:

‘There is no fine lady I love so much; she never tells what is not true yet talks more than anybody in England.’
–The Journal of Henry Edward Fox 1818 – 1830, by Baron Henry Edward Vassall Fox (1923)

Those aborted attempts to discourage her are among his best anecdotes.

One in particular blew up in a duke’s face. His Grace of Devonshire planned a Whig celebration for newly crowned George IV and was well aware the Countess of Jersey expected to attend. The problem arose when she came out in strong support of Queen Caroline, the estranged wife of the new king. The duke suddenly ‘took fright’ and against Lord Jersey’s advice, tried to rescind the invitation.

Sarah Sophia vowed to go anyway–if only because His Grace didn’t want her there.

After proceedings in the House of Lords, the gallery spectators were permitted to descend to the floor and mingle. Queen Sarah’s place was (naturally) on the throne steps, where she could easily listen in on post-debate conversations. Other ladies inhabited the throne area as well, but it was Lady Jersey’s presence that some men found objectionable. On one occasion Lord Anglesley loudly warned those nearby to avoid talking politics around her because she might carry tales to the newspapers.

Anglesley apologized but the incident shows Sarah Sophia knew enough to be dangerous.

It didn’t help that Anglesley left Sarah Sophia’s sister-in-law for another woman (landing him in the basket not only with Sarah Sophia but Wellington as well). Lady Caroline Villiers (pictured here with her eldest son) later married the Duke of Argyll, a union that moved her to declare she never knew marriage could be so blissful. Portrait by Hoppner, via National Trust

Another diarist of the time, Henry Greville, thought Sarah Sophia a self-delusional know-it-all:

“Lady Jersey affects to be entirely in the Duke (of Wellington’s) confidence. She said to Lord Granville at Madame de Lieven’s the other night that ‘she made it a rule never to talk to the Duke about affairs in public.” ..I doubt whether he tells her much of anything.”
— Leaves from the Diary of Henry Greville, edited by Viscountess Enfield (1883)

Greville preferred Mrs. Arbuthnot, her cousin and a close confidant of the rising political star Lord Wellington. Of all the Fane women, she got the lion’s share of discretion and good sense, in his opinion. He admired how calm she remained in times of crisis. In Sarah Sophia’s defense, anyone with sense would be upset if Wellington were to die in a stupid duel. Not only would that destroy the Tory government, it would throw the country into economic and political turmoil.

Sarah Sophia was among the first to hear the Duke of Cumberland tried to assault Lady Lyndhurst in her own house. She mentioned it to Greville. Perhaps she already knew what a dreadful gossip he was (Queen Victoria tried to sensor his diary). As expected, he set about discovering all the salacious details of His Highness’ bad behavior. These he took care to share with others, while making sure Lady Jersey would be the last he informed. Suddenly and without warning he found himself in hot water, having to explain why he was spreading slanderous gossip concerning the brother of the King!

Oops.

Bust, marble, of a Lady (probably Sarah Sophia Child-Villiers, Countess of Jersey), by William Behnes, English, signed and dated 1827 — photo via the V&A Collection

It seems Sarah Sophia put Regency-era correspondent and Lord Brougham supporter Thomas Creevey in a quake. Why else would he be paranoid about committing to paper his candid impressions of her?

“Shall I tell you what Lady Jersey is like? She is like one of her many gold and silver musical dickey birds..On the merits of her songs I shall say nothing until we meet.”
–The Creevey Papers Vol II, by Thomas Creevey (1904)

He grew bolder in a subsequent letter, expressing great satisfaction over the clever way Lady Brougham gave Sarah Sophia a smart set-down. To paraphrase: No, her ladyship told Lady Jersey, my husband cannot attend your party in Berkeley Square to meet Prince d’Arenberg. He is attending Lady King’s dinner with me,and I NEVER go anywhere without him!

Both Creevey and Lady Brougham had to eat crow. The evening of Lady King’s dinner, the Brougham carriage arrived–minus Lord Brougham. It was an awkward business for his wife:

“..she made Lord Brougham’s apologies to Lady King for his unavoidable absence on account of business.”

Sarah Sophia’s dust-up with Lady Brougham was mild compared to the epic battles she waged against Lord Brougham. Simply put, he was a great advocate for reform and she decidedly was not. Creevey disapproved, and not just because he was a supporter of his lordship. He deplored the way Lady Jersey gave the vulgar press fodder by interfering in men’s affairs, particularly because such conduct gave females unnatural ideas.

Sarah Sophia may have been on the wrong side of history, but she was on the right side of the war between the sexes. She didn’t let gender stop her from advocating what she thought was right. Creevey remain unimpressed.

Sarah Sophia, he declared, was ‘going to the devil as fast as she can.’

“What I hate more than anything is a liar, a charlatan, someone who doesn’t believe in what they say.”  —–  Lucifer Morningstar (aka the Devil) via Netflix

 

 

*George Villiers, 5th Earl of Jersey did hold important Tory offices throughout his adult life. It is telling, however, that he was content with whatever scraps remained after the other peers fought over appointments in the new King George IV’s household.

+ The Creevey Papers Vol II, by Thomas Creevey (1904)

++The Journal of Henry Edward Fox 1818 – 1830, by Baron Henry Edward Vassall Fox (1923)

+++ The award-winning biography Palmerston, by Jasper Ridley (2008)

 

 

 

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 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