Regency Critics: the Slasher

Edinburgh has been argued as the early nineteenth century’s “capital city of modern literature.” It is there that we find the original Regency-era critic.

The Edinburgh Review was one of the first, if not the inaugural, quarterly journal to feature in-depth literary reviews. It was created by a circle of Whigs, some of whom have been the subject of this blog in the past: Sydney Smith and Henry Brougham. Joined with them were Francis Horner and Francis Jeffrey, the latter becoming the Review’s editor throughout the Regency.

Old Calton Burying Ground in Edinburgh--split in half during the Regency era

Old Calton Burying Ground in Edinburgh–split in half during the Regency era

Francis Jeffrey (1773 – 1850), later Lord Jeffrey, took the helm of the Review with the intent of producing more than just what elementary students would term book reports. His periodical aimed to publish critical reviews that would be sought out for their own merits. These reviews would illustrate a deeper inquiry into literary works of the day, examining their qualities as they relate to Society as a whole. To deliver these mighty opinions one must have a salaried writer, who was hired for his politics as much as for his penmanship.

It was the birth of the professional literary critic.

Jeffrey submitted quite a few of these reviews himself, and in a very short time, he was to discover the hazards of offending the Regency-era writer. He pronounced Thomas Moore’s naughty epistles “a public nuisance” and was challenged to a duel (he and the Irish bard became friends afterwards). He chided beloved Marmion for disrespecting the great Whig politician Fox, and lost Sir Walter Scott’s patronage.

Not to be deterred, Jeffrey continued to develop a “slashing” style of critique that mowed down whatever he perceived to be overly wordy, superfluous and extravagant (we call it purple prose today–then it was known as Rousseau). Few writers in the Romantic vein (the favored poetic style of the Regency) failed to escape his scythe. Especially despised were those he derided as the Lake Poets, and for them a truly masterful trimming was reserved:

Wordsworth–“Even in the worst of [his] productions, there are, no doubt, occasional little traits of delicate feeling and original fancy; but these are quite lost and obscured in the mass of childishness and insipidity with which they are incorporated.”

Lord Francis Jeffrey, by Geddes He would have been a fan of Judge Judy

Lord Francis Jeffrey, by Geddes
He would have been a fan of Judge Judy

Southey – “All the productions of this author, it appears to us, bear very distinctly the impression of an amiable mind, a cultivated fancy, and a perverted taste.”

Keats  – “(Apart from Endymion) there is no work, accordingly, from which a malicious critic could cull more matter for ridicule, or select more obscure, unnatural, or absurd passages.”

Critical review was brutish, nasty work and in any case, Jeffrey had always preferred the practice of law. His popularity as a critic brought him a larger caseload which he welcomed and used to increase his standing at Bar, slashing opposing counsel. In the end, he was awarded elevation to the Bench.

Now that’s justice, (and criticism), with an attitude.

 

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Ghostly Portent – the Radiant Boy

There is something particularly disturbing about the association of children with the supernatural.

I know someone who used to live far out in the country. Her house sat off an isolated, rural road and her nearest neighbor was a mile away. One night she looked out of her window. The only thing to light the gloom was a single overhead light suspended on a pole. A figure stood beneath the bright circle created by the light pole, surrounded by darkness. It was exactly the height of a young child. Horrified, she was about to turn away to rescue the toddler when it turned its head in her direction.

It was an enormous owl.

She was scared out of her wits and so was I.

The Marquis of Londonderry was not by any means mistaken. He really did see a ghostly child. And the ones who loved him wished he hadn’t.

Robert Stewart, Viscount Catlereagh
You know what a neckcloth and cutaway coat does to me.

But before we get to that, a little background is necessary.

The Reverend Richard Harris Barham (1788 – 1845), intimate of  Regency wit Sydney Smith , mentioned the spectral phenomenon known as the radiant boy in his famous Ingoldsby Legends (1837). In the tale of the “Radiant Boy,” a family’s young son is obsessed with the spirit of a boy, pale and crying, who wanders the manor’s grounds. His mother tells him it is nothing:

“The linden tree is straight and tall, its leaves are fresh and fair;

but there’s no little boy at all–no pretty boy is there.”

Later in the story the narrator notes how the mother’s cheek is a little red, her voice losing its customary tone. She knew the legend of the radiant boy. She knew he was a portent of bad luck and violent death.

The basis of the legend appears to come from Germanic folklore–the curse of the kindermorderinn–children murdered by their mothers. Commonly seen in northern England, these ghosts were thought to be heirs deprived of their inheritance, returning to haunt the great estates of the wealthy. They appeared as young boys naked or nearly so, surrounded by white light.

Corby Castle in Cumbria, with its Regency facade by Peter Nicholson, used to be nothing more than a Border tower. In the old part of the house, the rector of Greystoke stayed with his wife. They departed so precipitously the following morning their hired chaise knocked down part of a fence to the flower garden. He later wrote:

“Soon after we went to bed, we fell asleep; it might be between one and two in the morning when I awoke. I observed that the fire was totally extinguished; but, although that was the case, and we had no light, I saw a glimmer in the centre of the room, which suddenly increased to a bright flame. I looked out, apprehending that something had caught fire, when, to my amazement, I beheld a beautiful boy, clothed in white, with bright locks resembling gold, standing by my bedside, in which position he remained some minutes, fixing his eyes upon me with a mild and benevolent expression. He then glided gently towards the side of the chimney, where it is obvious there is no possible egress, and entirely disappeared. I found myself again in total darkness, and all remained quiet until the usual hour of rising. I declare this to be a true account of what I saw at Corby Castle, upon my word as a clergyman.”

Corby Castle in Cumbria

The so-called “Blue Boy” resides in another border fortress, this one in Northumberland. Chillingham Castle was once the seat of the Grey family and the Earls of Tankerville. In the late nineteenth century, before the castle was allowed to fall into ruin, country party guests staying there frequently reported blue flashes followed by a loud wail in a chamber known as the Pink Room. Today, Chillingham is undergoing restoration by its new owner, Sir Humphrey Wakefield. The remarkable account of this process and a picture of the Pink Room can be found here.

And now to the Marquis of Londonderry. He’s better known as Viscount Castlereagh and in certain circles, the husband of an Almack’s Patroness.  Long before his duel with rival and fellow ghost-observer George Canning, Robert Stewart was serving His Majesty’s forces in Ireland when he saw the Goblin Child of Belashanney in the village barracks. According to Thomas Moore, “Regency Poet of Wine and Love,” the Duke of Wellington made Castlereagh recount the story to Sir Walter Scott. He complied and “told it without hesitation as if he believed it implicitly:”

“It was one night when he was in the barracks and the face brightened gradually out of the fireplace and approached him. Lord Castlereagh stepped forward to it, and it receded again and faded into the same place  approached it.”

Moore goes on to relate that Scott swore only two men ever admitted to him they saw a ghost and both eventually ended their lives by suicide. One was Stanhope.

The other was Lord Castlereagh.

“The Hostess from Hell” – Holland House Part Two

Elizabeth Fox, Baroness Holland, was the daughter of a Jamaican planter.  Married off to Lord Webster, a man twenty years her senior, she gave birth to three children before falling in love with another man, bearing him a child out-of-wedlock.  Not two days divorced, she married her lover Lord Holland.

Lady Holland with her son – Louis Gauffier

The ton could not forget her scandalous past and so declined to receive her.  No matter, Lord and Lady Holland did their own receiving, hosting the most influential men of the day at Holland House.  The few women who came were fellow Whigs, the Duchess of Devonshire and that fashionable marchioness from Berkeley Square, Lady Lansdowne.

Baroness Holland was the complete opposite of her husband.  She was gruff where he was affable, imperious when he would give way.  Long, boring discourse was not tolerated at her table–her ladyship was known to dispatch her footman to admonish the offending guest.

Thomas Moore, which this blog christened Regency Poet of Wine and Love, once said, “poets inclined to a plethora of vanity would find a dose of Lady Holland now and then very good for their complaint.”

“I’m sorry you are going to publish a poem,” she said to Lord Portchester.  “Can’t you suppress it?”

And to the great English poet, Samuel Rogers, she advised, “You’re poetry is bad enough, so pray be sparing about your prose.”

Lady Holland reminds me of the Gosford Park character Constance, Countess of Trentham.  There is something sinfully joyous about her acidic observations.  This one she offers to the American film and radio star Ivor Novello:

LadyTrentham: It must be hard to know when it’s time to throw in the towel… What a pity about that last one of yours… what was it called? “The Dodger”? Novello:   The Lodger. LadyTrentham:   The Lodger. It must be so disappointing when something just flops like that.

Lady Holland lived to the age of seventy-four.  When tentatively shown Byron’s memoirs, which were none too complimentary of his hostess at Holland House, she shrugged.

“Such things give me no uneasiness; I know perfectly my station in the world, and I know all that can be said of me.  As long as the few friends I am really sure of speak kindly of me, all that the rest of the world can say is a matter of complete indifference to me.”

The Regency Poet of Wine and Love

Thomas Moore (1779 – 1852) was an Irish poet popular not only in Regency England but in America as well.

They called him Anacreon Moore, and not just for his translation of that poet’s Odes.

The Greek poet Anacreon 582-485 BC)

Anacreon was an ancient Greek poet whose bacchanalia earned him the reputation of a lecherous drunkard:

Ah tell me why you turn and fly,My little Thracian filly shy?

I can tell you why.  Just look at the man.

Apart from wine and love, a poet must needs be passionate, and Tom Moore was definitely that. It helped to be Irish–he being the son of a Dublin grocer.  Upon his arrival in London, Lord Lansdowne was among the first to recognize his considerable talent.  The marquess introduced him to the first circles of the ton and soon he was writing to his mama about how he was

“dining with bishops, supping with princes, going to concerts with Lady Harrington, escorting Lady Charlotte Moira to balls and attending Blue-Stocking parties.” — The Chautauquan:  Organ of the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle, Volume 18

His diary at the time was filled with evidence of his immense popularity and the significance of Lansdowne House to his rising star:

“Dined at Lord Lansdowne’s..Introduced to Lady Cochrane, who told me she would at any time have walked ten miles barefooted to see me.”

All of this was bound to go to a young man’s head.

A triumphant tour of the United States ended rather badly.  Moore was an outspoken critic of the Democratic-Republican (dear me!) party and of Thomas Jefferson in particular.

By the time he returned to England, his passionate nature had not yet been tempered.  This made him particularly vulnerable to his critics and led him to fighting a duel with one of them, Francis Jeffrey, an editor (!)  Byron relished the events surrounding his potent rival and most particularly the rumor Moore had supplied his opponent with an empty pistol, gleefully observing:

 “…on examination, the balls of the pistols, like the courage of the combatants, were found to have evaporated.”

The duel was broken up and the combatants imprisoned.  Moore was eventually released but his love for extravagance and marriage to a penniless actress soon landed him in dun territory.  It was Lord Lansdowne who fished him out of River Tick but Moore found himself compelled to leave England.  In his travels abroad, he was to encounter Byron again.  That old Romantic begged his former rival to publish his memoirs.  However, Byron’s family persuaded Moore to destroy them which he did, to much criticism.

Thomas Moore - national bard of Ireland

Like many thwarted in other ambitions, Moore did two things.  He returned to his homeland to sing a duet with the Queen Mother before HM Queen Victoria.  And settle down to write novels.

Tragically, he witnessed the death of all his children.  Yet song and poetry remained to comfort him.

He is to Ireland what Robert Burns is to Scotland.  A true protegee of Lansdowne House.