Georgian: great era for nicknames

March 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

Athenian Stuart…Single Speech Hamilton…Capability Brown

March’s Literary Review goes in for a little of one of my favorite topics – Capability Brown. In her atrociously titled piece, “The Earth Moved for Him”, Amanda Foreman reviews Jane Brown’s biography of the über influential master landscape gardener, The Omnipotent Magician: Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown 1716-1783, likewise absurdly titled.

But I’m indebted to Foreman’s otherwise cracking piece for putting me on the track of art historian Dorothy Stroud’s 1950 biography, a work I hadn’t heard of and will now endeavor to find.



June 11, 2009 § Leave a comment

“…She was a woman of much deeper feeling than the world imagined,’ one friend of Anna Barbauld said. She was also a woman of extraordinary sense, writing at the height of invasion fever in 1803, ‘I am sure we do not believe in the danger we pretend to believe in; and I am sure that none of us can even form an idea how we should feel if we were forced to believe it.’ Against the grain of her own times and against ours, that likes its Regency women glamorous and scandalous, Anna Letitia Barbauld emerges as a sort of intellectual heroine…”

Read the entirety of A Dissenting Voice, Claire Harman’s review of Anna Letitia Barbauld: Voice of the Enlightenment by William McCarthy at Literary Review


March 21, 2009 § Leave a comment

Hallie Rubenhold’s 2008 work Lady Worsley’s Whim is a scholarly and highly entertaining account of the 1782 Criminal Conversation trial of the era. The details of the personal lives of Sir Richard Worsley, 7th Baron of Appuldercombe, his wife Lady Seymour Worsley and her lover George Bisset riveted society and, through the newspapers and the action in the courts, the general public.

BBC Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime programme produced a very enjoyable reading by Rosamund Pike and it’s available to listen to at Four Georges Archive

Related Posts on Grey Pony: A Woman of Spirit: Lady Seymour, and Friends

Austen and The Woolf

January 2, 2009 § 4 Comments

“When she was laid in the cradle again she knew not only what the world looked like, but had already chosen her kingdom.”

It is unusually long for a blogpost I know but I can’t resist posting this essay in it’s entirety. Virginia Woolf’s essay on Jane Austen was published in her 1925 collection of essays on books The Common Reader (First Series). Typically of Woolf, it’s style has a liquidity unique to it’s author and it’s substance is highly intelligent, and sets one thinking for days.

The University of Adelaide eText Centre publishes both series of The Common Reader online. Essays in the First Series 1925 also include Defoe, The Lives of the Obscure: Taylors and Edgeworths and George Eliot.  There is moreover so much necessary reading in the Second Series 1925, including Dr Burney’s Evening Party, De Quincey’s Autobiography, Four Figures: Cowper and Lady Austen, Beau Brummel, Mary Wollstonecraft and Dorothy Wordsworth and “Aurora Leigh”.

Jane Austen by Virginia Woolf

It is probable that if Miss Cassandra Austen had had her way we should have had nothing of Jane Austen’s except her novels. To her elder sister alone did she write freely; to her alone she confided her hopes and, if rumour is true, the one great disappointment of her life; but when Miss Cassandra Austen grew old, and the growth of her sister’s fame made her suspect that a time might come when strangers would pry and scholars speculate, she burnt, at great cost to herself, every letter that could gratify their curiosity, and spared only what she judged too trivial to be of interest.

Hence our knowledge of Jane Austen is derived from a little gossip, a few letters, and her books. As for the gossip, gossip which has survived its day is never despicable; with a little rearrangement it suits our purpose admirably. For example, Jane “is not at all pretty and very prim, unlike a girl of twelve . . . Jane is whimsical and affected,” says little Philadelphia Austen of her cousin. Then we have Mrs. Mitford, who knew the Austens as girls and thought Jane “the prettiest, silliest, most affected husband-hunting butterfly she ever remembers “. Next, there is Miss Mitford’s anonymous friend “who visits her now [and] says that she has stiffened into the most perpendicular, precise, taciturn piece of ‘single blessedness’ that ever existed, and that, until Pride and Prejudice showed what a precious gem was hidden in that unbending case, she was no more regarded in society than a poker or firescreen. . . . The case is very different now”, the good lady goes on; “she is still a poker—but a poker of whom everybody is afraid. . . . A wit, a delineator of character, who does not talk is terrific indeed!” On the other side, of course, there are the Austens, a race little given to panegyric of themselves, but nevertheless, they say, her brothers “were very fond and very proud of her. They were attached to her by her talents, her virtues, and her engaging manners, and each loved afterwards to fancy a resemblance in some niece or daughter of his own to the dear sister Jane, whose perfect equal they yet never expected to see.” Charming but perpendicular, loved at home but feared by strangers, biting of tongue but tender of heart—these contrasts are by no means incompatible, and when we turn to the novels we shall find ourselves stumbling there too over the same complexities in the writer.

To begin with, that prim little girl whom Philadelphia found so unlike a child of twelve, whimsical and affected, was soon to be the authoress of an astonishing and unchildish story, Love and Freindship,which, incredible though it appears, was written at the age of fifteen. It was written, apparently, to amuse the schoolroom; one of the stories in the same book is dedicated with mock solemnity to her brother; another is neatly illustrated with water-colour heads by her sister. These are jokes which, one feels, were family property; thrusts of satire, which went home because all little Austens made mock in common of fine ladies who “sighed and fainted on the sofa”. Brothers and sisters must have laughed when Jane read out loud her last hit at the vices which they all abhorred. “I die a martyr to my grief for the loss of Augustus. One fatal swoon has cost me my life. Beware of Swoons, Dear Laura. . . . Run mad as often as you chuse, but do not faint. . . .” And on she rushed, as fast as she could write and quicker than she could spell, to tell the incredible adventures of Laura and Sophia, of Philander and Gustavus, of the gentleman who drove a coach between Edinburgh and Stirling every other day, of the theft of the fortune that was kept in the table drawer, of the starving mothers and the sons who acted Macbeth. Undoubtedly, the story must have roused the schoolroom to uproarious laughter. And yet, nothing is more obvious than that this girl of fifteen, sitting in her private corner of the common parlour, was writing not to draw a laugh from brother and sisters, and not for home consumption. She was writing for everybody, for nobody, for our age, for her own; in other words, even at that early age Jane Austen was writing. One hears it in the rhythm and shapeliness and severity of the sentences. “She was nothing more than a mere good-tempered, civil, and obliging young woman; as such we could scarcely dislike her—she was only an object of contempt.” Such a sentence is meant to outlast the Christmas holidays. Spirited, easy, full of fun, verging with freedom upon sheer nonsense,—Love and Freindship is all that; but what is this note which never merges in the rest, which sounds distinctly and penetratingly all through the volume? It is the sound of laughter. The girl of fifteen is laughing, in her corner, at the world.

Girls of fifteen are always laughing. They laugh when Mr. Binney helps himself to salt instead of sugar. They almost die of laughing when old Mrs. Tomkins sits down upon the cat. But they are crying the moment after. They have no fixed abode from which they see that there is something eternally laughable in human nature, some quality in men and women that for ever excites our satire. They do not know that Lady Greville who snubs, and poor Maria who is snubbed, are permanent features of every ballroom. But Jane Austen knew it from her birth upwards. One of those fairies who perch upon cradles must have taken her a flight through the world directly she was born. When she was laid in the cradle again she knew not only what the world looked like, but had already chosen her kingdom. She had agreed that if she might rule over that territory, she would covet no other. Thus at fifteen she had few illusions about other people and none about herself. Whatever she writes is finished and turned and set in its relation, not to the parsonage, but to the universe. She is impersonal; she is inscrutable. When the writer, Jane Austen, wrote down in the most remarkable sketch in the book a little of Lady Greville’s conversation, there is no trace of anger at the snub which the clergyman’s daughter, Jane Austen, once received. Her gaze passes straight to the mark, and we know precisely where, upon the map of human nature, that mark is. We know because Jane Austen kept to her compact; she never trespassed beyond her boundaries. Never, even at the emotional age of fifteen, did she round upon herself in shame, obliterate a sarcasm in a spasm of compassion, or blur an outline in a mist of rhapsody. Spasms and rhapsodies, she seems to have said, pointing with her stick, end THERE; and the boundary line is perfectly distinct. But she does not deny that moons and mountains and castles exist—on the other side. She has even one romance of her own. It is for the Queen of Scots. She really admired her very much. “One of the first characters in the world”, she called her, “a bewitching Princess whose only friend was then the Duke of Norfolk, and whose only ones now Mr. Whitaker, Mrs. Lefroy, Mrs. Knight and myself.” With these words her passion is neatly circumscribed, and rounded with a laugh. It is amusing to remember in what terms the young Brontë‘s wrote, not very much later, in their northern parsonage, about the Duke of Wellington.

The prim little girl grew up. She became “the prettiest, silliest, most affected husband-hunting butterfly” Mrs. Mitford ever remembered, and, incidentally, the authoress of a novel called Pride and Prejudice, which, written stealthily under cover of a creaking door, lay for many years unpublished. A little later, it is thought, she began another story, The Watsons, and being for some reason dissatisfied with it, left it unfinished. The second-rate works of a great writer are worth reading because they offer the best criticism of his masterpieces. Here her difficulties are more apparent, and the method she took to overcome them less artfully concealed. To begin with, the stiffness and the bareness of the first chapters prove that she was one of those writers who lay their facts out rather baldly in the first version and then go back and back and back and cover them with flesh and atmosphere. How it would have been done we cannot say—by what suppressions and insertions and artful devices. But the miracle would have been accomplished; the dull history of fourteen years of family life would have been converted into another of those exquisite and apparently effortless introductions; and we should never have guessed what pages of preliminary drudgery Jane Austen forced her pen to go through. Here we perceive that she was no conjuror after all. Like other writers, she had to create the atmosphere in which her own peculiar genius could bear fruit. Here she fumbles; here she keeps us waiting. Suddenly she has done it; now things can happen as she likes things to happen. The Edwardses are going to the ball. The Tomlinsons’ carriage is passing; she can tell us that Charles is “being provided with his gloves and told to keep them on”; Tom Musgrave retreats to a remote corner with a barrel of oysters and is famously snug. Her genius is freed and active. At once our senses quicken; we are possessed with the peculiar intensity which she alone can impart. But of what is it all composed? Of a ball in a country town; a few couples meeting and taking hands in an assembly room; a little eating and drinking; and for catastrophe, a boy being snubbed by one young lady and kindly treated by another. There is no tragedy and no heroism. Yet for some reason the little scene is moving out of all proportion to its surface solemnity. We have been made to see that if Emma acted so in the ball-room, how considerate, how tender, inspired by what sincerity of feeling she would have shown herself in those graver crises of life which, as we watch her, come inevitably before our eyes. Jane Austen is thus a mistress of much deeper emotion than appears upon the surface. She stimulates us to supply what is not there. What she offers is, apparently, a trifle, yet is composed of something that expands in the reader’s mind and endows with the most enduring form of life scenes which are outwardly trivial. Always the stress is laid upon character. How, we are made to wonder, will Emma behave when Lord Osborne and Tom Musgrave make their call at five minutes before three, just as Mary is bringing in the tray and the knife-case? It is an extremely awkward situation. The young men are accustomed to much greater refinement. Emma may prove herself ill-bred, vulgar, a nonentity. The turns and twists of the dialogue keep us on the tenterhooks of suspense. Our attention is half upon the present moment, half upon the future. And when, in the end, Emma behaves in such a way as to vindicate our highest hopes of her, we are moved as if we had been made witnesses of a matter of the highest importance. Here, indeed, in this unfinished and in the main inferior story, are all the elements of Jane Austen’s greatness. It has the permanent quality of literature. Think away the surface animation, the likeness to life, and there remains, to provide a deeper pleasure, an exquisite discrimination of human values. Dismiss this too from the mind and one can dwell with extreme satisfaction upon the more abstract art which, in the ball-room scene, so varies the emotions and proportions the parts that it is possible to enjoy it, as one enjoys poetry, for itself, and not as a link which carries the story this way and that.

But the gossip says of Jane Austen that she was perpendicular, precise, and taciturn—“a poker of whom everybody is afraid”. Of this too there are traces; she could be merciless enough; she is one of the most consistent satirists in the whole of literature. Those first angular chapters of The Watsons prove that hers was not a prolific genius; she had not, like Emily Brontë, merely to open the door to make herself felt. Humbly and gaily she collected the twigs and straws out of which the nest was to be made and placed them neatly together. The twigs and straws were a little dry and a little dusty in themselves. There was the big house and the little house; a tea party, a dinner party, and an occasional picnic; life was hedged in by valuable connections and adequate incomes; by muddy roads, wet feet, and a tendency on the part of the ladies to get tired; a little principle supported it, a little consequence, and the education commonly enjoyed by upper middle-class families living in the country. Vice, adventure, passion were left outside. But of all this prosiness, of all this littleness, she evades nothing, and nothing is slurred over. Patiently and precisely she tells us how they “made no stop anywhere till they reached Newbury, where a comfortable meal, uniting dinner and supper, wound up the enjoyments and fatigues of the day”. Nor does she pay to conventions merely the tribute of lip homage; she believes in them besides accepting them. When she is describing a clergyman, like Edmund Bertram, or a sailor, in particular, she appears debarred by the sanctity of his office from the free use of her chief tool, the comic genius, and is apt therefore to lapse into decorous panegyric or matter-of-fact description. But these are exceptions; for the most part her attitude recalls the anonymous lady’s ejaculation—“A wit, a delineator of character, who does not talk is terrific indeed!” She wishes neither to reform nor to annihilate; she is silent; and that is terrific indeed. One after another she creates her fools, her prigs, her worldlings, her Mr. Collinses, her Sir Walter Elliotts, her Mrs. Bennets. She encircles them with the lash of a whip-like phrase which, as it runs round them, cuts out their silhouettes for ever. But there they remain; no excuse is found for them and no mercy shown them. Nothing remains of Julia and Maria Bertram when she has done with them; Lady Bertram is left “sitting and calling to Pug and trying to keep him from the flower-beds” eternally. A divine justice is meted out; Dr. Grant, who begins by liking his goose tender, ends by bringing on “apoplexy and death, by three great institutionary dinners in one week”. Sometimes it seems as if her creatures were born merely to give Jane Austen the supreme delight of slicing their heads off. She is satisfied; she is content; she would not alter a hair on anybody’s head, or move one brick or one blade of grass in a world which provides her with such exquisite delight.

Nor, indeed, would we. For even if the pangs of outraged vanity, or the heat of moral wrath, urged us to improve away a world so full of spite, pettiness, and folly, the task is beyond our powers. People are like that—the girl of fifteen knew it; the mature woman proves it. At this very moment some Lady Bertram is trying to keep Pug from the flower beds; she sends Chapman to help Miss Fanny a little late. The discrimination is so perfect, the satire so just, that, consistent though it is, it almost escapes our notice. No touch of pettiness, no hint of spite, rouse us from our contemplation. Delight strangely mingles with our amusement. Beauty illumines these fools.

That elusive quality is, indeed, often made up of very different parts, which it needs a peculiar genius to bring together. The wit of Jane Austen has for partner the perfection of her taste. Her fool is a fool, her snob is a snob, because he departs from the model of sanity and sense which she has in mind, and conveys to us unmistakably even while she makes us laugh. Never did any novelist make more use of an impeccable sense of human values. It is against the disc of an unerring heart, an unfailing good taste, an almost stern morality, that she shows up those deviations from kindness, truth, and sincerity which are among the most delightful things in English literature. She depicts a Mary Crawford in her mixture of good and bad entirely by this means. She lets her rattle on against the clergy, or in favour of a baronetage and ten thousand a year, with all the ease and spirit possible; but now and again she strikes one note of her own, very quietly, but in perfect tune, and at once all Mary Crawford’s chatter, though it continues to amuse, rings flat. Hence the depth, the beauty, the complexity of her scenes. From such contrasts there comes a beauty, a solemnity even, which are not only as remarkable as her wit, but an inseparable part of it. In The Watsons she gives us a foretaste of this power; she makes us wonder why an ordinary act of kindness, as she describes it, becomes so full of meaning. In her masterpieces, the same gift is brought to perfection. Here is nothing out of the way; it is midday in Northamptonshire; a dull young man is talking to rather a weakly young woman on the stairs as they go up to dress for dinner, with housemaids passing. But, from triviality, from commonplace, their words become suddenly full of meaning, and the moment for both one of the most memorable in their lives. It fills itself; it shines; it glows; it hangs before us, deep, trembling, serene for a second; next, the housemaid passes, and this drop, in which all the happiness of life has collected, gently subsides again to become part of the ebb and flow of ordinary existence.

What more natural, then, with this insight into their profundity, than that Jane Austen should have chosen to write of the trivialities of day-to-day existence, of parties, picnics, and country dances? No “suggestions to alter her style of writing” from the Prince Regent or Mr. Clarke could tempt her; no romance, no adventure, no politics or intrigue could hold a candle to life on a country-house staircase as she saw it. Indeed, the Prince Regent and his librarian had run their heads against a very formidable obstacle; they were trying to tamper with an incorruptible conscience, to disturb an infallible discretion. The child who formed her sentences so finely when she was fifteen never ceased to form them, and never wrote for the Prince Regent or his Librarian, but for the world at large. She knew exactly what her powers were, and what material they were fitted to deal with as material should be dealt with by a writer whose standard of finality was high. There were impressions that lay outside her province; emotions that by no stretch or artifice could be properly coated and covered by her own resources. For example, she could not make a girl talk enthusiastically of banners and chapels. She could not throw herself whole-heartedly into a romantic moment. She had all sorts of devices for evading scenes of passion. Nature and its beauties she approached in a sidelong way of her own. She describes a beautiful night without once mentioning the moon. Nevertheless, as we read the few formal phrases about “the brilliancy of an unclouded night and the contrast of the deep shade of the woods”, the night is at once as “solemn, and soothing, and lovely” as she tells us, quite simply, that it was.

The balance of her gifts was singularly perfect. Among her finished novels there are no failures, and among her many chapters few that sink markedly below the level of the others. But, after all, she died at the age of forty-two. She died at the height of her powers. She was still subject to those changes which often make the final period of a writer’s career the most interesting of all. Vivacious, irrepressible, gifted with an invention of great vitality, there can be no doubt that she would have written more, had she lived, and it is tempting to consider whether she would not have written differently. The boundaries were marked; moons, mountains, and castles lay on the other side. But was she not sometimes tempted to trespass for a minute? Was she not beginning, in her own gay and brilliant manner, to contemplate a little voyage of discovery?

Let us take Persuasion, the last completed novel, and look by its light at the books she might have written had she lived. There is a peculiar beauty and a peculiar dullness in Persuasion. The dullness is that which so often marks the transition stage between two different periods. The writer is a little bored. She has grown too familiar with the ways of her world; she no longer notes them freshly. There is an asperity in her comedy which suggests that she has almost ceased to be amused by the vanities of a Sir Walter or the snobbery of a Miss Elliott. The satire is harsh, and the comedy crude. She is no longer so freshly aware of the amusements of daily life. Her mind is not altogether on her object. But, while we feel that Jane Austen has done this before, and done it better, we also feel that she is trying to do something which she has never yet attempted. There is a new element in Persuasion, the quality, perhaps, that made Dr. Whewell fire up and insist that it was “the most beautiful of her works”. She is beginning to discover that the world is larger, more mysterious, and more romantic than she had supposed. We feel it to be true of herself when she says of Anne: “She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older—the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning”. She dwells frequently upon the beauty and the melancholy of nature, upon the autumn where she had been wont to dwell upon the spring. She talks of the “influence so sweet and so sad of autumnal months in the country”. She marks “the tawny leaves and withered hedges”. “One does not love a place the less because one has suffered in it”, she observes. But it is not only in a new sensibility to nature that we detect the change. Her attitude to life itself is altered. She is seeing it, for the greater part of the book, through the eyes of a woman who, unhappy herself, has a special sympathy for the happiness and unhappiness of others, which, until the very end, she is forced to comment upon in silence. Therefore the observation is less of facts and more of feelings than is usual. There is an expressed emotion in the scene at the concert and in the famous talk about woman’s constancy which proves not merely the biographical fact that Jane Austen had loved, but the aesthetic fact that she was no longer afraid to say so. Experience, when it was of a serious kind, had to sink very deep, and to be thoroughly disinfected by the passage of time, before she allowed herself to deal with it in fiction. But now, in 1817, she was ready. Outwardly, too, in her circumstances, a change was imminent. Her fame had grown very slowly. “I doubt”, wrote Mr. Austen Leigh, “whether it would be possible to mention any other author of note whose personal obscurity was so complete.” Had she lived a few more years only, all that would have been altered. She would have stayed in London, dined out, lunched out, met famous people, made new friends, read, travelled, and carried back to the quiet country cottage a hoard of observations to feast upon at leisure.

And what effect would all this have had upon the six novels that Jane Austen did not write? She would not have written of crime, of passion, or of adventure. She would not have been rushed by the importunity of publishers or the flattery of friends into slovenliness or insincerity. But she would have known more. Her sense of security would have been shaken. Her comedy would have suffered. She would have trusted less (this is already perceptible in Persuasion) to dialogue and more to reflection to give us a knowledge of her characters. Those marvellous little speeches which sum up, in a few minutes’ chatter, all that we need in order to know an Admiral Croft or a Mrs. Musgrove for ever, that shorthand, hit-or-miss method which contains chapters of analysis and psychology, would have become too crude to hold all that she now perceived of the complexity of human nature. She would have devised a method, clear and composed as ever, but deeper and more suggestive, for conveying not only what people say, but what they leave unsaid; not only what they are, but what life is. She would have stood farther away from her characters, and seen them more as a group, less as individuals. Her satire, while it played less incessantly, would have been more stringent and severe. She would have been the forerunner of Henry James and of Proust—but enough. Vain are these speculations: the most perfect artist among women, the writer whose books are immortal, died “just as she was beginning to feel confidence in her own success”.

– This essay Jane Austen was published in Virginia Woolf’s The Common Reader (First Series) 1925.

Seymour: A Woman of Spirit, and Friends

December 22, 2008 § Leave a comment

Lady Worsley’s Whim 2008 by Hallie Rubenhold is an excellently researched and written account of a real-life  Georgian sex scandle. ‘To have Criminal Conversation with’ is an 18th century euphemism for adultery and the 1782 Crim Con trial involving George Bisset, his lover Lady Seymour Worsley and her husband Sir Richard Worsley, 7th Baronet Worsley of Appuldercombe is an exquisit example of exactly why any lengths would be gone to to avoid public scandal in Georgian Britain.

Lady Worsley herself courted scandal after her seperation from her husband and I’m so glad she did, for otherwise we wouldn’t have the contemporary news and gossip reports of Seymour’s activities, whether they occured in the courts or behind doors that appear to have never been closed, so skillfully presented by Hallie Rubenhold.

Francis Wilson, author of The Courtesan’s Revenge: The Life of Harriette Wilson, the Woman Who Blackmailed the King 2003, gives an enthusiastic review and superb synopsis in Literary Review:

“Because the market is saturated with eighteenth-century bodice biographies, most indistinguishable from the next, Lady Worsley’s Whim should come with a warning: nothing else in the genre is close to being this good. As a historian and a storyteller, Hallie Rubenhold is in a league of her own.”

Lady Worsley by Sir Joshua Reynolds 1776

Lady Worsley by Sir Joshua Reynolds 1776

Sir Richard Worsley by Sir Joshua Reynolds 1775

Sir Richard Worsley by Sir Joshua Reynolds 1775

Speaking of Francis Wilson, her biography of Harriette Wilson (no relation) is also extremely good. Destitute and past her prime as a courtesan, Harriette caused a sensation in 1825 when she published her memoirs in salacious weekly tidbits. Rather cleverly, she would name drop a famed punter at the end of each edition, and if the client didn’t pay up during the week following, details of his encounters with the courtesan would then be laid out in print for the ravenous public in the next installment. Her former associates had included the Duke of Wellington, George Canning and Lord Palmerston (to name just the prime ministers). Francis Wilson’s research is impecable and her style is academic and highly readable:

Frances Wilson’s biography of the famous Regency courtesan Harriette Wilson also opens with a composition in light and dark, this time a landscape rather than a body. From Virginia Woolf’s review of Harriette’s Memoirs, she borrows the image of a continent divided by a sword’s shadow. One side is bright and orderly: the world of decent society, through which a respectable woman walks as if on a path through Kew Gardens. The other is a glowering, tumbled wilderness of precipices and ruins. A man can traverse the whole continent at will, stepping from gloom to sunlight and back – but any woman who once crosses the shadow of the sword can never return to the light.

This crepuscular, divided world, the demi-monde of “High Impures” and their clients, forms the setting for both books. The Courtesan’s Revenge focuses on one extraordinary woman, a boyish livewire better remembered for an act of audacious literary blackmail than for her original profession. With her career in decline, Harriette Wilson threw London into mingled panic and delight in 1825 by publishing her Memoirs – as a serial, each instalment containing a list of eminent names which would feature in the next episode if their owners did not pay to have them removed.

– From Sarah Bakewell’s review in The Independent 30 August 2003

Facsimile of a portrait of Harriette Wilson, from the 1909 edition of her memoirs published by Eveleigh Nash, London

Another very high quality biography of a fascinating Georgian character is Lorna Gibb’s book about Lady Hester Stanhope, the aristocratic niece of long serving Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger. Lady Hester: Queen of the East 2005 chronicles Hester’s privileged young life, her dazzling career as a Tory hostess and extraordinary later life as a great traveler through Arabia and a figure of great authority in her adopted home of Joun, Lebanon.

“Lorna Gibb’s biography is an elegant, scholarly production, all the notes and sources are present and correct. There are some useful condensed passages of explanation concerning unfamiliar sects and customs, such as the religious practices of the Druze, the people to whom Hester offered help and protection. Gibb has a talent for vivid, detailed descriptions of places and climates. Hester was a gardener, and the descriptions of the gardens she made, both in England and in her last home in the mountains of Lebanon are among the treasures of this book.”

– From Patricia Duncker’s review in The Independent 1 May 2005

The portraits in this post are housed at Harwood House © the Earl and Countess of Harewood and Trustees of the Harewood House Trust

The Diodati Stories and Their Authors: Lord Byron

September 12, 2007 § 3 Comments

Diodati 1816
by By Robert Gordon

Byron and Shelley and Mary and Claire,
Braced by the grandeur and quick Alpine air,
Clustered themselves in a Genevese site,
Telling of spirits and ghosts in the night,
Byron was piqued by the whispering gloom;
Shelly had visions and ran from the room;
Claire became pregnant (her passion, his wine);
And Mary, bright Mary, begot

George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron of Rochdale
22 January 178819 April 1824

George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron 1813 Richard Westall, Nation Portrait Gallery London

Famously charactierized, no doubt to his secret gratification, by Lady Caroline Lamb as the ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ titular anti-hero in her 1816 novel Glenarvon , Angl0-Scottish poet and satirist George Gordon, sixth baron Byron, was born on 27th January 1788 to an English aristocrat father and a Scottish aristocrat mother. He was the son of the profligate “mad Jack” Captain Byron and following the captain’s death he was raised in Aberdeen by his mother. Byron was educated at Harrow and Cambridge, and having inherited his barony, he took his seat in the House of Lords in 1809. Byron would become a leading figure of the Romantic movement and one of the most famous Georgians, a personage whose full tilt life fascinated his contemporaries. Among his best-known works are the narrative poems Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Don Juan.

His first published work Hours of Idleness (1807) was the subject of a severe notice in The Edinburgh Review (January 1807) provoking the riposte of Byron’s satiric British Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809). The final stage of his education as an aristocrat was the Grand Tour which Byron undertook (1809-11) in the company of his friend John Cam Hobhouse. The Napoleonic Wars prevented the usual culmination of the tour in Italy, and Byron traveled through Portugal, Spain, Gibraltar and Malta to the more exotic regions of Albania and the Grecian provinces of the Ottoman Empire.

In 1812 when Byron published the first two cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage ( 1812-1818 ) he became an adored character of London society; he spoke in the House of Lords effectively on liberal themes and was hugely popular, a veritable Georgian celebrity. But fervent talk of his manifold loves affairs and rumors of homosexual liaisons (though such liaisons were certainly not unheard of at Cambridge), of incest and of his cruelty to his wife during his short lived marriage to Anne Isabella Milbanke in 1815, abounded. Lady Byron’s request for a separation, following the birth of their daughter, affirmed public belief in the stories of Byron’s supposed incest with his half sister Augusta Leigh . Though his poetry was more popular than ever, Byron chose to exile himself from England.

The much canvassed story telling night at the Villa Diodati in Switzerland came to pass in the summer of 1816. Through Claire Claremont, who had recently become Byron’s mistress and hoped to remain so, Byron acquired the friendship of her step sister Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and her future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley. With his personal physician John Polidori, a brilliant young doctor from a literary family, living with him, Bryon rented the Villa Diodoti on the shores of Lake Geneva. The Shelley party followed and lodged at the nearby Campagne Chapuis and Byron and Shelley’s friendship, according to Mary Shelley’s recollections, was instant, deep and firm until the later’s death in 1822.

In her introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley related the famous anecdote of how in the midst of inclement weather (probably beginning on June 16th) the party (herself, Shelley, Byron, Polidori and Clare Clairmont) were housebound at Diodati and read aloud from what scholars later identified as Fantasmagoriana, ou Recueil d’Histoires d’Apparitions de Spectres, Revenans, Fantomes, etc.; traduit de l’allemand, par un Amateur 1812 by Baptiste Benoit Eyrie. The Fantasmagoriana is a French translation of a German collection of ghost stories, Das Gespensterbuch compiled by Friedrich August Schulze, which later appeared in London in 1813 under the title Tales of the Dead. Shelley recorded that, prompted by these readings, Byron challenged the company to each compose a horrific tale. Polidori’s diary from that summer later confirmed the veracity of this event, and the pastime probably occupied them for less than a week¹. Percy Shelley wrote a forgettable story, Byron began and abandoned a story, later made public by the author with the title Fragment of a Novel. From this fragment Polidori wove The Vampyre, the first modern vampire tale, in which the main man Lord Ruthven, is unmaskedly modeled on Byron. Mary Shelley experienced what she described as a ‘waking nightmare’ that would give birth to Dr Frankenstein and his Creature and the philosophical Gothic novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.

The party soon afterward broke up and Byron, after traveling further abroad again with John Cam Hobhouse, would spend almost the rest of his life in Italy. For several years he lived with the Countess Teresa Guicciolo and he then became involved with the revolutionary politics that made him truly happy. He won the friendship of Teresa’s father and brother who initiated him into the secret revolutionary society of the Carbonari. In Ravenna he was brought into closer touch with the life of the Italian people than he had ever been. He gave arms to the Carbonari and alms to the poor. It was one of the happiest and most productive periods of his life and Byron produced some of his greatest poetry during this time, as well as being much involved with Leigh and John Hunt’s new periodical The Liberal, which being printed in Italy could not be censored by the British government, nor could the participants be jailed for publishing politically or socially liberal material, as they could and had been in England.

When the Carbonari was put on ice, domesticity with Teresa did not suit and after five years with her Byron left Italy to meet his destiny in Greece. The London Greek Committee had signed Byron on to act as its agent in aiding the Greek war for independence from the Turks and all of his legendary enthusiasm, energy, and imagination were now at the service of the Greek army. The cause suffered setbacks and Byron had reclaimed his school boy homoeroticism in Greece, and had entered into an emotionally straining friendship with the youth Louksa Chalandritsanos, whom he addressed in his final poems. Never stable, his emotional and physical being deteriorated rapidly during a period of ill health. After a series of violent fevers and fits he was repeatedly and ill-advisably bled, which led to a coma, and Lord Byron died in Greece on April 19 1824. Deeply mourned by the Greeks, his body was embalmed and the heart was removed and buried in Missolonghi.

Allegra Byron, his daughter by Claire Claremont died in childhood at the convent where Byron had placed her. Elizabeth Medora Leigh, the daughter of his half sister Augusta Leigh believed by many to be his, led a troubled life and was often supported by Byron’s former wife Anne Isabella Millbank. Their legitimate daughter, Ada Lovelace, also supported Elizabeth believing her to be either her half sister or her cousin, until Elizabeth’s death in France, aged 35. Ada, a mathematician, became very well know in society, in the arts and in mathematical circles, and she collaborated with Charles Babbage on the analytical engine, a predecessor to modern computers. Ada Lovelace was also bled to death by her physician at age 36 while receiving treatment for cancer.

¹Dr. Polidori and the Genesis of Frankenstein by James Rieger, published in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 3, No. 4, Nineteenth Century (Autumn, 1963), pp. 461-472

Related topics on Grey Pony: La Terruer: The Northanger Canon, Sublime Anxiety: The Northanger Canon

Peaches and Cream: Lady Hamilton

August 14, 2007 § 1 Comment

Emma, Lady Hamilton

1765 – 1815


Undoubtedly the most well remembered scandal of Georgian England was the devoted alliance between Emma, Lady Hamilton and the hero of the nation, Horatio Nelson. Like any public and unconventional woman, an inordinate amount has been written about Lady Hamilton, much of it unflattering and most of it untrue. The daughter of a blacksmith Emma, born Emy Lyon in Cheshire in 1765, was at the age of sixteen or seventeen a most ravishingly beautiful girl who had become the full time mistress of the Hon. Charles Greville, after her first wealthy protector, Sir Harry Fetherstonehaugh had tired of her during her pregnancy with his child.  Greville took her and her widowed mother Mrs Cadogan into his care after her daughter was born and took a house for them on Edgware Row in Paddington Green. Emy Lyon thereafter went by the more upwardly mobile name of Mrs Emma Hart. Before her time with Fetherstonehaugh and Greville as a domestic mistress, Emy held places as a nursemaid in two or three private houses. Her daughter by Fetherstonehaugh, Emma Carew, was brought up by her grandmother in Wales.

During the five years she lived with Greville, Emma sat more than 100 times for the painter George Romney. Though many these sittings were by Romney’s desire, Emma was his ultimate muse, many of them were commissioned by Greville and it was the cost of these portraits, along with his obsession for collecting mineral specimens,  that helped contribute to the massive personal debts that moved Greville to give Emma up in 1786 in search of a wealthy bride. Greville sent her to Naples to be the guest of his uncle Sir William Hamilton, the British Envoy to Naples, with the expressed plan of following her shortly. Hamilton, who was also a scholar, author and vulcanologist, a leading antiquarian and art collector, knew Emma from a long visit to England in 1783, during which he socialized much with his nephew and nicknamed Emma ‘the fair teamaker of Edgware Row’.  Greville intended to remain in England and marry an heiress, and that the warm, charismatic presence and lovely Grecian beauty of Emma would move the already fond Sir William to keep her himself. If such a relationship were formed, then no children could disinherit Greville of Hamilton’s fortune, as said children would be illegitimate.  After months of waiting faithfully for Greville, the reality of her situation dawned on her and Emma formed a relationship with Sir William, whom she admired and grew to love, and as such she was educated and ‘finished’, the benefits of elocution, foreign language and singing lessons added to her natural graces, and in 1791 he married her.

As Lady Hamilton, Emma was quite literally the toast of Naples society. She was a great favourite at the Neapolitan court of Kind Ferdinand IV and the close friend and confident of the Queen, Maria Carolina (sister of Marie Antoinette of France). In Naples she developed her Attitudes, a repetoire of tableaux vivant poses representing classical characters from Ancient Greek and Roman history, that became famous and much admired in Europe by many, including writer Johann Wolfgang Goethe and composer Joseph Hadyn, other artists and academics and many of the members of parliament, of royal families and of aristocracies within Sir William’s vast and varied ambassadorial, artistic and academic circles.

Though Emma indeed was very beautiful, it was the way she could embody a character as an ideal and her eye for the visually artistic, the skills of a good model and a muse, that made her prized by many painters as a subject, including Vigée le Brun, Marie Antoinette’s friend and principal portrait artist. The Neoclassicism of the Enlightenment and the European Republican admiration for Ancient Greece and Rome were the driving forces behind the radical change of dress in the Georgian period and the simple, classical, Grecian costumes of Lady Hamilton’s Attitudes were highly influential on the Directoire and Empire styles of women’s dress in Europe and Britain.

Emma first met Admiral Nelson briefly in August 1793 when he docked in the Bay of Naples so that he and Sir William could forge a treaty with King Ferninand but it was not until he returned after five years of war in 1798 that their unique relationship was solidified. The bond between Sir William, Emma and Nelson was complicated and highly nuanced. A frail, injured and battle-weary Nelson was nursed back to health and joyfulness by Emma. First as his nursemaid, with the skills and patience she’d learned in her pre-courtesan career and then as his mistress, Emma nurtured and worshiped Nelson who was, at the same time, treated as a son and friend by Sir William. For the next 18 months, Nelson, who was childless but unhappily married to a wife in England, Lady Frances, lived with the Hamiltons.

In 1800 the Hamiltons and Nelson returned to England, where society was far less forgiving and where Nelson, his wife Lady Frances and his family the Nelsons were adored, and where Emma was despised and ridiculed in the press. Nelson spent some time with Lady Nelson at first but soon gave up the charade entirely and, between naval engagements, he was most often a guest in Sir William’s house in London and openly conducted his relationship with Emma. The affair was an outrageous scandal, sympathy and solidarity for the abandoned and blameless Lady Nelson was intense and Emma, though the wife of the highly respected Neapolitan ambassador, was denied presentation at court and duly shunned by ‘good’ society. But she was believed to have become a friend of the Prince Regent, naturally. In 1801 while in the late stages of pregnancy, she still went abroad in London, defying the accepted practice of gentlewomen to not socialize at large once they had began to show, and to remain confined entirely to their homes in late pregnancy. She was consequently lampooned in the press as hugely obese and, despite her education, charm and grace, as vulgar and irredeemably working class.

Their daughter Horatia was born in 1801. Sir William, quite elderly by this time, died in London in 1803 and Nelson purchased a house for Emma at Merton but he himself was assigned to the HMS Victory and would not return to England for two years. Their second child Emma was born not long after his departure and died early of chicken pox. Upon his return , he and Emma lived happily for a few short months as husband and wife at Merton before he was recalled to the war. Horatio Nelson was killed in action at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. In his will, Nelson entrusted Emma’s care to the nation, as his estate must fall to his brother, but this request was ignored by George III and his government. With her working class roots, courtesan background and her adulterous connection to the nation’s hero, Emma Hamilton was an embarrassment. Struggling to keep up Merton as a monument to England’s beloved Nelson, she swiftly burned through all she had within three years and after borrowing money she couldn’t repay, she spent a year with Horatia in King’s Bench debtor’s prison, where the Prince Regent dined with her on occasion. She then left England permanently for France. Lady Hamilton died destitute of alcoholism ten years later in Calais in 1815, her first daughter Emma Carew is believed to have died without issue, abroad or in Wales not long after her mother. Horatia Nelson was taken in by Nelson’s mother’s relations and later married the Reverend Phillip Ward at the age of 21. They were by all accounts a very happy couple and had ten children together, eight of whom survived to adulthood and whose descents still live in Norfolk.

I sometimes wonder if the very public and well publicized scandal of Emma and Nelson had an impact on the way Austen chose to portray the navy and sexual misconduct in Mansfield Park.


The illustrations featured in the post are from Drawings Faithfully Copied from Nature at Naples: And with Permission Dedicated to the Right Honourable Sir William Hamiltonby Friedrich Rehberg, Engraver Tommaso Piroli, Illustrator, 1794

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