Category Archives: Peers and Gentry

The Sagacious Letters of Lord Chesterfield REPOST

For the next 12 days I’ve scheduled a series that may assist with your resolutions for 2013  (naw, probably not, but I’m trying here).  I didn’t get many blog hits back in 2010, so with any luck these reposts will be fresh for the majority of you.

I’ll be on blog vacation through the second week of January, but will be responding to comments, as usual.

Happy New Year, readers!  Here’s hoping that 2013 gives you the best it has to offer.

Originally posted 12/26/10

In the spirit of bettering oneself in the New Year we make resolutions to be fitter, richer, and, if we’re all lucky, kinder. But do we ever resolve to be wiser? Common sense suggests a well-turned out mind is earned through experience over tutelage, but in the case of the 18th century upper classes, les maniéres nobles were gained through rigorous adherence to a social code that demanded one improve upon politesse.  An enviable restraint in animal spirits–virtually extinct today–was what afforded ladies and lords the power to glide through fashionable circles with few incidents to mar their family name.

Given our current fall from social graces, we thankfully possess Lord Chesterfield’s correspondence.  It serves as a guide to what may seem like many a muddled affair of dead persons to the uncritical observer, but I assure you, the advice is pertinent.   For the edification of us all, please allow me to introduce you to our guest, Philip Dormer Stanhope, the 4th Earl of Chesterfield . . .

Best known for his letters to his namesake son, his preeminent work involves schooling his heir on lessons most of us suffer to learn through painful trial and error.  His excessive sophistication at times seems foolish (“In my mind there is nothing so illiberal, and so ill-bred, as audible laughter. . . I am sure that since I have had the full use of my reason nobody has ever heard me laugh.”) but on the whole, his advice is suprisingly apt.  Think of his letters as an 18th century version of the popular book by Dale Carnegie, How to Make Friends and Influence People.

Tomorrow I will begin the first of a seven day course for those interested in how to improve wanting social graces, 18th century style.  We’ll call it Dear Lord Chesterfield (a refined Dear Abby) but for the moment, I’ll leave you with a few fine words from his lordship on achievement dated October 9, 1746:

“. . . I have discovered [in you] laziness, inattention, and indifference; faults of which are only pardonable in old men, who, in the decline of life, when health and spirits fail, have a kind of claim to that sort of tranquility.  But a young man should be ambitious to shine and excel; alert, active, and indefatigable in the means of doing it . . . Without the desire and the pains necessary to be considerable, depend upon it, you never can be so; as without the desire and attention necessary to please, you can never please.

I am very sure that any man of common understanding may, by proper culture, care, attention, and labour, make himself whatever he pleases, except a good poet.”

Comte de Buffon: Not to be Confused with Buffoon

“Genius is only a greater aptitude for patience”

by François-Hubert Drouais (1753)

The Leclercs

Late in his life the prolific French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, wrote that he had inherited his intellect and morality from his mother, Anne-Christine Marlin.  Considering the day’s specious arguments against female intellectualism, this was a significant acknowledgement from one’s eldest son.  It said more about Buffon than his noble-born mother, for whom few facts beyond birth, marriage, and death have been recorded.  It should be noted that she was older than Buffon’s father, Benjamin-Francois Leclerc, and that she performed an essential role.  Like many wives who were once abiding daughters, she afforded the bourgeois Leclercs a rung from the aristocratic staircase.  Her circumstances were advantageous, to say the least.  Her uncle Georges Blaisot had married but produced no children.  He’d made his fortune as the tax collector to the Duke of Savoy and without a prospective heir had promised its munificent blessings to Anne-Christine.  For the Leclercs, such was a lucky match.

Upon the marriage in 1706, the Leclercs gained a considerable dowry and a pledge that wealth would come.   The reward arrived no sooner than ten years after the birth of Buffon in 1707.  In this manner, the Marlin-Leclerc union was cut from an established pattern of French upward mobility.  Their slow but sure ascent–erstwhile achieved through the graduating stations of laborers, barber-surgeon, doctor, and judge–had secured swift elevation only when Buffon’s father, a lawyer, had the funds to acquire Buffon’s namesake village and nearby manor title at Montbard.  Generations of social maneuvering and the family had arrived via the right plot of land.

“Parc Buffon a Montbard” by Pline
Buffon’s permanent residence

The Formative Years

Buffon owed his placement in the world to his patient forebears, but from there he built a life of science, devoting his hours to observation and study.  His family’s rise was not uncommon in the Ancien Regime, but how far he grew from his birth was nothing short of inspiring.  One would be hard-pressed to find a more disciplined man.  That being said, his path to success was hardly linear.  His grandfather was a judge, his father a counselor in the Burgundian parliament.  As the eldest son, Buffon was expected to continue the tradition and he was, for as long as he could bear, a good son.

It should be remarked that Buffon showed no early signs of brilliance and was, in fact, a middling law student.  His matriculations at the Jesuit College of Godrans and University of Dijon did not impress upon his teachers any peculiarity in aptitude.  He was, in all proficiencies, normal.  His entry to the University of Angers in 1728 and abandonment of the law in favor of biology and mathematics heralded a series of disappointments.  But switching vocations was by no means THE egregious act.  Buffon, like many young men of his stature, was tempted by vice and sloth and, on occasion, tended toward impetuosity in manner.  After a heated love affair, which we must assume ended badly, Buffon engaged in a duel with an officer.  The transgression got him expelled from university and, quite rightly, he panicked.  He fled to Nantes, the temporary residence of his friend and English nobleman, the Duke of Kingston, for relief.  After a brief interlude of “Sacre Dieu! What have I done?” they agreed the next logical step in Buffon’s career was a Grand Tour.  Buffon, it seemed, was becoming a proper gentleman, just as his family had wished.

Rome Ruins of the Forum, Looking Towards the Capitol, Canaletto (1742)

After several seasons in France, Italy, and Switzerland, however, the 25 year old Buffon returned to France, but his was no happy homecoming.  In his absence his mother had died.  His father had remarried and made off with Buffon’s inheritance.  The dispute that followed resulted in permanent estrangement of father and son, but the courts favored Buffon.  It was a propitious decision.  He would need independent means to succeed in his lifelong undertaking.

Beyond Infamy

Against the odds, Buffon had matured into a man of enormous energies and discipline.  His schedule, even in the presence of dignified guests like Thomas Jefferson, tolerated few deviations.  Every morning he rose at 5 am (an ungodly hour for an aristocrat).  Unlike many of his peers, he wrote in French, the people’s language, and eschewed Latin.  Despite his evident concern for accessibility, he also yearned for respect and was willing to work vigorously to that end.  His papers on the timber industry were revolutionary.  A publication on probability theory earned him an invitation to join the Royal Academy of Sciences.  In the interim, he translated Newton’s Method of Fluxions and infinite series and Stephen Hales’s Vegetable Staticks.  By 1739, he’d caught the attention of the King.  Louis XV was impressed by the young polymath’s contributions and, as it just so happened, he needed a new director for his garden (the previous lay dying).  A well placed recommendation and Buffon was named intendant of the Jardin du Roi.  Never mind that he wasn’t exactly a naturalist yet.

Buffon’s legacy at the Jardin du Roi (later Jardin des plantes) from an 1820 bookplate

Noted for his execution and forethought, Buffon had every intention of distinguishing himself in his new endeavor.  What he envisioned during his tenure with the king went beyond a mere garden.  His fifty year plan involved producing a microcosm of natural history, as much as the king’s funds and amiability would allow.  He added galleries, hothouses, and a school of botany, doubling the size of the garden.  Under his brilliant direction, the garden experienced unprecedented growth and led Buffon to fully develop his skills in botany and zoology.

But city life was not for Buffon.  In the 1750s he announced that retiring from Paris for half the year suited him splendidly.   During the spring and summer, he would reside in the country, devoting himself to study and experimentation.  His funds secure, his holdings increasing beyond his initial inheritance, he set a goal to publish 50 volumes on natural history–no small feat given that he rejected Carl Linnaeus’s classification system of binomial nomenclature (“Overly simplistic,” he might have groaned).  By the time of his death, he wrote his way through 36 volumes, describing everything from formation of the earth to mating habits of pigeons.  Today he is known for these books and the unconventional ideas he championed in them.

From Natural Histories

Although the eighteenth century was the Age of Enlightenment, it was steeped in creationism.   Pre-Darwin, an undisputed belief had been set forth that all living organisms existing at the end of God’s seventh day of creation existed currently.  Buffon rejected this notion wholeheartedly.  He put his faith in evolution, hypothesizing that environment determined variation, and he dared to compare, if not outright relate, the orangutan to man.*  A Newtonian admirer, he nevertheless rejected the assertion that God developed the natural world and that the earth was 50,000 years old.  Rather, Buffon attributed all earthly and cosmic phenomena to natural events.  His experiments with cooling two dozen one-inch globes to predict the age of the earth are a testament to his ingenuity, even if his methods were imprecise by today’s standards.  To suggest that the earth’s age went beyond Newton’s estimation of 50,000 years, that it possibly continued into the millions, if not infinity, remained heretical, which was the primary reason Buffon published his figure of 74,832 years, adding, “the more we extend the time, the closer we shall be to the truth.”

His Legacy

Buffon’s contributions relied upon his incessant questioning of accepted truths.  He was the people’s scientist before the peoples’ time, raising interest in naturalism and thus the self.  As the first writer to make popular science a bestseller, his exhaustive work Histoire Naturelles enjoyed reprints throughout the 19th century.  These texts proved his true heirs when his flesh and blood heir failed.

Regardless of his solitary nature and his single-minded pursuit of knowledge, he did manage to marry in 1752.  He was 45; his wife barely twenty.  They produced an heir in 1764, but five years later his wife was dead.  Many speculated on the axiom “like father, like son”, but the future Comte de Buffon’s fate was harsh.   In contrary fashion to his father, Buffon junior showed an early brilliance that quickly winked out.  He toured, like his father, across Europe but the experience created a prodigal, rather than a productive, son.  Buffon senior died one year before the storming of the Bastille–a kindness, for his son’s neck caught the edge of a guillotine.  The social ascendancy Buffon’s ancestors had toiled for had fallen victim to the revolution.  But Buffon’s ideas, his indelible mark on the sciences, got to live on.

From Natural Histories

*Orang-outang meant “wild man” in its native language.  Of man’s relation, Buffon said this:

“In the history of the orang-outang we shall find that if figure alone be regarded, we might consider this animal as the first of apes or the most imperfect of men because, except the intellect, the orang-outang wants nothing that we possess, and in his body differs less from man than from the other animals which receive the denomination of apes. Hence, mind, reflection, and language depend not on figure or on the organization of the body. These are endowments peculiar to man. The orang-outang, though he neither thinks nor speaks, has a body, members, senses a brain, and a tongue perfectly similar to those of man.”

6 Reasons Dashwood’s Monks Sucked at Satanism

The moralist may want to decry the Monks of Medmenham as holy terrors, devil-begotten and dancing down the moon, but in reality they were Rabelasians. Were they bawdy?  Of course.  Hedonistic?  Definitely.  But Satanists?  I think not.

THE GARDEN OF DELIGHTS (Hortus Deliciarum) c. 1180
by German Miniaturist, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

 6 Reasons the Monks of Medmenham Sucked at Satanism

1.  The monks took “wives” 

Bawds Charlotte Hayes and Elizabeth Dennison may have routinely supplied the monks with hanks of fresh meat but the monks appear carnivorous of one flesh at a time.  It was forbidden for, say, Sandwich to take a bite out of Dashwood’s supper.  This would have caused the monks to go all un-monkly on each other which leads to . . .

2.  The monks had private chambers

This is by far their greatest breach in practicing Satanism.  Do naked witches dancing around a bonfire mean nothing to them?  Were the monks not lurking in the dark forest, their little demons in wait for the ritual orgy?  Nope.  Conjure for yourself an image of spare chambers with beds, two bodies writhing together, and in the next chamber, the same damned thing.  I cannot say the devil would approve.  Even the earliest pagans succeeded in open-field intercourse and what the hell is a vagina shaped into the lawn for if not to roll in it?

THE BEWITCHED MAN Goya c. 1798
National Gallery, London

3.  Gatherings were limited to two weeks a year 

When the monks had to keep the debauchery fresh and exciting by limiting it to 14 days out of 365, how immoral could they possibly be?  We can suppose they sinned the whole year through (and in Lord Sandwich’s case, he likely did) but English has a word for these types: rakes.  Lots of gentlemen were rakes.  Maybe they mocked religion with sexuality, but satanist seems a facile label.  Moreover, for the Georgians it was a lazy justification for the actions many of their contemporaries disdained and/or misunderstood.

4.  A goodly number of the inner circle had pious wives at home

Saying nothing of the education gap between men and women during Georgian England or the standards of female conduct, a zealous wife and a randy husband do not make for good bedroom sport.  Add to this the fact that men were expected to look outside their wives for sexual pleasure and the diversions of home pall even further.   Boredom nags and man, in a state of psychological expenditure, inverts the woes of his existence.  Pious wife becomes whore, restraint becomes revelry, and atheism and/or contempt of the church becomes mock-satanism.

WITCHES’ SABBATH Goya c. 1789
Museo Lázaro Galdiano, Madrid

5.  High-born women visited Medmenham under conditions of anonymity ONLY AFTER they were assured no male relative was present

With the exception of Dashwood’s half-sister Mary Walcot (and it is speculated whether or not she actually participated at Medmenham) the intermingling of monks with blood and familial relatives was taboo.  The revelers had limitations.  But why limit indulgence?  I’m not suggesting a mésalliance á la the Lannisters in Game of Thrones, though maybe that should be on the table as well, but surely a satanist relative would forgive the women under his legislation if they possessed the same fleshly desires as he?  Surely he would not expect her to follow God’s rules and be chaste?

6.   Lord Sandwich and the baboon 

John Wilkes was a trickster who shared a mutual loathing for Lord Sandwich.  He viewed the monks’ fascination with the dark arts as flummery, and so, to amuse himself, he rigged a ceremonial chest used during the Black Mass.  He tied a cord to a spring loaded door and ran said cord beneath the rug to where he could pull it at his leisure.  One night after the Black Mass had commenced and the monks were kneeling before the chest, imploring the Dark Prince to appear and receive their adoration, Wilkes grinned and pulled his cord.  A baboon, dressed as the devil and shrieking with fear and glee, launched onto a startled Sandwich.  And what did this wicked fellow do?  Collapsed in a babbling fit, foreswearing his alliance to Satan.

Satanism, one might surmise, is not for the faint of heart.

Handsome Devils and Their Digs: John Mortlock & Sons

Today & 1750 

The history of Great Abington Hall originates in the 13th century with the Earls of Oxford, though the house was then a medieval manor built around one large room.  Around the end of the 16th century the original hall gave way to a rebuilding project on the same site and the deed passed through several owners, including Thomas Western, ironmonger to the King, and Mr. Pearson, a Riga (or Baltic sea coast trader).  John Mortlock, our handsome devil, purchased Abington in 1800.

John Mortlock by John Downman

Born in 1755 to a wealthy draper, John inherited the family business along with land in Pampisford and Whittlesford when he was just nineteen.  As the sole son and heir–and a handsome one at that–women must have swooned in his wake, but it didn’t take long for one to snatch him off the market.  The year he reached his majority he married Elizabeth Mary Harrison, the daughter and sole heiress of a rich grocer.  She provided him with a plentiful dowry and together the couple had two girls and seven boys, including the young John Cheetham pictured with his mother below.

 Elizabeth Mortlock and her son, 1779, by John Downman.  Touching, isn’t it?

Although already moneyed and well settled, John had ambitions.  He established the first bank in Cambridge in 1780, and as man of questionable morals, found clever ways to order his environment as he saw fit.  A placard attached to the building on Bene’t Street near where his bank once stood reads: That which you call corruption, I call influence.”  The quote appears to be an abbreviation of his statement, “without influence, which you call corruption, men will not be induced to support government, though they generally approve of its measures.”

John became Mayor of Cambridge in 1785 by asserting this influence and held the office for 13 terms before his death in 1816.  He was a politically astute individual, using his power to maneuver his constituents and to always, always obliterate his enemies.  As Gray and Stubbings write in Cambridge Street Names, Mortlock issued “letters of credit to travelers who feared to be robbed of their cash by highwaymen if they approached town at dusk . . .”  But he was a highwayman of his own sort.  He bullied and blackmailed his opponents, and there was even rumor that the highwaymen’s pockets around town were padded courtesy of Mortlock Bank.

Clearly, the man had enemies as well as friends.  During his multiple terms as mayor, he used land from the city and sold it to his cronies at attractive prices.   Skullduggery, it seemed, was in the family blood.   He and his sons retained mayoral influence from 1785-1820 with scarcely an interruption in between.  Among his sons, one, John Cheetham, became a knight, and another, Edmund, a reverend, but it was his grandson who stole the attention in the papers.

Experiences of a Convict by John Frederick Mortlock.  Originally published 1864/5

John Frederick Mortlock’s story begins in a most un-knightly way.  After his father’s death in 1838, the man we shall call Freddie decided that to be an heir-at-law without actually inheriting an estate had caused him a great unhappiness.  Following a series of incidents, including breaking the windows at his family’s bank, he was accused of setting to fire his uncle Thomas Mortlock’s house at Little Abington.  Romilly’s Cambridge Diary of 1832-1842 recalls the arson suit of 1837: “There seems to be no evidence, though all the world is convinced to it being fact.  If it came to a capital conviction the misfortune is that [Thomas] Mortlock is to be sheriff.”  Thomas did indeed become high sheriff of Cambridge in 1840, and although Freddie was found not guilty, he was warned to keep the peace with his other uncle, reverend Edmund Mortlock, as in 1835 he had written the reverend a threatening letter.

His and the reverend’s dispute over a “standing complaint that he was barred from certain information respecting the disposal of his father’s property” was never resolved.  Come 1843, Freddie stormed to his uncle’s domicile, lashed out in reckoning, and after what must have been a repetitive argument at this point, drew his pistol and fired.  Horrified by his actions, fearful of the repercussions, or both, he gave chase and shot his two pursuers (inflicting only “bruises”) before he was reprimanded.  He was around 28 years of age at the time but despite the excuse of volatile youth, attacking his uncles was not the last of his contumacy.  For wielding a pistol with the intent to murder, he gained the occasion to write his Experiences of a Convict.  Sentenced to twenty-one years transportation for his crimes, he spent his sentence on Norfolk Island and New South Wales in Australia tutoring the son of an Agricultural Superintendent and Deputy Commandant.

Despite his rather extended holiday, Freddie returned to England with his old grievances intact.  Mortlock v. Mortlock appears in court records in July 1869 with a bill in forma pauperis.  This was the fifth bill filed with the Court by Freddie asking that a new trustee be appointed to complete the trust of his father’s will. By this point, Freddie was desperate.  In 1868 he published the tell-all How I Came to be a Bankrupt.  He needed the inheritance dispute settled and settled quickly but his uncle, the defendant, filed a motion asking the suit be discharged on account that Freddie had “designedly” and “improperly” omitted the fact of his bankruptcy and mention of his material deeds.  In the end, the bill was taken off the Court’s files and costs, as requested by his uncle in the motion, were paid by Freddie.

The Mortlock Legacy

Whether we would call the Mortlocks corrupt or entrepreneurial, the lot of them are a fascinating example of a landed gentry family in the 18th and 19th centuries.  They were wealthy and powerful, and like all big families, were given to squabbling about inheritances or otherwise.

If you wish to learn more about the Mortlocks and their history, the pdf file The Banking Mortlocks covers their pursuits from 1453 to 1755.

Sources:

Lady Caro Crops Her Hair

The worst I can say about Lady Caroline Lamb is that she suffered from erotomania.  This is the medical euphemism for saying she was sexually, intellectually, and psychically besotted with Lord Byron to a degree that made him squirm in his trousers.

Lady Caroline Lamb – Thomas Phillips

Their short affair lasted from March to August of 1812 and made an indelible impression on his poetry.  A number are direct rejoinders to Caro’s immoderate behavior.  (*Sigh* All the years I spent at university learning about Romantic poets and never once encountered Byron’s “Remember Thee”.  The poem was a stab at his ex-lover when, in a fit of desperation, she descended upon his household and scribbled in the flyleaf of one of his books “Remember thee!”)

 Lord Byron – Thomas Phillips

For the man she had initially spurned as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” Caro had it bad.  She is credited with being the first celebrity stalker, running her sprightly self around London trying to enflame Byron by Any Means Necessary.  She even impersonated Byron in writing, requesting his favorite miniature portrait of himself from his publishers.

Mimicry was nothing new for Caro.  As Lady Morgan recounts in her memoirs, Caro’s childhood at the Duchess of Devonshire’s household:

Caro’s unconventional education was her solace amid the madness of the aristocracy.  Her perspective turned her into a novelist and poet, and to Byron’s annoyance, a damn good copyist.  He criticized her for modeling the great originals in her work, lamenting over her ability to capture voice—especially his own.

Although history relegates her to the archives of the sexually diseased, she was witty and singular.  Her work and legacy deserve a closer look.  Dickens called her “One of the most interesting stories of fashionable life . . . [a] really clever woman—a heroine in a way. . .”  Byron recognized her eccentricity saying, “I do not at all know how to deal with her, because she is unlike everyone else.” (BLJ 2:222)

Lady Caroline Lamb – Sir Thomas Lawrence (1805)

Caro’s reputation, through much her own fault, was defamed by her peers.  In a letter of November 1824 written to Captain Thomas Medwin, Byron’s biographer and close friend, she imparts her version of a salacious tale following their breakup:

“. . . unhappily, we continued occasionally to meet. Lord Byron liked others, I only him–The scene at Lady Heathcote’s is nearly true–he had made me swear I was never to Waltz. Lady Heathcote said, Come, Lady Caroline, you must begin, & I bitterly answered–oh yes! I am in a merry humour. I did so–but whispered to Lord Byron ‘I conclude I may waltz _now_’ and he answered sarcastically, ‘with every body in turn–you always did it better than any one.  I shall have a pleasure in seeing you.”–I did so you may judge with what feelings.  After this, feeling ill, I went into a small inner room where supper was prepared; Lord Byron & Lady Rancliffe entered after; seeing me, he said, ‘I have been admiring your dexterity.’ I clasped a knife, not intending anything. ‘Do, my dear,’ he said. ‘But if you mean to act a Roman’s part, mind which way you strike with your knife–be it at your own heart, not mine–you have struck there already.’ ‘Byron,’ I said, and ran away with the knife. I never stabbed myself. It is false.”

Take the tale out of context and Caro does seem crazy, but if we are to trust her word, Byron taunted her nearly as much as she harassed him.  They were that broken couple, terrible together, terrible apart.

It didn’t help that Caro refused to shrug off her individuality.  Her inability to comport like other ladies made the ton jittery and even estranged her friends.  She possessed an artful way of living but was artless, by her own account “not a woman of the world.”

Physical and emotional hardships persisted throughout her life.  At age 19, she married William Lamb for love.  By 26, she’d lost a daughter and tried to raise her mentally handicapped son.  She’d turned from her former piety, aped the ton’s moral ambiguities, and taken Byron as a lover.  She was a woman like no other, cropping her hair when hair, no matter how tightly wound upon the head during the day, was long and heavy against the neck at night.  As she said about herself once:

“…everybody wishes to run down and suppress the vital spark of genius I have, and in truth, it is but small (about what one sees a maid gets by excessive beating on a tinder-box). I am not vain, believe me, nor selfish, nor in love with my authorship; but I am independent, as far as a mite and bit of dust can be.” *

Further Information:

The Magnificient Cheek of Harriette Wilson

Harriette Wilson liked to insult her suitors.  Early on in her career she discovered the fastest way to get a man on his knees was to show him how little he could succeed the first go around.  Courtesans, of course, were famous for this.

For a certain caliber of female, hardships birth wit, and to the gentleman trapped in a stratum of dull, mannered ladies, wit was an aphrodisiac.  So, it seems, was cheek.

Harriette’s method was ridiculously simple.  She laid siege to powerful men by writing queries like the one she “half in humour” dashed off to the Prince of Wales: “I am told that I am very beautiful, so perhaps you would like to see me. . .”  When his  reply was returned to her in the affirmative, she further wrote,

This sauciness inspired the ardor of many influential men during her reign, including the Duke of Wellington, the Marquess of Worcester, the Duke of Argyll, and Lord Melbourne’s son, the Honorable Frederick Lamb.  One can scarcely leave out her first lover, the Earl of Craven.

At the age of 15, Craven introduced her to the pursuits of pleasure, but she was no more enamored of him than of his cocoa trees from the West Indies.  By her own account, he would amuse her by drawing pictures of his “fellows” along with the dreaded trees, a practice Harriette called a “dead bore.”  It didn’t help that she despaired of his cotton night cap.  “Surely,”  [she] would say, “all men do not wear those shocking nightcaps; else all women’s illusions had been destroyed on the first night of their marriage.”

Harriette Wilson’s dismal opinion of marriage was borne from early experience: “. . .my dear mother’s marriage had proved to me so forcibly the miseries of two people of contrary opinions and character torturing each other to the end of their natural lives, that, before I was ten years old, I decided in my own mind to live free as air from any restraint but that of my own conscience.”

Although Harriette forbore blaming her parent’s marriage, and indeed stressed that her dear mother did not influence her choice in profession, an unhappy home life seemed to affect the family at large.  Among her sisters, three of them turned Cyprian—Amy, Sophia, and Fanny.

The closest in age, Harriette and Amy spent their careers competing for affections with the latter sister stealing lovers from the former.  Harriette blamed Amy for instigating the strain between them, once stating, “Amy’s virtue was something like the nine lives of a cat.”  Amy later bore a son by the Duke of Argyll, Harriette’s third lover.

Fanny and Sophia are, by degrees, less interesting.  Fanny was described by a mutual acquaintance as “. . .the sweetest creature on earth.”  Harriette had nothing but affection for her, saying she was “. . . the most popular woman I ever met with.  The most ill-natured and spiteful of her sex could never find it in their hearts to abuse one who, in their absence, warmly fought all their battles . . .”  Settled for seven years after the death of her lover and the father of her three children, Fanny died young after a three week illness.

The youngest sister, Sophia, endowed the family with honor by marrying her protector, Lord Berwick, in 1812.  She, however, inspired much exasperation in Harriette before she retired into matrimonial bliss.  On one occasion, her sisters were in hysterics when the 14 year old Sophia “…went away with Lord Deerhurst [that prince of hypocrites], being innocent as an infant as to the nature of seduction and its consequence . . . Sophie was a child, and not a very clever one…”  The situation sounds strikingly similar to Lydia’s flight with Mr. Wickham in Pride and Prejudice.

A connection between Jane Austen and Harriette’s first lover, Lord Craven, can be found here.

 S.W. Fores of Piccadilly printed a caricature by H. Heath in 1825 called “La Coterie Debauché”  

Harriette is writing while her cadre of lovers watch on.

Although a well-known courtesan in Regency times, we have Harriette’s memoirs to thank for her enduring legacy in ours.  The memoirs were published in 1825, a move she describes as a “desperate effort to live by my wits.”  This is a marked contrast from the manner in which she formerly earned her living.  The memoirs gained her a reputation far exceeding that of a demimondaine.  Rather than earning admiration for her enterprise in a sticky situation, she was scorned by her methods.

Harriette was nearing old age–in truth, her thirties–when her protectors decided she wasn’t worth the jangle in their pockets.  Denied the annuity promised by the Duke of Beaufort upon her agreement to forsake his heir, the Marquess of Worcester, Harriette was left penniless.  Her beauty diminishing along with her funds, the woman who later wrote, “I will be the mere instrument of pleasure to no man.  He must make a friend and companion of me, or he will lose me,” dared blackmail the feckless gentlemen who had thrown her off.  The famous reply by the Duke of Wellington, “publish, and be damned,” arises from Harriette’s request for funds in exchange to leave his name out of her memoirs.

Regardless of who paid up, the suprisingly tasteful history of her love life earned her a small fortune.  Her publisher, John Stockdale, was forced to queue the crowds that stormed his shop upon the latest print installments.  This nail biting manuever served Harriette well.  The installments tested the nerves of her former lovers while they awaited the appearance of their names in the next issue.  How many cried off at the last minute, we can only imagine.  From the date of their publication, her memoirs increased in notoriety and exceeded Harriette’s hope of twenty editions. reaching thirty in its first year as well as the six volume French version.

Even today they are great reading.  Harriette may have resorted to blackmailing and thereby acquired a reputation for unreliability, but she has an intelligent wit.  She vilified some of her lovers, yes, but treated others with a fair pen.  And she did not always spare herself in the telling.

The eBook format for Harriette’s memoirs can be downloaded free here.

Various plates from a set of eight satirical illustrations to the memoirs of Harriette Wilson from The British Museum

Further Sources:

Ban and Mary: A Lover’s Wager

For a fellow who had earned the nickname “Bloody Ban”, Banastre Tarleton was quite the ladies’ man.  Although not a large man, his compelling physical presence belied his short stature.  He was strong and athletic with reddish hair and dark eyes.  It was his arrogant charm, however, that tantalized the ladies as much as (if not more than) his handsome features and his heroism.

Mary Robinson as Perdita, John Hoppner, 1782

One of the most desirable women in England at the time, the actress Mary Robinson, better known as Perdita, met him through the Prince Regent.  Upon his return to England, Tarleton was hailed as a hero, an honor which granted him membership into Prinny’s exclusive set.  Mary Robinson had been one of Prinny’s many mistresses and had lately found a new protector in Lord Malden.  Much like Tarleton, Malden was convinced of his sexual prowess.  He bet that Mary would remain faithful to him even if Tarleton attempted to woo her away from him.  An account of the bet in the salacious Memoirs of Perdita claimed Tarleton “would not only win her from Malden, but also jilt her.”

Nice guy.

Ever the gambling man, Tarleton’s wager was well placed.  Several weeks after the planned seduction, Mary was in Tarleton’s bed and Lord Malden was astonished.  Up until this point, the three had been a mischievous trio, amusing themselves by playing tricks on Mary’s admirers and would-be suitors.  Now they had a fracture.

Ban in his green coat uniform

Mary was furious when she discovered herself the victim of their scheme.  As his hubris had made him a grand fool, Lord Malden relinquished his role as Mary’s protector, though he did settle upon her an annuity and also a house in Berkley Square.  Tarleton, never truly ruffled by anything, weathered the storm.  He was at Mary’s side in June when she suffered a traffic accident in Hyde Park and this dilligence in attending to her awarded him her forgiveness.

Although their passionate affair evolved into one of increasing strife and reconciliation, Tarleton remained Mary’s lover for 15 years.  They were the celebrity couple of their time.  Wherever they went—to balls, operas, political gatherings—people whispered.

Considered the most fashionably dressed in any room, the young couple made a beautiful pair and the papers loved them for it.  The war hero and actress were fodder for the insatiable public, appearing in the papers with as much frequency as celebrities in today’s supermarket newsrags.  James Gillray, a fledgling cartoonist at the time, published his scathing cartoon, “The Thunderer” (subtitled “Vide; Every Man in his Humour, alter’d from Ben Johnson”) in 1792.

The featherhead is none other than the Prince Regent (the triple feather was his father’s emblem).  Tarleton (with a noticeably large package in his breeches) is regaling Prinny with tales of war.  Mary is the whirligig above the door with a sign reading “A la mode beef, hot every night.”  Every man, we are to assume, gets to have a go at her.  The dialogue reads as follows:

Throughout his relationship with Mary, Tarleton was criticized for keeping around a loose woman who was nothing but a hindrance to him.  His family keenly disapproved, in part because while around Mary, he could not seem to live within his means.  From the previous post, we know this problem predates Mary, but perhaps they thought Mary a bad egg, worsening Tarleton’s profligacy through influence.  They would not be the first family to do so.

Tarleton’s lavish lifestyle with Mary eventually caught up with.  In 1783 his family offered to pay his most pressing debts, a total of £5,000, if he would leave for the continent without his lover.  In desperation, Mary borrowed to prevent this eventuality and chased after him.  She suffered a miscarriage on her journey and, as her biographer Paula Byrne has speculated, experienced partial paralysis of her lower limbs, possibly at the hands of a malpracticing midwife.  Tarleton was greatly aggrieved to hear the news and the couple swiftly reunited in France.

Mrs Mary Robinson – Perdita by Thomas Gainsborough, 1781

Mary’s condition seems to be of no impediment to their relationship.  Although they were on occassion known to be unfaithful, they lived together for many years after her health problems commenced and became known as “the wandering couple”, a reference to their travels while under pressure of debts.

Regarding one affair of signifcance, Tarleton simply shrugged off Mary’s liason with Charles James Fox, saying, “I shall ever applaud the Perdita for being the most generous woman on earth.”  Mary was not so equanimous when Tarleton diddled with another lady.  From the late 1780s, she was known to write poetry and novels portraying Tarleton as a villain and whatnot.

The details of their eventual breakup are not known, but we do know that Tarleton had political ambitions.  He first ran for parliament in 1784, but he didn’t win a seat until 1790.

Over the years, Mary, plagued by her condition, evolved into an independent woman of letters.  Her peers called her “The English Sappho”.  She wrote prolifically, producing numerous poems, six novels, two plays, and a feminist treaty a la A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Wollstonecraft.  She was also working on her unfinished memoirs.

Her liberal, feminist leanings did no favors for Tarleton’s political career.  Compared to his Tory brother (whom he actually ran against once), Tarleton did vote for parliamentary opposition as a Whig, but he was also well known for his support of the slave trade.  One can see how this would not go over well with Mary.

Contemplation, Mrs. Mary Robinson by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1783-1784 (Wallace Collection)

The couple eventually parted ways in 1797.  Mary was left with thousands of pounds of debt, presumably shared, but her relationship with Tarleton had been costly.  When he first ran for MP in 1784, creditors found the couple, living again in England, and took possession of a large majority of Mary’s property.

Tarleton, although a war hero and the author of the successful History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781, had very little to live on, essentially half military pay of £341.  Mary also earned  income off her novels, but the numbers were dismal.  Over her writing career, she earned approxiately £460.  Given her and Tarleton’s financial disappointments, perhaps the same woman who published the poem Sappho and Phaon in 1796, a markedly different poem than her “Ode to Valour“, had reason to be bitter.

A year after their final breakup, Tarleton married Susan Priscilla Bertie, the illegitimate daughter of the 4th and last Duke of Ancaster.  They were married for 35 years, but had no children.

After  years of poor health, Mary died in 1800, but in an interesting twist of fates, Susan Tarleton befriended Mary’s only daughter, Mary Elizabeth Robinson.  When Mary Elizabeth, a novelist herself, published the anthology The Wild Wreath in 1804, the engravings were based on drawings of “Mrs. B. Tarleton”.  Their friendship is not entirely surpising given that Mary Elizabeth was raised around Tarleton.  Since she likely had an enduring connection to the  man who was father to her for over 15 years, it was even to be expected.

For more about Mary Robinson and Banastre Tarleton:

My previous post: Handsome Devil’s and their Deeds: Banastre Tarleton

The Duchess of Devonshire’s Gossip Guide: Tart of the Week: Mary “Perdita” Robinson

Perdita, a biography by Paula Byrne

Mary Robinson’s bio and links to her works from the University of Pennsylvania’s Celebration of Women Writers

Mary Robinson: A Life Lived Extraordinarily (Jane Austen Centre) 

A short article on Sappho and Phaon from The Guardian

The First Actresses Exhibition: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons

All for Love: The Scandalous Life and Times of Royal Mistress Mary Robinson by Amanda Elyot (a novel)

The Prince’s Mistress: Perdita, a life of Mary Robinson by Hester Davenport

For the numbers on Ban and Mary’s pay scale see, Mary Robinson: Select Poems, edited By Judith Pascoe

Handsome Devils and their Deeds: Banastre Tarleton

 

In the eternal bad guy versus good guy debate, Banastre Tarleton was the original Byronic hero before the actual Byron existed.  To the patriots of the American Revolution, he was a villain, “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” in the truest sense.  Along with Benedict Arnold, no other soldier treading on American soil was more hated than Tarleton.  His youth and the robust traits that sprung for it–recklessness, daring, and outright aggression on the field–made the commander of the British Legion a formidable opponent.  So formidable, in fact, that Americans used him as propaganda.

“Join, or Die” by Benjamin Franklin, 1754 (otherise known as Join and Die to the likes of Tarleton)

“Join, or Die” was the motto of the revolutionaries.  Tarleton, an upstart in the eyes of his elder superiors, spawned a reply of his own.  “Tarleton’s quarter”, which ironically meant “give no quarter”, became the rallying cry for the Battle of Cowpens where the Americans gained a decisive victory against the British.  Capitalizing on Tarleton’s signature style of rushing brutal attacks, William Washington, the commander of the light dragoons, flanked the British troops and ushered in a defeat.  That he engaged in vicious hand to hand combat with the fleeing Tarleton earned him a silver medal and only served to bolster Tarleton’s reputation.  Ignominious, would be the word.

Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton, Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1782

Tarleton was no gentleman’s war hero.  Although European convention dictated that acts of war occur strictly on the field, Tarleton took his cue from the guerilla fighters he opposed.  He fought dirty, burning down houses, razings crops and livestock.  Upon one occasion, he is reputed to have unearthed a widow’s husband from the grave—a hateful act presumably to terrorize the local populace and to illustrate that those resisting British rule would be punished by any means possible.  Later he dined at the widow’s table, undoubtedly enjoying his meal with gusto.  He was, after all, making a point.

Five years after sailing to America, the commander best known for massacring the surrendered patriots at Waxhaws was doing pretty well for himself.  In England, Tarleton had been the third eldest son of an upper middle class merchant and slaver from Liverpool.  As befit his station, he prepared for a perfectly staid career in law at Middle Temple in London and University College in Oxford.  His father’s death in 1773 changed all that.

With a £5,000 inheritance to burn, Tarleton squandered a small fortune on gaming and prostitutes.  By 1775, he was desperate for a change of pace.  Faced with penury and his family’s disapproval, he did what younger sons normally did: He joined the cavalry with the lowest purchased rank of cornet.  Despite his eventual rise to general in 1812, he never had to purchase another rank again.  The man who was hopeless to live within his means had finally found something he excelled at.

Engraving depicting fight against Tarleton’s cavalry

Tarleton, if anything, was an aggressive military strategist.  On a scouting trip, he captured General Charles Lee by threatening to burn down the tavern the general was staying in.  This feat was accomplished in 15 minutes, no less.  As the story goes,  the unlucky Lee was taken hatless in his dressing gown.  One for Team George!  (Boo, says this American)

Later, Tarleton would lead a raid to capture the then govenor Thomas Jefferson.  History might have played out differently if he had succeeded in more than disrupting the Virginia legislature.  Jefferson, alerted by Jack Jouette, the “Paul Revere of the South”, slipped quietly out of reach and that was the end of that.

Tarleton would evenutally write a book about his experiences during the American Revolution.  A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in the Southern Provinces of North America was more than an eyewitness account, it was a self-congratulatory nod in the braggart’s favor.  Not that he needed any help in that department.  He killed with almost as much fanfare as he bedded women.

And did he have a favorite lady, you ask?  None other than Mrs. Robinson, the actress and woman of letters.   I’ll post their story tomorrow in anticipation of February, the month of romance blogging.  To those of you who scorn Valentine’s Day, not to worry; I’ve got something planned for you, too.   It’s called the anti-romance tag.

 

Horace Walpole’s Correspondence Digitized

For all of you interested in Horace Walpole and his astute commentary concerning the 18th century, Yale has recently digitized his letters.  The site is super easy to naviage by date, illustration, appendices, etc.  There’s also a searchable list of correspondents, including Fanny Burney and Hannah More and many more.  I’ll be putting the link in my permanent research links for future reference.

Handsome Devils and Their Digs: Douglas Douglas-Hamilton, 8th Duke of Hamilton

Douglas Hamilton with Dr. John Moore and Sir John Moore, 1775-1776, by Gavin Hamilton (yes, a relation–son of James, Duke of Chatellerault)

Douglas Douglas-Hamilton, 8th duke of a headache-inducing number of titles– including Duke Hamilton of Scotland, Duke Brandon of England, Duke Chatellerault of France, Marquess of Hamilton, of Clydesdale, of Douglas; Earl of Angus, Arran, and Lanark; Lord Macanshire, Polmont, Abernathey and Aberbrothock of Scotland; Baron Dutton and Hamilton in England . . . Still got your attention?  Good.  Our handsome devil (more devil than handsome, a certain lady wife might say), whom we shall call Double Douglas just once in this post, lived in a big, lovely house called Hamilton Palace.

Hamilton Palace, built in 1695, demolished in 1921. 

**Much of the Hamilton fortune derived from the coal industry.  The mining that took part on the property resulted in the property being deemed unsafe.  So sad!  It once housed priceless art works which in 1882 were sold for £397,562, including a throne from St. Petersburg, floors and doors of black Galway marble,  a grand Corinthian portico, and green porphyry columns taken from the Basilica di Semproneo originally from Ancient Rome. More here.

He was the second son of the 6th duke who had the keen misfortune of dying from a cold after a hunting expedition.  His brother, James, the heir apparent from age two onward, died from consumption–or if we are to trust Dodley’s Annual Register , “his growing so exceedingly fast is said to have been the cause of death”–before reaching the age of 15.  The 7th duke was already 5’8 in his early teens which was apparently thought to be a medical condition on account of vertical largess (5’8 or so being the average male height during C18).

Having lost her first heir, Hamilton’s mother panicked and shipped the newest duke off to the Continent as he was also known to suffer from a delicate constitution.  After four years touring Europe with his tutor, Dr. John Moore, Hamilton returned to England, his vitality restored, his mother happy, and all well and right with his world.  The parson’s mousetrap, however, caught up with him.  Two years after his homecoming, Hamilton entered into an imprudent match with Elizabeth Anne Burrell, daughter of a Mr. Peter Burrell.  This is where the road gets bumpy.

Duchess and Duke of Hamilton, a now extinct portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, painted 1779, a year after they were married.  A sweet portrait; the affection between them is palpable.

To say the least, Mother Duchess was not pleased.  Given the inequality of the untion, one can only assume this relationship between Miss Burrell and Hamilton began as a love match, but it quickly descended into unhappiness.  From Famous Beauties of Two Reigns, it is said of Hamilton,

One gets the sense he was not exactly a gentleman of moderation, at least not when it came to women.  Like many Georgian-era lords, Hamilton did have a regrettable tendency to be the paramour of his loose lady friends–one of the reasons his duchess later divorced him.  Although divorces were rare for the period, the action brought before Parliament by Duchess Hamilton was not an overwrought dramatization of a marriage gone wrong.  On the contrary, it was a sensible move without much bitterness involved.  It is described thusly in Alienated Affections:

“The case of Her Grace Elizabeth Anne Burrell Duchess of Hamilton and Brandon against Douglas Duke of Hamilton and Brandon was extremely amicable and had clearly been agreed on beforehand.  They had been married in 1778, and the libel stated that his adultery began in 1787, without naming the ‘Lady or Woman’ with whom he was then guilty.  The case was founded on another affair, carried on over the months preceding the summons in November 1793.  His mistress was ‘Mrs. Eisten the actress’, and he brought her to Hamilton and took her along to Arran where they could be seen together by all the servants.  Her Grace, having left Hamilton a year earlier, had no trouble obtaining her divorce.  She remarried, but not until 1800, so that could not have been the motive for bringing the divorce action.”

In the Duchess’s mind, this divorce action had roots in Hamilton’s previous affair with the Earl of Eglinton’s wife, neé Frances Twysden, around 1787.  The then 31 year old Hamilton would visit Lady Eglinton at night, including when Lord Eglinton was shortly away at supper.  Their congress occurred with such regularity that the Earl’s servant, Montgomery Lawson, was boldly asked by Lady Eglinton, “if he would admit the Duke of Hamilton into her bedchamber”.  He refused.  She admitted the married duke anyway and so continued her not-so-discreet affair.

For another 12 years, Hamilton continued in as much the same manner as he had before his divorce.  Despite the duke’s stimulating lifestyle, however, he failed to remarry and died at the age of 43.  He did have an illegitimate child with the actress Harriet Pye Bennett (at the time called Mrs. Esten), but never produced issue.  The title passed to his father’s youngest brother, Archibald Hamilton, the 5th duke’s eldest living son.  Archibald Hamilton, the 9th duke, was only 16 years older than the 8th duke, and unlike dukes 5 through 8 who succumbed to illness before their mid-forties, Archibald managed to overcome what had proven to be a delicate constitution in the exalted line and lived until the ripe age of 79.