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Little Women

The subject of Stella Tillyard’s Aristocrats is the four daughters of Charles Lennox, second Duke of Richmond, Lord of the Bedchamber to George II, and owner of Goodwood House in Sussex (famous for its Canaletto paintings and its menagerie). There have been separate biographies of Emily, Louisa, and Sarah Lennox,1 but none, I think, of Caroline; and the promising idea of a composite biography is entirely Tillyard’s own. The work is plainly the fruit of very thorough and painstaking research, in a quite enormous archive (the voluminous Holland House papers, the Leinster papers, the Napier papers, the Bunbury papers, and a whole string of lesser collections). Also, whatever reservations one may have about it—and I have rather a lot—it is certainly an intensely readable book.

It is extraordinary how when reading it one is continually put in mind of Thomas Gray and his “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” Or perhaps not so extraordinary, seeing that her subject matter is so exactly his: the Whig grandees, whose seductions and prejudices, as he encountered them in his friend Horace Walpole, impinged so uncomfortably on his life. Here, if ever, in Tillyard’s pages, do we meet with the “boast of heraldry” and “pomp of power” of Gray’s poem, the heaping of “the shrine of Luxury and Pride,” and the strong penchant for “storied urns” and “animated busts”—or, at least, many flattering portraits by Reynolds and Allan Ramsay.

The grandfather of the Lennox sisters, the first Duke, was an illegitimate son of Charles II by Louise de Kéroualle. He must have been a very favored son (or his mother a very favored mistress), for in addition to his title, he was endowed with a royalty of twelvepence per chaldron on coal dues at Newcastle. In consequence, the ducal family of the Richmonds was exceedingly rich and, bastardy being no reproach when it is regal, socially very grand.

Nowhere, of course, did this latter count more than in regard to its daughters’ marriages. When the eldest daughter, Caroline (1723–1774), wished to marry Henry Fox, a rising politician and brother to the Earl of Ilchester, her parents would not hear of it, considering him “infinitely beneath her.” Eventually the pair eloped, and upon this the Duke and Duchess made the most enormous fuss: “If his Majesty’s Princess Caroline had been stolen,” wrote Horace Walpole, “there could not have been more noise made.” They broke off all relations with Caroline for several years and forbade their other children to have any contact with her.

No such problems arose with their second daughter, Emily (1731–1814), who married James Fitzgerald, Earl of Kildare (later Duke of Leinster), the senior Irish peer and leader of the “Patriot” Party in the Irish Parliament. Nor did they arise with her sister Louisa (1743–1821), who married Thomas Conolly, the richest man in Ireland. As for the fourth daughter, Sarah (1745–1826), she outclassed them all by nearly marrying George III and becoming Queen of England.

The story of the King’s awkward efforts at lovemaking, and his confused love messages to Sarah through her friends, is curious and rather touching. By this time—the story begins in 1759—the second Duke of Richmond and his Duchess were dead, and their despised son-in-law Henry Fox, now a leading member of the government, had become the head of the family. He was an assiduous courtier; and since the grounds of his house, the vast Jacobean mansion of Holland House, adjoined those of the Royal Palace of Kensington, he was perfectly placed to stage-manage the royal love affair. The courtship went on intermittently over the space of a year and a half, during which time George came to the throne. In the course if it, Sarah broke her leg while out riding. A paper in Henry Fox’s hand describes his subsequent conversation with the King and his skillful attempt to turn the accident to profit.

After a loose question or two, he [the King], in a 3d, supposes I am by this time settled at Holland House. (Now I have you.) “I never go there, Sir,” says I, “there is nobody there.” “Where is Lady Caroline?” “In Somersetshire with Lady Sarah.” At that name his voice & countenance, gentle & gracious already, softened, & he coloured a little. “I am very glad to hear she is so well.” “As well as any body can be with such an accident, but the pain was terrible from the motion of the coach till she got to Mr. Hoare’s.” He drew up his breath, wreath’d himself, and made the countenance of one feeling pain himself. (Thinks I, you shall hear of that again.)… 2

There were many further twists to the story, too many to recount. At one point, according to tradition, Lord Bute actually helped the jealous George to spy on Sarah in the park, where she was meeting another lover. All along, she received the King’s advances coolly; and when, in July 1761, it was announced that, after all, he was to marry Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, the blow was greater for the Foxes than for the cheerful-minded Sarah. (According to Fox’s account, it distressed her less than the sickness of her pet squirrel; and when the squirrel died, she transferred her affections to a hedgehog.)

Another suitor was soon found for her, the well-connected and elegantly melancholy Thomas Charles Bunbury—she thought him like a “Marquis in a French story book”—and in June 1762 they were duly married in the chapel at Holland House.

The name of Henry Fox reminds us of something crucial to the present book: that the Lennox sisters were, in a specific sense, deprived women. They were denied the chance to achieve public glory or, in Gray’s words, “The applause of listening senates to command,” and equally the chance to commit great public crimes and to “shut the gates of mercy on mankind.” Henry Fox, by contrast, can be said to have done both. He was the architect, or at any rate the pusher-through, of the Treaty of Paris which ended the Seven Years War, and he practiced acquisitiveness and ruthless political revenge on an unprecedented scale, becoming, in the words of G.O. Trevelyan, “the most fiercely hated public man of his own, or perhaps any other, generation.” He was, it should be added, an invincibly fascinating man, absurdly over-indulgent to his children and practicing a very attractive line in plain speaking. It was he who made the extraordinary remark that “every set of men are honest; it’s only necessary to define their sense of it to know where to look for it.”

Let us note one specific way in which these wives and sisters of statesmen and men of influence suffered deprivation. Nowhere in their letters do we find them using a classical tag, and it would have been felt as quite improper for them to have done so. (In place of the classics they made a mild cult of the letters of Mme. de Sévigné, an excellent choice.) The fact is of some significance. One needs no telling that, at this time, the obsessive insistence on the classics and the ludicrous compulsion upon public-schoolboys to concoct frightful Latin verses (and to fear a “false quantity” as an occasion for flogging) were a matter, not so much of literary culture, as of flankrubbing and social exclusion. A facility in Latin tags was, plainly, an all-important underpinning for a political career—one like Burke’s, shall we say, or that of Henry Fox’s son the great Charles James Fox. What one does not always perhaps remember is how nakedly it was also a piece of male chauvinism.

How then did these, in certain ways deprived, in other ways exceedingly privileged, women give their lives a meaning? It is worth thinking, once again, of Gray’s “Elegy.” For in addition to balancing the lot of the “proud,” with their opportunities for glory and for infamy, with that of the humble, who are denied them, it introduces a third term into the equation: the unprivileged intellectual (“Fair Science frowned not on his humble birth”) whose reward, all unknown to the world, is personal friendship. “He gave to Misery all he had, a tear,/He gained from Heaven (‘twas all he wished) a friend.”

One might conceivably hope that these women, denied the excitements of action on the public scene, had developed a cult of privacy and intimate friendship, a secret inner life independent of masculine values. At one point, indeed, Caroline Lennox seems to be suggesting something of the kind. “Some pursuit is necessary to man, particularly to an Englishman,” she wrote caustically to her sister Emily in 1766:

tis an animal quite incapable of leading a rational life (that is what we should call so) and quite insufficient to itself. It must always be running after a fox, a hare, a blue ribbon, a place or some such thing, or given up to play. I do think nature has given us women the best lot in this queer jumble of life.

This diatribe, though, is no more than a momentary fling. Fundamentally she is, or anyway makes a great show of being, an orthodox upholder of the system: a believer that women have been assigned a “lot,” a “sphere,” and are duty-bound to remain within it. Her letters, therefore, like her sisters’, deal with the conventional concerns of this “sphere”: with status; family dramas, loyalties, and scandals; clothes, sickness, and death; grand entertaining, interior decoration, and estate management.

What then, is the justification for a biography of these four women? (One sees that there may be many.) “Why,” asks Tillyard, “should we search for material about women who did not lead countries or armies, who wrote no novels or tracts, who, their letters apart, produced nothing (though not nobody) exceptional?” The answer, she says, “lies in our fascination with ordinary life, with the routines and habits, loves, hatreds, and opinions that run through every life, great or small.” She is always struck, she writes, by the visitors to great English country houses who “somnambulate” in a state of boredom through the state rooms, full of official portraits and richly upholstered furniture, but come to life in the bedrooms, kitchens, and stables, at the sight of counterpanes, jelly molds, and lawn mowers.

To this remark there is an obvious objection, that these wives of dukes and great landowners can hardly be said to have lived “ordinary” lives—and there, precisely, lies the charm of their jelly molds and lawn mowers, which otherwise are no better than our own. But the fallacy goes deeper, I think. For Tillyard’s argument seems to be that women, as individuals, do not have such interesting lives as men, and therefore, in compensation, we must value them as members of the human species: we must interest ourselves in what is elemental and common to mankind, or anyway womankind, in their experience. “The Lennox sisters,” says Tillyard,

write in a way that makes us feel close to them, and they write about things that are as important to us as they were to them…. Everything from conception to death is here, written in voices that we have scarcely ever heard, the voices of eighteenth-century women.

The remark about the voices of eighteenth-century women strikes one as odd, considering that this is the century of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Mrs. Thrale, Fanny Burney, and Hannah More. Still, one supposes what is meant is the voice of “ordinary” women. There is a flavor of paradox in this, considering who the Lennox sisters were, but the real trouble lies elsewhere. It is in the question, Can such a commitment to the elemental and the typical be compatible with biography, which one had supposed must be about individuals?

It is one consequence of Tillyard’s method that she is under a continual compulsion to be “colorful,” even when color is not really called for. For instance when, in 1746, the ailing Caroline goes to Bath with her eldest son, “Ste,” we are given several pages of lyrical and laid-on-thick “color” about eighteenth-century Bath.

In the apothecary’s shop, drugs were like luminous beacons. Syrups lay thickly in crystal vials with cut-glass stoppers. Plumred, royal-blue, and emeraldgreen decanters twinkled at customers from the windows.

It is vividly enough done; but the truth is, nothing in particular happened to Caroline in Bath, so it all seems a shade gratuitous, suggesting “costume drama” or Victorian children’s book illustration.

Equally, Tillyard is driven to interpret on a reckless scale. She imposes the most elaborate interpretations on a shell house or grotto at Goodwood, which the Lennox sisters helped their mother to build. It was

a microcosm of the Lennox family’s world, displaying a love for order, rationality, and the modernity represented by the natural sciences. But it was also about impersonation and play, plain on the outside, riotous and eccentric within, a place where shells were turned into apples and pears and ribbons. Science and feeling, order and capriciousness mingled together.

Now this may tell us a lot about shell houses, but I doubt if it tells us much about the Lennoxes.

Of a later shell cottage, constructed in the grounds of Emily’s vast Palladian mansion Carton Park, near Dublin, Tillyard tells us that it always lacked the rococo charm of its predecessor, and that when Emily continued work on it, having recently been bereaved of one of her children, it developed into a perfect monstrosity. “Rococo prettiness became a solidified chaos whose patterns and broken surfaces were inscriptions of anger and grief, repeated over and over again, threatening to draw the visitor into the death-encrusted mouth of the tomb.” Well, going around English country houses, one often does come upon some fascinating monstrosity; and, here I come to my most serious criticism, certain passages and set pieces in Aristocrats strike me as just such monstrosities. A death or a wedding becomes the cue for a gush of the most fulsome and unbridled sentimentality—sentimentality on the general topic of death or marriage rather than in relation to the Lennoxes in particular.

Here is a part of the concluding paragraph on the deaths of the second Duke and his Duchess, in 1750 and 1751:

At first grief drowned out their parents’ voices, and to bystanders the Duke and Duchess became paintings on the wall and remembered voices that faded to the written word as the years went by. But when their misery died down, Emily and Caroline, still daughters in their own minds, began to hear their parents speak. So began a colloquy that would go on until they in their turn left the world to their grieving children. Caroline and Emily joined in the huge mute conversation humanity carries on with the dead that stretches back through the ages as, with silent self-justifications and voiceless wrangles, children whisper to parents and they, children in their turn, lisp confidences to lost mothers and fathers.

All this, about the death of a couple who, on the evidence given to the reader, have appeared to be unfeeling snobs. Did Caroline actually grieve for them? Perhaps she did, but we have no way of knowing. And who but the most determined sentimentalist could describe children as “lisping” confidences to their lost parents? (Who would be noticing that they lisped?)

Or turn to the account of Sarah’s wedding, in 1762, which is in a more whimsical and semi-ironical style.

The chapel was two storeys high, with round arched windows down the east side and a ceiling by the celebrated architect Inigo Jones. It had new pews and fresh paint and gilding, white like a bride, twinkling in the evening light….

Dearly beloved,” Dr. Francis [the Holland House chaplain] began, shifting his gaze from Sarah and Bunbury to the guests, “we are gathered here together in the sight of God.” Everyone relaxed, soothed by the familiar incantation. Nobody listened closely to the words of the marriage service….

The service continued—the ring, the blessing, a prayer, and Holy Communion. Bunbury slipped the ring onto Sarah’s finger and she became a wife. As the married couple turned away and walked down the aisle, a tear, reflecting the panes of the chapel windows, rolled slowly down Dr. Francis’s plump cheek.

One begins to see that Tillyard’s favorite trope is pleonasm, or saying what could be taken for granted, as when someone speaks of a “false lie,” a lie being in the nature of things false. Since Sarah’s wedding took place on a summer evening, it is a fair guess that the chapel twinkled; and as for the tear on Dr. Francis’s cheek—assuming that there was one, which seems highly unlikely—it is reasonable to suppose that it bore a reflection of the chapel’s stained-glass windows. But who, apart from God, could possibly have registered this fact? We are getting a long way from biography here.

Once one is alerted to it, pleonasm catches one’s eye on every other page. We read that Caroline decorated the lawns of Holland House with pheasants, peacocks, “and pedigree cows, whose white bulks moved slowly against the green of grass and trees, manuring as they went.” Given the idea of cows on a lawn, we could evidently have worked out the rest for ourselves. But even more pleonastic is Tillyard’s evocation of dawn in eighteenth-century London, in which we are led through every step in the technique of printing:

As covers came off rows of wicker cages, goldfinches and green-finches, linnets and woodlarks drew their beaks from the warm haven of their wings and began another day in captivity. Soon afterwards in the narrow houses of St. Paul’s churchyard, along Fleet Street and out into the Strand, master printers and their compositors set to work. Pressmen put on their stiff inkblackened overalls. From scores of open boxes the compositors plucked metal letters and punctuation marks, rapidly assembling them into words, paragraphs, pamphlets. Proofreaders checked finished copy. In other rooms, surrounded by stacks of paper from Holland and France, the pressmen inked the type with viscous leather lollipops.

What adds to my resistance to Tillyard’s method is that I do not find myself trusting her analysis of feelings and motives. Describing Caroline’s parents’ objections to Henry Fox as a son-in-law, she writes: “A paunchy, ex-Tory career politician, whose learning frightened them and whose brother had carried on a long intimacy with their friend Lord Hervey, was not their idea of an eligible man.” That Henry Fox’s brother Stephen enjoyed “a long intimacy” (elsewhere she calls it an “affair”) with Lord Hervey could hardly have been an objection to him, since the Duke and Duchess were still very friendly with Stephen, and indeed discussed Henry’s courtship with him. Anyway, the underlying notion of a scandalous “homosexual affair” is, I think, an anachronism, prefiguring Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas.

More seriously, Tillyard jumps to very reckless conclusions about Sarah’s marriage to Charles Bunbury. The marriage was ill fated, for after seven years with Bunbury Sarah made a scandalous elopement with Lord William Gordon, by whom she had already had a child. Therefore, of course, a great deal of interest attaches to a letter that she wrote on the day after her wedding night, or rather to its cryptic postscript:

I was not as frightened as Louisa was yesterday, but I make good what Lady B[arrymore] used to say, that we lively people were much more afraid than grave sober folks, for I am ten thousand times more terrified now than she was the second day. Hers was shyness at first, which one always gets the better of; but real dislike I am sure is not so easy to get over.

Tillyard has no doubts about the meaning of this:

Sarah’s fear had matured swiftly after the ceremony. The wedding night, the slippery loss of virginity in the flickering candlelight, had terrified her. Between the removal of the gown that Caroline had given her and the squawking of the peacocks and pheasants on the Holland House terrace, Sarah was transformed. Innocence gave way to experience, the maiden to the wife, and the bibulous optimism of the wedding day to the settled despair of “real dislike.”

Of course, the phrase “real dislike” is very striking and needs a lot of pondering. But—and this needs some explaining—the pattern of Sarah’s relationship with Bunbury in the months following their marriage was, in fact, over-dependence. She writes to Emily that she knows that no husband can enjoy his wife continually “tagging” after him, yet that is what she cannot help doing. “Whenever he is absent an hour even, I am watching for his return and follow him to the stables etc, and, in short, am vastly troublesome.”

It is not disputed that Bunbury was reserved and cold, apparently more interested in his horses than anything else. But Sarah’s tone about this is a rather engaging comic competitiveness:

This d——l of a frost hinders me, & so Mr B. & I sit scolding & grumbling & growling, he because he can’t course, & I because I can’t hunt & that I fear ‘twill kill my dear cedars.3

It is hard to interpret this as “settled dislike.” Indeed I am inclined to think Sarah’s phrase “real dislike” could have referred to dislike (or apparent dislike) on Bunbury’s part rather than on hers. Tillyard’s phrase “slippery loss of virginity in the flickering candlelight,” whether a speculation or just pleonasm, is a highhanded piece of “color,” impeding responsiveness to the given human case.

  1. 1

    Emily, Duchess of Leinster, 1731–1814: A Study of Her Life and Times (London and New York: Staples Press, 1949) and Lady Louisa Conolly 1743–1821: An Anglo-Irish Biography (Staples Press, 1950), both by Brian Fitzgerald; and Lady Sarah Lennox: An Irrepressible Stuart 1745–1826 (Putnam’s, 1946) by Edith Roelker Curtis. There is also a substantial collection of Sarah’s letters in The Life and Letters of Lady Sarah Lennox 1745–1826 (Scribner’s, 1902), edited by the Countess of Ilchester and Lord Stavordale.

  2. 2

    The Life and Letters of Lady Sarah Lennox, p. 101.

  3. 3

    The Life and Letters of Lady Sarah Lennox, p. 128.

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