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, 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 …

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