Diary of a Provincial Lady

For this, my first post of the year I want to introduce the The Diary of a Provincial Lady (E.M. Delafield) to anyone who hasn’t come across her before. I have been meaning to read the book for ages (hence the need for this challenge and this blog in the first place) and I did finally get around to it last year. Although it isn’t a 2018 read, I wanted to talk a little about it before I put it back on the shelf. My edition is a Virago paperback (1984) which comprises four diaries of the Provincial Lady. It also contains an excellent introduction by Nicola Beauman. I have discovered that Persephone Books offer a lovely reprint, using the original illustrations by Arthur Watts and with an afterward by Nicola Beauman. This edition sorely tempts me (see illustration below).

Cover of The Diary of a Provincial Lady

The Provincial Lady began life as a series of articles for a weekly feminist magazine, Time and Tide when Delafield was well established as an author, already having eighteen books under her belt. The first Diary of a Provincial Lady was published in 1930, followed in 1932 by The Provincial Lady Goes Further, The Provincial Lady in America (1934) and The Provincial Lady in Wartime (1940). My internet searches have also yielded the information that our PL also went to Russia (published 1937), this book slotting in between America and Wartime. That must be next on my wants list! I have read though all four books in my volume, but in this post, I will confine myself to the first volume to give you a flavour of the Provincial Lady and her world.

Before talking about our lady diarist, I will just sketch in a few details about the author. E.M. Delafield is the pen name of Edmée Elizabeth Monica de la Pasture (1890-1943) whose mother was a well-known author. This explains the transition from ‘de la Pasture’ to ‘Delafield’ when she came to publish her own work. Her father was a Count, descended from a family fleeing the French revolution; Delafield went on to marry Arthur Dashwood third son of a baronet and they eventually settled in Devon. Delafield’s Provincial Lady draws on her own provincial life and experiences in this part of the world, however the husband and children in the books were apparently only very loosely based on her own husband and offspring. Her first novel, Zella Sees Herself (1917) was published after Delafield had spent most of the First World War as a V.A.D. She went on to become a very successful author before her untimely death at only fifty-three.

The diaries humorously detail the ordinary life experiences of the un-named Provincial Lady, dealing with servants, school, children, balancing the household budget and those all important social duties. The characters include the snobbish and wealthy Lady Boxe, Our Vicar’s Wife, a couple of old school friends, various neighbours and visitors. The immediate household consists of husband Robert, daughter Vicky (her son Robin is away at school but makes his presence felt in  occasional unsatisfying letters), French governess Mademoiselle, Cook and Ethel the parlour maid. A common theme in the book is the Lady’s endless efforts to balance the financial books. Receipts go missing, the contents of the cash box is never what it should be and polite letters arrive from suppliers and bank managers requesting settlement. Great aunt’s diamond ring is regularly pawned (though at a suitable distance from the village).Illustrated Provincial Lady

I was surprised how many little incidents struck a chord, despite the 1930s setting and the fact that the social background of the character is somewhat removed from my own. Here is she espousing modern parenting by discussing the question of the existence of Hell with her daughter Vicky:

Am determined to be a modern parent, and assure her that there is not, never has been, and never could be, such a place. Vicky maintains that there is, and refers me to the Bible. I become more modern than ever, and tell her that theories of eternal punishment were invented to frighten people … (Query: Are modern children going to revolt against being modern, and if so, what form will reaction of modern parents take?)

While reading the diary entries on the vexed question of Christmas shopping, I was amused to note that her caustic reactions to the cost of gift ideas given in magazines in 1930 are eerily similar to my own (most recently given voice to in reading gift guides in 2017 Christmas supplements). Her gift guide makes suggestions ‘individual and yet appropriate-beautiful, and yet enduring’. It goes on to say, ‘Then why not Enamel dressing-table set, at £94 16s 4d or Set of crystal-ware, exact replica of early English cut-glass, at moderate price pf £34 17s 9d?’ The Provincial Lady’s response is a tart ‘Why not, indeed?’ After briefly surveying the section for ‘Giver with Restricted Means’ (5 guineas) she settles for a ‘one-and-sixpenny calendar with picture of sunset on Scaw Fell, as usual’. During an exhausting shopping trip to London she agonises over a ‘really handsome’ card for her old school friend Cissie Crabbe against an ‘almost invisibly small diary’. She eventually settles on the diary as it will fit into an ordinary sized envelope. The glamour of Christmas shopping on a limited budget!

Finally, I note that our diarist has the eternal discussion with her offspring whether hand washing before meals ‘is, or is not necessary’. She notes in an aside:

(Mem: Have sometimes considered -though idly- writing letter to the Times to find out if any recorded instances exist of parents and children whose views on this subject coincide. Topic of far wider appeal than many of those so exhaustively dealt with).

This reminds me of a John Drinkwater poem that I knew as a child called ‘Washing’ , which begins ‘What is all this washing about, Every day, week in, week out?’ It’s nice to know that some thing never change! All that washing business baffled me too.

I did actually read all four books straight through, which was probably not the best idea. As Beauman points out in her introduction, the diaries were not meant to be read straight through, so repetition of phrases and events is noticeable as you go on. However, I don’t think that detracts from the humour of the books, or the sharp observation that Delafield applies to the mundane round of life. I have since found myself dipping back to read entries here and there which is a better way to read the diaries I think. These are books you could return to over and over again for escapist humour with a dash of vim.

Now all I need to do is to track down the remaining volume for my collection.

Best wishes for a Happy Reading Year to one and all! Drop me a line below if you have any New Year reading goals.

Picture Credits: Additional image from Persephone Books online shop.

A Pre-Raphaelite Summer (Reading part 2)

As you will probably have guessed, this art-themed post is to be the second part of my belated round up of summer reading. Very belated, considering that Halloween is upon us as I write. Again, I propose a quick nod to three more of the books on my recently accomplished list, but just drop me a line if you want a little more information on anything. This blog post fails to do justice to some fascinating books, but I hope that at least by mentioning them, the inspiration to explore further may strike someone reading the post. I still want to mention the remainder of the summer reads, but I will pop those in here as and when I can, so that I may begin writing about my autumn reading (at this rate I will never catch up!)

To continue with the list in reading order (which again is also following a roughly chronological trajectory) I begin with Desperate Romantics: the Private Lives of the Pre-Raphaelites (Franny Moyle, John Murray, 2009). This I bought in 2009, having heard of, but not watched the television series loosely based on the book. I was curious to read it after having heard about the rollicking television series, but clearly my curiosity faded, as the book remained un-read until this year. I am glad however that finally I got around to reading Moyle’s book, which draws on the wealth of research available on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB). She explores the tangled relationships of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and their models, wives, lovers and artistic colleagues. The champion of Pre-Raphaelitism, John Ruskin; Rossetti’s one time teacher Ford Maddox Brown and later PRB members William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones all have parts in the painterly drama.

Desperate Romantics inspired a re-read of Lizzie Siddal: the Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel (Lucinda Hawksley, Andre Deutsch, 2004, 2005). This is an excellent account of Lizzie Siddal’s life, but I think the subtitle was an unfortunate choice. As Hawksley makes clear, Siddal had her own artistic ambitions, both as a painter and a poet and was not merely Dante Rossetti’s model (and lover). Not surprisingly, the book jacket features Lizzie Siddal’s most famous modelling role, that of Ophelia for Millais’ painting of that name. However, Lizzie had ambitions for herself and renowned critic John Ruskin considered Lizzie talented enough to become her patron. I knew that Lizzie Siddal had painted (see below) but I had had no idea that she wrote too. Apparently, the poetic bent was not enough to endear Siddal to Dante’s poet sister Christina Rossetti who saw nothing to admire in her and disapproved of her relationship with Dante.

Ending my Pre-Raphaelite binge was Pre-Raphaelite Women Artists (Jan Marsh and Pamela Gerrish Nunn, Thames and Hudson, 1998). Manchester City Art Galleries originally published this book in 1997 to accompany its exhibition, which I saw in 1998 when it travelled to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Some of Lizzie Siddal’s work was on show at the exhibition, such as Pippa Passes (pen and ink drawing) and Lady Clare (watercolour on paper). For some reason I never bought the catalogue at the time so I was delighted to receive this copy as a Christmas present last year. Both the exhibition and the book highlighted women whose work was part of the wider Pre-Raphaelite tradition. As was pointed out in the book, Pre-Raphaelitism was a collegiate movement and female artists were able to benefit from support between men and women (Pamela Gerrish Nunn). Perhaps not surprisingly, several women featured came from artistic families and were able to count on that support to aid their artistic growth. Ford Maddox Brown’s two daughters Lucy and Catherine painted, taught by their father. Also coming from artistic families were Rebecca Solomon, Rosa Brett and Emma Sandys all of whom had brothers who became professional painters.

It was great to re-discover this book and to browse the artworks again. I will leave you with a sentence from Gerrish Nunn’s essay, which sums up for me the whole purpose of the exhibition and catalogue:

Woman – the object, icon, motif and motive of whom and from whom Pre-Raphaelitism is said to have been made – has perversely, masked the presence within the movement of women – active, executive autonomous subjects making Pre-Raphaelitism.

I hope you have enjoyed that snapshot of my Pre-Raphaelite summer reading. Do let me know if you have an interest in this area. I’d love to hear from you!

Springtime for Miss Read (and Mrs Griffin)

Cover of Mrs Griffin Sends her Love

A Country collection…

This latest post is going to be a spring-themed blog post, to continue the recent seasonal bent on The Landing’s sister blog, Curiously Creatively. It is also another of those literary digressions where I sideline my TBR Pile in favour of a library discovery (or in this case a re-discovery of sorts). For anyone who came across the Miss Read (real name, Dora Saint) ‘Thrush Green’ or ‘Fairacre’ books many years ago, to discover a relatively new publication is a great find. As is my wont, I was browsing in the local library despite the presence of plenty of unread volumes on my shelves. Having spotted Mrs Griffin Sends her Love in my favourite section for serendipitous discoveries (AKA the ‘Just Returned’ shelf), I threw caution and the TBR pile to the winds. I may have also picked up a couple more books in addition, but let us not go into that little matter now.

Mrs Griffin Sends her Love is a collection of short pieces and articles compiled by Dora Saint’s daughter Jill and her former editor Jenny Dereham, to mark what would have been Mrs Saint’s 100th birthday in 2013. Some of the pieces were originally published elsewhere, some only discovered after Dora Saint’s death. They are a mixture of essays, humorous articles and extracts from longer works. The anthology includes articles on education (originally for the Times Educational Supplement), as well as pieces taken from Tales from a Village School and Time Remembered. Included also is part of a projected book on ‘The Village Year’ only discovered after Dora Saint’s death and some diary extracts from 1963, begun while Dora and her husband were housebound due to the heavy snow that winter. Just for the record, it has to be said that Mrs Griffin does not get a very big part, given that she provides the collection’s title

My favourite pieces are the ones about village school life: particularly the extracts from Time Remembered and a set of articles gathered under the heading ‘The Joys and Perils of Teaching’. As you might imagine it is the telling of the perils that is the most entertaining to read. In one article entitled ‘Scriptural Matters’ one youngster observes ‘Why didn’t God make us knowing everything? It would have saved a lot of trouble’. Saint describes her own early years as a pupil at a village school after her family moved from London to the Kent countryside. She reminds us how boring school life could be, and how the smallest things could be a fascinating distraction to pupils: ‘Small pieces of pink blotting paper, torn from the precious three-by-four allowed, were surprisingly nice to eat, and occasionally an obliging fly would settle on the arid desk top and create a diversion’.

Dora Saint had a real love of the natural beauties surrounding her on her walk to school as a youngster new to the countryside. The descriptions of the flowers and fauna are a joy to read and it is clear that Saint loved the country sights from a very young age. She recalls her very first experience of arriving in Kent, ’I discovered dog violets and harebells in the North Downs countryside, as well as old friends like buttercups and daisies’. However, Saint was not enamoured of all aspects of country life. She disliked seeing, ‘poor dead rooks hanging upside down from sticks among the crops, their black satin wings opening and shutting macabrely in the wind.’ I can’t say that I blame her, it must have been an unnerving sight for a young child.

Cover of The Year at Thrush Green

Two more Miss Read books …

Having picked up this library book inspired me to have a root around on The Landing shelves and see what Miss Read books I could come up with to re-read. Miss Read is one of the authors that I discovered many years ago, courtesy of my mum’s reading tastes and I borrowed several from our local library as a teenager. We have a couple of Miss Read titles here on The Landing, so I have just been dipping into The Year at Thrush Green, looking at the seasonal changes that she describes. Taking the February entry, here is her observation of signs that spring is beginning in Thrush Green,

Soon yellow primroses would star the woods, and the daffodils would blow their trumpets in the gardens of Thrush Green. Yellow, gold and green, spring’s particular colours, would bring hope again after the bleak black and white of winter.

Miss Read also has an eye to the spring garden, as she describes the vicar wandering in his garden one bright March morning, seeking respite from a particularly trying parishioner. Blackbirds and thrushes are busy looking for food, while daffodils and narcissi promise better things to come and ‘polyanthus plants turned their velvety faces to the morning sunshine, bright yellow, orange, red and a deep mauvish-blue’. Add an almond tree scattering blossom and you have a very inviting seasonal snapshot.

Her evocation of the colours and imagery of spring scenery is delightful. By the merry month of May, ‘the roses were showing plump buds’, wisteria ‘drooped massive tassels against the Cotswold stone’ and along the lanes was ‘cow parsley frothing each side as far as the eye could see’. I particularly like the wisteria analogy as it is one of my favourite climbing plants and there are some lovely examples to enjoy around my part of Dublin.

I think that I will now head into June (in a literary sense if not in reality) and see what is growing in the hedgerows and gardens. I might even catch up with a few Thrush Green inhabitants at the same time. There sure to be a bit of gossip circulating…

Drop a line in the comment box if you are a Miss Read fan!

I didn’t mean to go to the Trinity Book Sale again…

Trinity Book Stash

My (our) latest stash

Well, when I say that, I really mean that I fleetingly considered not going to the Trinity Book Sale this year as I still have the inevitable pile of un-read books. However, as I managed to miss last year’s event due to its move away from an end of the week spot, I thought that I would make the effort and toddle along. The more I considered the matter, the less I wanted to risk missing any book bargains, especially as I am an aficionado of the half–price last day. Previously held on a Saturday, but now a Thursday, it is my ultimate book bargain pleasure.

This year, my final tally was seven volumes for a modest six euro; though two of the books were for The Bookworm, (I also blame her for drawing another couple of titles to my attention). As is usual at book sales, I felt that I could easily have gone along picking up books left, right and centre. I have done this at a library sale before now and virtually needed a fork lift truck to carry my purchases home. On this occasion, only a carrier bag was required to lift the spoils.

Miss Brown's Hospital

An early pioneer of women’s medical training.

As you can see from the photos shown here, I brought home an interesting mix of fiction, biography and classic works. The Bookworm sneaked in an extra visit on the previous day, so here is our combined haul of reading matter for the next wee while. I was particularly struck by the little book, Miss Brown’s Hospital by Francesca French (1954). This is the story of Dame Edith Mary Brown who was the founder of Ludhiana Medical College in Eastern Punjab. I had not heard of her before, but Miss Brown apparently had ‘many claims to distinction: as scholar, doctor, educationalist and pioneer’. She was a graduate of Girton College, Cambridge, studied for a medical diploma in Scotland and obtained her MD in Brussels.

Edith Brown was also devoutly religious and ‘at the back of her mind was the unswerving determination that in applying her medical skill to the benefit of mankind she must combine it with the great emancipating power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ’. She decided to focus both her medical skills and her spirituality upon the women of India in the role of a medical mission. Her appointment in 1891 to the medical mission at Ludhiana gave her the opportunity she sought. This led to her establishing a medical training centre for Indian women. I hope to return to Miss, or rather Dr Brown in a future blog post when I have had a chance to read the book properly and perhaps also to delve a little more into the period and the location.

Sir Christopher Hatton

Elizabethan statesman and courtier

I was particularly pleased to discover the book on Sir Christopher Hatton (Eric St. John Brooks) as I have been having an extended Tudor-related reading period. This ties in quite nicely with a few other books that I have read over the past few months (some previously featured on this blog). Christopher Hatton was one of Elizabeth I’s favourites, a statesman and councillor who held the office of Lord Chancellor. As the lives of the courtiers in Elizabeth’s hotbed of political scheming were inextricably entwined, Hatton has popped up in my historical reading several times. This book, first published in 1946 was apparently an attempt to present a balanced view of Hatton’s life and achievements. The blurb claims that ‘Hatton’s part in the history of his times has been largely misunderstood’. It may be that later scholarship has superseded Brook’s study, so I will check to see if anything has been published on Hatton since then. Anyway, after enjoying an account of Sir Walter Raleigh’s life recently (Margaret Irwin), I shall look forward to reading it. No doubt I will meet up with Raleigh again as I read about Hatton, as I note that he merits several entries in the index.

 

Now, I am off to decide which of my Trinity Book Sale acquisitions to tackle first!

 

Oscar Wilde and ‘The Woman’s World’

I am beginning the New Year rather late this year as you might have noticed. Clearly, either my body clock has taken a while to kick in or I have been in a state of denial about the existence of 2017 (note also that I am glossing over my blogging inactivity in December). However, I do intend finally to begin my blogging year and return to tackling my Landing Bookshelves Reading Challenge albeit with the usual digressions along the way. As you will know, said digressions tend to be frequent, so my TBR pile is not getting any smaller; and will in fact probably never shrink appreciably. I will just have to live with that, (it’s a hard life!). bookc cover: Wilde's Women

True to form, my first post of the year features a non-TBR book, Wilde’s Women by Eleanor Fitzsimons (Duckworth Overlook, 2016). The sub-title runs: How Oscar Wilde Was Shaped by the Women He Knew, and this was the part that particularly attracted my attention. Wilde is probably more widely associated in the public consciousness with the men in his life, rather than the women. The author has given both his mother and his wife their rightful due in this book. Eleanor Fitzsimons’ exploration of the female angle in Wilde’s life interested me because I have previously read Joan Schenkar’s fascinating biography about his niece Dorothy ‘Dolly’ Wilde (the daughter of Oscar’s older brother Willie and his second wife Sophia Lily Lees). As it turned out, Oscar’s enduring charisma and reputation cast a long shadow over Dolly’s frequently unhappy life. She bore a striking physical resemblance to her famous uncle and consequently spent her life trading upon it. As Eleanor Fitzsimons points out, this tendency caused awkwardness in her relationship with Oscar Wilde’s son, Vyvyan Holland when they finally became acquainted in adulthood. She was said by her mother to have inherited ‘a fair share of the family brains’ but Dolly was perhaps damaged by the weight of expectations put upon her so young.

Of course, properly speaking Dolly Wilde cannot be counted as one of Wilde’s Women (as defined by the terms of the sub-title) since she was born while he was imprisoned and she never actually met him and so represents a rather sad epilogue to the Wilde story. If however we do include Dolly Wilde in an account of the women of Oscar Wilde’s family, then it becomes apparent that his life and work was bookended by two striking and fascinating women. At Oscar’s genesis, we find his mother Jane Elgee Wilde (known by her pen name Speranza) and towards the end of his life, the birth of Dolly, bearing the Wilde mythology onwards. On the face of it, it appears that Speranza provided the seeds of the literary and artistic talent, which blossomed into Oscar and yet which failed to bear fruit in Dolly Wilde. No story is ever that simple however, but such a literary legacy would have been difficult to follow for any descendent. I wonder how Oscar’s sons coped with the pressure of his literary legacy, to say nothing of the effects of losing his presence in their lives after the trial.

Magazine cover: The Woman's WorldThe section of the book that intrigued me the most was the chapter discussing Wilde’s stint as editor of a women’s magazine, an episode that was completely new to me. In April 1887, Oscar Wilde was invited by the publishers of The Lady’s World to revitalise and generally to add celebrity lustre to the struggling magazine. This was an illustrated monthly magazine, on sale for a shilling, which was struggling in a busy market. For instance, The Ladies’ Companion was another illustrated magazine aimed at a similar audience at the same price. Wilde was interested in editing and writing for the magazine but he insisted on a name change, more in keeping with his progressive ideas, hence The Woman’s World. Wilde suggested that the latter was much more suitable for a magazine that wished to be, ‘the organ of women of intellect, culture, and position’. He wanted to create a magazine that talked about what women thought and felt and not merely, about what they wore. I was amused to note that fashion was pushed to the back of the magazine in this brave new venture. Some previously included sections vanished altogether under Wilde’s editorship, such as ‘Fashionable Marriages’ and ‘Pastimes for Ladies’. However, I cannot help feeling a vague curiosity about the nature of those suitably ladylike activities!Cover from The Ladies' Companion

Fashion Plate

From The Ladies’ Companion.

As Eleanor Fitzsimons makes clear, many intellectual and professional women liked and respected Oscar Wilde and were very happy to contribute articles to his re-vamped journal on various important subjects. One topic covered by The Woman’s World was women’s dress and its suitability, practicality and healthiness. Wilde, as well as his wife Constance Lloyd was an active supporter of the Rational Dress Society. In an article for The Woman’s World he wrote,

From the Sixteenth Century to our own day, there is hardly any form of torture that has not been inflicted on girls and endured by women, in obedience to the dictates of an unreasonable and monstrous Fashion.

As I am writing this, I wonder what Wilde would have thought of the current UK parliamentary enquiry into the issue of women forced by employers to wear high heels at work. I am sure he could have come up with a riveting deposition to the enquiry on the subject. His idea was that in time, ‘the dress of the two sexes will be assimilated, as similarity of costume always follows similarity of pursuits’. Sadly, it seems this has not yet happened; apparently, women still need to wear heels to do exactly the same job that a man does in flats. We certainly need a witty Wildean epigram for the shoe question.Cover of The Rational Dress Society magazine

As I said above, Wilde attracted many talented female contributors to The Woman’s World including trade unionist Clementina Black, feminist writer Julia Wedgewood, suffragist Millicent Garrett Fawcett and journalist Charlotte O’Connor Eccles. Therefore, not only was women’s dress debated within the pages of the magazine but also the extension of the suffrage to women and women’s right to be educated and to live useful and worthwhile lives. This range of content is what surprised me the most and Fitzsimons has added a great deal to my impressions of Oscar Wilde, with his support for so many radical women writers and activists. It is easy to think of Wilde in terms of witty epigrams and sparkling conversation, without stopping to think about what lay beneath the polished surface.

Sadly, Wilde’s stint as an editor did not last very long; the last edition bearing his name came out before the end of 1889, so he clocked up a mere two years. Fitzsimons makes clear that Wilde did much that was worthwhile in his role, but admits that,’ While his sincerity and sympathy were never in doubt, his suitability to deal with the day-today challenges of bringing out a magazine on someone else’s behalf was’. Turning up regularly to the office and dealing with the minutiae of getting a magazine to press proved to be beyond his capabilities. Tellingly, The Woman’s World did not long survive Wilde’s departure, having reverted to its original style of content without his dynamic input.

Because of reading Wilde’s Women, I am in danger of encountering many literary digressions; I plan to follow up ideas that I have gleaned from the wonderful range of sources used by Eleanor Fitzsimons. My hopes of acquiring a copy of one of the volumes of The Woman’s World was somewhat dashed however when I saw how much a dealer on ABE Books was charging. Perhaps I was naive in thinking that I might be able to buy one for only a few euros…

Credits: Many thanks to Eleanor and the publishers for The Landing’s copy of this book. If you wish to discover more about her work, here is a link to Eleanor’s blog:  https://eafitzsimons.wordpress.com/about/

Additional pictures: As ever, thanks to Wikipedia and also to the website of the British Library.

Eleanor and Sarah: The Llangollen Ladies

I can’t believe that so much time has slipped by without a Landing update. The whole of October seems to have sunk without trace, although I have been quietly reading behind the scenes so not all is yet lost. However, I feel as though I have many loose ends to tie up, with various books lying about that I have planned to record on the blog. Some books have been genuine TBR subjects while others have been serendipitous library finds.

The Llangollen Ladies

A reprint of a 1936 title by Dr Mary Gordon

One Landing TBR Pile title tackled earlier this year was The Llangollen Ladies: The Story of Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Sarah Ponsonby known as the Ladies of Llangollen. I had heard of the Ladies before I spotted this book, so when I saw the title I jumped at the chance to discover something about the women’s history. Yet again, I have one of the Trinity College book sale events (in 2009) to thank for this little find (and even better, I bought it on half price Saturday).

This book by Dr Mary Gordon is a reprint (John Jones Publishing, 1999) of her earlier title, Chase of the Wild Goose that originally came out in 1936. Gordon tells the story of the relationship between the two Irish women, Lady Eleanor Butler (1745-1829) and Miss Sarah Ponsonby (1755-1831) who left Ireland to make their home in the Vale of Llangollen in 1778. Gordon was a devoted fan of the Ladies and was keen to put forward a fresh view of the story. Gordon felt that time had obscured the real background of the Ladies’ flight from Ireland to Wales and that over the years, rumours and gossip had become myth. In this book, she set out to revive the Ladies’ reputations and to return to available contemporary evidence such as surviving journals and letters from one of the Ladies’ friends.

The two women met and became fast friends at Eleanor Butler’s family seat, Kilkenny Castle. Subsequently they fled from their families and social obligations to live in a modest cottage in north Wales, which caused much consternation amongst friends and family. Neither woman wished to obey their family and make advantageous matches. They wished to live independently and have the opportunity to study and develop their minds. I admire their urge for freedom from the constraints of marriage, but the ladies were no revolutionary spirits. They were very aware of their social status as ladies and so this was not a bid for the freedom of earning a living or roughing it in rural poverty.

The Libray, Plas Newydd

An undated interior image of the house, taken from the book.

The Ladies lived In Llangollen for the rest of their lives, turning a stone cottage (renaming it Plas Newydd) into a place where, over a period of fifty years, the great and good were eager to visit. Not that Lady Eleanor and Miss Sarah by any means admitted all of their putative visitors. They were rather choosy about callers, never forgetting their respective aristocratic backgrounds.

Several writers have since written about the two women and their relationship. Were they a lesbian couple or were they simply fleeing from the limited opportunities then available to women. Romantic, even passionate friendships between women were common at this time. This extract from a Telegraph article by Anne Campbell Dixon refers to another biography on the Llangollen Ladies that I have found (details below),

My guess, from reading Elizabeth Mavor’s excellent biography, is that Eleanor was a lesbian, whether she realised it or not (likely not, as it was unheard-of until an outbreak of “sapphism” at the French court brought it to English society’s notice in 1789); but that Sarah – if she had not met Eleanor at the impressionable age of 13, and if she had not needed to escape from her guardian – might have settled down just as happily with a husband.

I suppose at this stage, nobody can ever give a definitive opinion on the Ladies’ sexuality. Especially, since social mores have changed so much. As Campbell points out, ‘The word romantic simply meant fanciful or eccentric in the 18th century. And it was the fashion for friends – male as well as female – to write and speak to each other in language which we now reserve for sexual partners. Nor was it uncommon to share a bed with a sister or friend.’ I also discovered an essay by Alison Oram in Re-presenting the Past: Women and History, entitled ‘Telling Stories about the Ladies of Llangollen: the construction of lesbian and feminist theories’, which I have yet to follow up on.

The intriguing story behind the origins of this book is that Mary Gordon claimed to have seen and spoken with the ghosts of Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby in their former home in Llangollen. I am not sure that the story convinces me, as I am sceptical of ghost sightings in general. Part of me would like to believe that Gordon did indeed meet the Ladies, and had a cosy natter, but part of me feels that it was it was simply a good way to frame her story. I suppose we will never know for sure. However, her book introduced the lives of Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby to a new audience, despite the ‘did she/didn’t she’ question hanging over its ghostly origins.

Mary Gordon freely imagines conversations taking place between Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby (such as on their first meeting) as well as other family interactions, so the book reads more as a sentimental novel than a rigorous biography. Clearly, Gordon was biased in her admiration of the two women and she is not particularly interested in examining their actions with any degree of criticism. For instance, it is plain that though the Ladies wanted to be free to live in their own way, they also expected and assumed that there would be financial support appropriate to their social station. Gordon places much emphasis on the aristocratic status of the women as which comes over to a modern ear as somewhat obsequious.

The book did however inspire me to delve further and I discovered two books by Elizabeth Mavor, The Ladies of Llangollen: A Study in Romantic Friendship (Viking, 1971) and Life with the Ladies of Llangollen (Viking, 1984). The latter is a fascinating collection journal extracts, arranged to give a flavour of country life from season to season, year on year. I have written a blog post on some of the recipes given for Curiously Creatively, though I haven’t got around to trying any out yet. I would recommend either of Elizabeth Mavor’s two books, as a better way of getting to know Lady Eleanor and Miss Sarah.

Now, back to my reading….

 

Arabella Stuart and Bess of Hardwick

I mentioned in the last post immersing myself in some dubious sixteenth century doings. Wreath for Arabella by Doris Leslie (Hutchinson 1948) was the book that started me off on my tour of historical skulduggery. This is one of the spoils from a previous Trinity Book Sale. I feel sure that I must have read Leslie’s books before, but perhaps it’s just that I remember my mum having them from the library (along with Miss Reed and Mazo de la Roche). Doris Leslie (1891-1982) was a British novelist and historical biographer who originally wanted to be an artist, then studied drama and finally discovered a talent for writing, publishing her first book in 1927. I didn’t know anything about her before lighting on a biographical note by the Southborough Society who have put up a blue plaque in Leslie’s honour. She does not seem to be particularly well known today. Although she was writing contemporaneously with Georgette Heyer whose books are still widely available, her books have since slipped through the publishing cracks.

Wreath for Arabella is a lively, well-written fictionalised account of the life of the ill-fated Arabella (Arbella) Stuart (1575-1615), a cousin of Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603). Both women descended from Henry VII: Elizabeth was his granddaughter (Henry VIII’s daughter) and Arabella his great great granddaughter (her father Charles Stuart was descended from Henry VIII’s sister Margaret of Scotland). Elizabeth apparently favoured choosing Arabella as her successor to the throne, only to change her mind in later years. From her earliest years, Arabella was educated as befitted as princess, studying Hebrew, French, Greek and Latin. In the end, Elizabeth’s choice of successor settled upon another cousin, James Stuart, the son of Mary Queen of Scots, so the careful preparation was to no avail. England was not to have three women (four queens if you count Lady Jane Grey) in a row on the throne after all.

As you might imagine, being a potential heir to the throne was not a particularly safe place to be. In fact, Elizabeth had taken it amiss that Arabella’s parents had married in the first place, due to the likelihood of creating yet another claimant to the throne. Arabella’s grandmothers languished in the infamous Tower of London for a while. In such family circumstances, probably it would be wiser to keep your head down (lest you lose it) and to be of a very shy and retiring disposition. Unfortunately, according to Leslie’s novel, Arabella was anything but shy and retiring and consequently earned the queen’s displeasure on more than one occasion. Elizabeth once sent Arabella away from court for flirting with her current favourite, the young Earl of Essex. More seriously, Arabella was the focus of various Catholic plots to remove Elizabeth from the throne, though admittedly she was not directly involved. Whether that was loyalty or merely the lesson learned from her cousin Mary Queen of Scots’ bad judgment, it is hard to ascertain from the novel. Suffice to say that many political figures would have liked to use Arabella as a pawn in their schemes (see, I told you there was skulduggery afoot).

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Stuart family history in general has always fascinated me, but as a bonus, Arabella’s story meshes with the most formidable woman of the era (apart from Elizabeth herself that is), her maternal grandmother, and known to history as Bess of Hardwick (1527-1608). From relatively modest origins, Elizabeth Hardwick rose to become the richest woman in England with a penchant for building beautiful houses such as Hardwick Hall. She came very close to being the grandmother of a queen, after engineering the marriage of Arabella’s parents and coming into conflict with her royal namesake. Unfortunately as I have said, Bess’s ambition didn’t allow her to achieve her final goal, but she still left her descendants very well placed in Tudor society. She even managed to survive the other Elizabeth by five years, and lived to see Arabella welcomed at the court of the new monarch James I (VI of Scotland) and his wife Anne of Denmark.

Bess would probably not have been a very comfortable relative to have around, but her drive and her energy were undeniable. Moreover, in an era when women’s role was to play a quiet domestic part, Bess had a public status not common at the time. Bess of Hardwick organised her own life very effectively, as well as those of her extended family, whether they liked it or not. The lady of Hardwick was the one moving the pieces across the chessboard and not the other way around. She married four times, each time carefully moving further up the social scale and acquiring more land and property. Her first marriage to Robert Barlow was very short and both bride and groom were only teenagers. After her husband’s death, Bess married a widower, Sir William Cavendish, with whom she had several children, six surviving into adulthood. After marrying and burying Sir William St Loe within a few short years, her crowning achievement was to become a countess upon her fourth marriage to another widower, George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury. She then very shrewdly married two of her children with two of the young Talbots to keep assets within the family. Oh, and in later years she had a very public marriage breakdown. Twentieth century celebs have nothing on Bess!

One of the short live series, Kate Hubbard’s A Material Girl from Short Books (belonging to He Who Put The Shelves Up) is a great introduction to this most fascinating of women. I first came across Bess of Hardwick many years ago via a BBC television programme but I can’t find any trace of it on the usually reliable YouTube. However, you can watch some more recent biographical clips if you want to look. Reading these two books has reminded me that I have yet to get around to visiting Hardwick Hall, so maybe I will manage to fit it in during my next trip over to see the family. I will also keep a look out for more of Doris Leslie’s historical novels (or perhaps not depending on the state of the TBR Pile!)

Meanwhile, I will continue with reading more of my Trinity Book Sale bargains…

Extra picture credits: the Doris Leslie plaque taken from the Southborough Society page (see above)