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Tag Archives: Regency

  • Lady M: The Life and Loves of Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne 1751-1818 by Colin Brown

    Elizabeth, 'Lady M', etching by Braun Clement after John Hoppner. (c. National Portrait Gallery, Lady M: The Life and Loves of Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne 1751-1818, Amberley Publishing)

    Elizabeth Lamb was sexy, shrewd and presided over a salon for the fashionable Whig set for three decades but in writing her biography I found fresh evidence that Elizabeth Lamb, the Viscountess of Melbourne was as scheming and ruthless as Marquess de Merteuil in Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

     She was almost proud of her reputation for intrigue. When she commissioned an artist to do a group portrait of herself and her two closest friends, Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, and Anne Damer, a sculptor, she arranged it so they were portrayed as the three witches in Macbeth, casting spells on those around her. Not that she regarded herself as a wicked witch, but others did, and today she might be regarded as a monster who would do anything for her ambition to rise to the top of Georgian society.

    She lived by a rule that provided a woman had done her duty in producing an heir for her husband, she should be free to have as many lovers as she liked. Before the age of contraception this led to the birth of many illegitimate offspring but such were the different moral codes before the Victorians, a Georgian man invariably accepted his wife’s infidelities and her children as his own. Lady Melbourne had six surviving children but only the first, Peniston, was by her husband, Peniston Lamb. Her second son, William – who later became Queen Victoria’s first Prime Minister – was almost certainly sired by George Wyndham, the third earl of Egremont, Elizabeth’s long-term lover who owned Petworth house in Sussex. Her fourth son, George, was widely assumed to be the result of Elizabeth’s brief sexual encounters with the young, plump Prince of Wales when she visited Eton to see Peniston.

    Elizabeth had been born Elizabeth Milbanke in 1751 in the Yorkshire Dales at Halnaby Hall – now only the stables survive – but she managed to rise from being a squire’s daughter to one of the leading ladies of Georgian society. Her marriage to Peniston was a marriage of convenience for both parties. He wanted the respectability of the Milbanke’s. She wanted Peniston’s fortune – he had inherited £1 million from his father, with two country houses, Melbourne Hall in Derbyshire, and Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire, with a comfortable house in Sackville Street, just off Piccadilly.

    Melbourne Hall, Derbyshire - Elizabeth took a keen interest in agriculture. (Author's collection, Lady M: The Life and Loves of Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne 1751-1818, Amberley Publishing)

    She discovered soon after she had married Peniston while she was pregnant with his son that her husband had taken up with a celebrated courtesan called Sophia Baddeley, whose friend humiliated Elizabeth by writing her kiss and tell memoirs which claimed Peniston had promised Sophia lavish sums of money providing she would only have sex with him. Elizabeth had her revenge by having a string of lovers and spending Peniston’s fortune firstly on a splendid London house – now converted into flats called the Albany, still one of the most prestigious addresses in Piccadilly.

    Georgiana came under Lady Melbourne’s spell, which infuriated Georgiana’s mother, Lady Spencer who repeatedly ordered her daughter to break off her friendship with Lady Melbourne, to no avail. It was almost as though Georgiana was afraid of Lady Melbourne and wrote many letters (now in Lamb archive at the British Library) pleading with Lady Melbourne not to be angry with her. Lady Mary Coke complained the Duchess ‘cannot walk into a room; she must come in with a hop and a jump’. I found that was not Elizabeth’s style. Where the Duchess was gushing and gauche, Elizabeth was calculating, scheming, politically shrewd. Her advice was to prove disastrous for her intimate friend Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, (1757-1806), however.

    Georgiana spent years trying to produce an heir for the Duke and when she did, she then took Lady Melbourne’s lead by taking a couple of lovers. However, where Lady Melbourne insisted on absolute secrecy about her affairs, Georgiana fell pregnant to a rising Whig politician, Charles Grey and she was quickly confronted by the Duke who insisted on her having the child in exile in France to limit the scandal – and the potential problems of inheritance. Unlike Lady Melbourne, she was forced to give up the child, a girl, who was brought up in the country by Grey’s parents.

    York House, Whitehall, as it looked when it was exchanged by the Duke of York with the Melbournes. (Lady M: The Life and Loves of Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne 1751-1818, Amberley Publishing)

    Elizabeth’s intrigues reached a climax in her middle age when the poet Lord Byron literally stumbled into their lives. The Melbourne’s had done a house swop with the Duke of York and moved from Piccadilly to the Duke’s house in Whitehall, now Dover House, the Scotland Office, jammed between Horse Guards and the Cabinet Office. William Lamb’s wife, Caroline Lamb, was holding dancing parties and had invited the young poet who had burst onto the scene like a pop star with his epic poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimmage. He had one leg shorter than the other, and tripped on the staircase at Melbourne House. He commented to a friend: ‘It is a bad omen’. He was right. Caroline fell head over heels in love with the dashing poet and for a hot summer in 1812 they became passionate lovers. Caroline’s ‘crime’ in Lady Melbourne’s eyes was not that she had cuckolded her son; it was that she conducted her affair in public. After an earlier affair, she wrote an excoriating letter to her daughter-in-law saying: ‘When one braves the opinion of the World sooner or later they will feel the consequences of it.’

    Lady Caroline Lamb today would be regarded as a wild child, a celebrity starlet, the darling of the gossip columns. Byron tired of Caroline’s attentions – she dressed up as a page to get into his rooms and slashed her wrists at a ball – and tried to drop her. Astonishingly, her mother-in-law set about helping Byron to extricate himself from Caroline’s desperate clutches. And she did so by helping to engineer a marriage between Byron and her niece, Annabella Milbanke. The marriage was a disaster but I found evidence that Lady Melbourne was keen to promote it – even after she discovered that Byron had had an affair with his half-sister, and had a child with her. Byron and Lady Melbourne exchanged rings and letters like lovers. There were claims that she had become Byron’s lover. She was sixty one and he was twenty four. It may seem unlikely but she was such an extraordinary woman, no-one would say it never happened.

    Colin Brown's new book Lady M: The Life and Loves of Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne 1751-1818 is available for purchase now.

  • The Real Persuasion: Portrait of a Real-Life Jane Austen Heroine by Peter James Bowman

    The Real Persuasion 2 Katherine1 Katherine Bisshop. Crayon sktech. Castle Goring MSS/PD/100, West Sussex Record Office, Chichester. (The Real Persuasion, Amberley Publishing)

    I first read the typescript diary of Katherine Bisshopp (1791-1871) many years ago in the hope of finding references to the subject of a book I was then working on. I found nothing, but the forthright, colourful, often humorous tone of Katherine’s writing made me want to find out more about her. This proved easy: the kind couple in Worthing who had let me see the diary and the West Sussex Record Office in Chichester had so much material on the Bisshopp family in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that the only problem was getting through it all.

    Gradually it dawned on me that Katherine’s life resembled that of Anne Elliot, the heroine of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, to an astonishing degree. And yet Jane Austen did not know Katherine, while the only Austen novel Katherine seems to have read was Mansfield Park. My biography contains splinter chapters that set out the correspondences between fact and fiction, and in the conclusion I reflect on the different but complementary ways in which social history and literature illuminate the way people lived in the past.

    In telling the story of Katherine Bisshopp’s life I have interwoven my own narrative with letters and diary extracts that reflect the way she and other members of her family thought, felt and wrote. After Katherine the most important characters are George Pechell, the dashing, self-confident man she marries many years after her family rejected him, and only after he returns from a long naval service with a fortune in prize money – like Frederick Wentworth in Persuasion; and her sister Harriet, who weds Robert Curzon, a kind but rather limited country squire, has two sons who turn out disobedient, and becomes an invalid whose mysterious ailments come and go without explanation – like Mary Musgrove in the same novel.

    The Real Persuasion 1 Parham Neale Parham Park, Sussex. Engraving by Archelaus Cruse after John Preston Neale. (The Real Persuasion, Amberley Publishing)

    Katherine and George marry in 1826, when she is thirty-five and he thirty-seven. At this point the parallels with Anne Elliot cease since we take our leave of her, as of all Jane Austen heroines, at the point of her marriage. But if we imagine these heroines as real people they would probably have lived on well into the Victorian era. So would Jane Austen herself had she not died aged forty-one exactly two centuries ago in 1817. The continuing stories of Katherine and Harriet therefore allow us to imagine futures for Anne Elliot and Mary Musgrove, for several other characters in Persuasion, and even for other inhabitants of Jane Austen’s Regency world.

    The Pechells’ union is a happy one and produces three children. George becomes an equerry to Queen Adelaide, an MP for Brighton, and later a vice-admiral, and he and his wife relish family life at Castle Goring, their home near Worthing. However, not long after Katherine’s marriage she falls out with Harriet over the partition of their father’s estate and the payment of his debts, and although they patch up the relationship their subsequent letters never regain the warmth of their early exchanges.

    Both women endure severe trials as mothers: Harriet’s elder son Robert, a distinguished Orientalist, grows frosty towards his parents, and her favourite Edward elopes and scandalises the whole family; and Katherine is devastated by her son William’s death in the Crimean War but consoled by her close bond with her two daughters and their husbands. As the years pass the contrasting characters of the two couples change their relative fortunes, with the energetic and resolute Pechells gaining greater status and wealth while the initially far richer but feckless Curzons descend into financial difficulty and discord.

    I hope that the documentary style of my book will allow the reader to feel at home in the world it depicts and closely acquainted with the two sisters and their families.


    Peter James Bowman's new book The Real Persuasion: Portrait of a Real-Life Jane Austen Heroine is available for purchase now.

  • An Illustrated Introduction to the Regency by Mike Rendell

    When I was asked to write An Illustrated Introduction to the Georgians I jumped at the chance. I had never written a book which was part of a series, and which had to fit in to an existing format in terms of length, number and use of images, and so on. Getting upwards of seventy images, all free of copyright, was a challenge. In effect you choose the illustrations and then write the book around them. It was fun doing the project, and when I was asked to do a follow-up, An Illustrated Introduction to the Regency”, I was delighted.

    On the other hand, I realized that I knew someone who was far more knowledgeable about certain aspects of the Regency than I could ever be – Philippa Sutcliffe. She happens to be my wife. She has always been a Regency ‘nut’ and knows a vast amount about etiquette, fashion, style and so on. I blame it on her having read far too many Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen novels when she was younger. Apparently she was so keen on the period that when she got confirmed, at the age of thirteen, she persuaded the Bishop to add “Philippa” to her name on an official form, enabling her to get a new passport. The first her parents knew about it was when the passport, bearing the name “Philippa” landed on the mat. They never once used that name for her, and I think they were happy that she didn’t choose “Arabella” or something else more fanciful.

    Anyway, I knew that doing a book on the Regency would be far easier if I had Philippa as co-author, rather than have her reading the proofs of my attempts to describe Regency life and exclaiming “No, it wasn’t like that” so I asked if she would help me co-write it.

    I must admit: I have never co-authored a book before, and it is not without its challenges! Who decides who should write which sections? Who decides how many words are allocated for each chapter? Who gets to decide if the chapter on Fashion should get an extra five hundred words, or three extra illustrations? And if a picture really does tell a thousand words does that mean that if I agree to Philippa having a picture of a natty waistcoat I could take back a thousand of her words to use to describe the Battle of Trafalgar?

    The only way to resolve such matters is to shut yourself up in a small room together, so that neither party can stomp off in high dudgeon. As it happened, we had the perfect place – a cabin on board the Braemar, where I was delivering a series of lectures on Georgian history. There in the cabin we could bicker and argue, and eventually agree, on the way the book was to be written. At times it was highly entertaining and, as there was no escape, we had no choice but to buckle down and agree. Within a few weeks the problems had been ironed out, and the book was written.

    Actually, looking back on it we both feel it was great fun, and we are delighted with the outcome. Together the two books, introducing readers to the Georgian period in general and the Regency in particular, make good companions. I hope they both “do as they say on the tin” – they are an introduction. It’s just that if I ever ask my wife to co-write anything else in the future I think I will have to do more than offer her a cruise to Spain by way of compensation. I rather think something further afield will be called for…


    Mike Rendell and Philippa Sutcliffe's An Illustrated Introduction to the Regency is available for purchase now.

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