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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Invasion of Privacy: Reading the Correspondence of Others.

Today our guest blogger is Regency expert Nancy Mayer. She discusses a great research tool - reading the letters and journals of the famous and not so famous. Anyone leaving a comment today will be eligible for the drawing for two of Victoria Alexander's Regency novels, "What a Lady Wants" and "A Little Bit Wicked." Be sure to leave your e-mail so we can contact you should you win.

Invasion of Privacy: Reading the Correspondence of Others.

It is said that when counter espionage efforts were wanted against British enemies that one objection raised was that Gentlemen don’t read other people’s mail.

Perhaps Gentlemen don’t but, one would hope counter espionage agents would, and historians certainly do. Plain unedited letters can add much to our knowledge of social life and history. If one is fortunate enough to have an annotated edition of the letters with people identified, the picture becomes much richer and fuller.

History is made up of the collective lives of individuals. And while it is the big movements and wars that are usually recorded for posterity, it is the lives of individuals who give flavor and color to life.

A few people whose letters give some light on Regency life.

Most of these people lived beyond the Regency but all have things and people of interest to say about the time period from about 1790-1822.

Lady Sarah Spencer was born in July of 1787, the daughter of Earl Spencer, niece of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and Lady Bessborough.

The Spencers lived a life of decency and normality, according to Lady Sarah.

Her oldest brother was Viscount Althorp and was always called Althorp. The brother closest to her in age was Robert who went into the navy. Another brother also went into the navy, and a fourth brother went into the church. He later scandalized the family by turning Catholic. There was also a younger sister.

Lady Sarah wrote frequently to her brother Robert and sometimes to her grandmother.
Of interest, is the fact that neither Lady Sarah , nor her cousin Lady Harriet Cavendish mention anything about Almack’s. Instead they go to balls at private homes and at the Argyle rooms.
Lady Sarah writes about teaching children to read and about her making a pair of shoes.

We have often been told that regency era ladies never discussed politics. This was not true in the Spencer house. Lady Sarah reports to Robert about all the discussions and debates and newspaper articles.

Her brother Althorp was sporting mad. He loved hunting, shooting, boxing matches and all sports. He married late and his wife died within a few years. He had no children and never married again.

Lady Sarah married Mr. Lyttelton who later became the third Lord Lyttelton. After she was widowed, Lady Lyttelton became governess to Queen Victoria’s children.

Lady Sarah’s letters can be found in The Correspondence of Sarah, Lady Lyttelton.
Lady Sarah tells her brother Robert that their cousin Harriet (Lady Harriet Cavendish) writes amusing letters. I do not find them so amusing; but then, we don’t have the letters she wrote the Spencers that made Sarah laugh.

Lady Harriet’s letters in A Second Self, The Letters of Harriet Granville begin in 1810 and go to 1845.

Lady Harriet Cavendish married Lord Granville Leveson Gower in 1809. It must have been a small private ceremony for the Spencers did not attend the wedding and it was not until January 22 of 1810 that Lady Sarah met her new cousin.

The letters collected in A Second Self or the previous book: The Letters of Harriet Countess Granville cover the same period. She moved in diplomatic circles after her marriage. As the daughter of a duke and related to some of the top families, she never had to worry about her place in life. When in England she meets such people as Lady Jersey.

Prudence Hannay wrote an article about Lady Granville as a Letter -writer for the August, 1969, issue of History Today . In this article Hannay praises lady Granville for her letter writing style. She quotes some earlier letters of Lady Harriet’s such as the one she wrote her sister telling how everyone was quite disturbed to be in the presence of Lady Holland.

I find it interesting that when she was writing to her sister about a visit from her grandmother, she writes my grandmother arrived here yesterday ... I have seen this in other people’s letters.
Jane Austen, writing to her sister, writes my mother, or my uncle.

Speaking of Jane Austen, as some say I am all too apt to do, most people know about Jane Austen’s books and the movies made from them. Fewer know of the wealth of interesting information to be found in her letters. Chapman and Deidre LeFaye have both put out editions of Jane Austen’s letters and many of them can be found on line.

The Chapman edition of the letters has a wonderful index.

Jane Austen’s letters were mostly to her only sister, Cassandra. She writes about having the keys to the spices and the tea, or about trimming a hat, or having to dye an old dress black for required mourning.

The letters cover the period about 1790-1816. These letters are from someone in a vastly different place in society from either Lady Sarah or Lady Harriet.

For a view of the world from the man’s point of view, I suggest one read the letters of Lord Byron. These are vastly different from any of the letters of the ladies though no less interesting.
While usually the notes of editors are welcome and add to the enjoyment of the correspondence, some of the editors have gone beyond that with Byron’s letters and added their own interpretation. I do not believe he committed incest with his sister.

The last person whose privacy I shall invade is that of Miss Weeton. Though in her case, I think she would welcome the intrusion as she wanted to spread her opinions abroad.

Miss Weeton’s Journal of a Governess volume one covers 1807-1811. Miss Weeton lived a life very much on the lower side of society.

Her father was in the merchant navy who died while away from home and whose family never received all the monies due him. There were only two children, a boy and a girl.

The mother and sister sacrificed everything to get the boy educated to make his living as a solicitor. Nell, as she was called, even turned away a fine young man because she thought it her duty to stay and keep house for her brother. Her brother had no such thoughts and married. Then he charged Nell her yearly income to live with them.

One can get quite exasperated with Nell about her feelings for her brother despite the way he treated her.

Nell lived near Liverpool, and wrote about life in that general vicinity.

Volume two (1811-1825) of Miss Weeton’s life tells of her marriage to Mr. Stock, the birth of her daughter and the hardships she faced.

When their mother died, the brother received everything except 100£, which was Nell’s. She lived on the 3% interest it earned. It was hers until she died or married. Now, her brother resented that 100£ bitterly and arranged with a Mr. Stock to marry his sister. Nell was told that the man was a good man, and that the brother recommended him, etc. So she married him. The men shared the 100£. Nell soon found out her husband was not at all kind. He mistreated her. He had all the power, even to having her declared a public scold. How she must have regretted that refusal of the good, kind, wealthy young man of other years when she had thought she owed it to her brother.

Not that I think Nell was easy to live with, as she probably nagged him to death. Still, his treatment of his wife was not at all the thing.

Nancy Mayer


housemouse88 said...

How truly fascinating. I haven't read many historical novels, but have been learning about the different time periods through various blogs. Thank you for this information. Have a great day.

housemouse88 said...

I forgot to leave my contact info.

house_mouse88 at yahoo dot com

I would love to win one of your books.

Sarah Tormey said...

Hi Nancy,
I'm a fan of your wonderful website (great research tool!) and enjoyed reading your post about letters. Have you ever come across letters written by courtesans? I have read some of Harriet Wilson's (reprinted in other books about her) and would love to find more.
Sarah Tormey

Nancy said...

Jo Manning wrote a book about Grace Dalrymple Elliott who became a courtesan after being divorced. My Lady Scandalous has a bibliography and illustrations as well as excerpts of the letters , etc.
Google books has Grace's Journal of My Life during the French Revolution.
Harriett Wilson certainly wouldn't care that any one read her letters. For me, she is so self centered, her letters become boring.

Joanna Waugh said...

Great article, Nancy! I have a book called "My Dear Cassandra: The Letters of Jane Austen" by Penelope Hughes-Hallet published in 1990 by Collins & Brown that I just love. Reading letters gives you a sense of conversation with the person, as though they are sitting right next to you. Diaries are another wonderful source.

Gillian Layne said...

Nancy I love your website and all the history you uncover for us. This is a great post. I am now reading Memoir and Correspondence of Caroline Hershel and enjoying it very much. She goes on and on about the exact position of each comet she finds--but her brother's knighthood receives one sentence.

nancy said...

Some fascinating discoveries were made in science in this period.Caroline Herschel's story is interesting. There was a fad of comet watching. The Great Comet of 1811 must have roused great interest among amateur and professional astronomers.
I also like the story of Luke Howard: The Man who named the Clouds.
about this time Beaumont put names on the winds afflicting ships at sea so that captains could use moere precision in recording the weather.
Farraday , Priestly, Davys all made contributions to sceince though all did not leave letters and journals.
Those interested in the world of artists should look for the farrington diaries in many libraries. Too many volums to buy. Very gossipy about the world of art as well as social comments.

Keira of LoveRomancePassion said...

Wow! No Almack’s- that's something! What exactly is a Argyle room?

Wonderful interesting post! Thanks so much Nancy!!!

email: siggykag@gmail.com

Paty Jager said...

Interesting. I like to use journals, diaries, and letters as well as newspapers when writing stories set in the west. You get more of a flavor for the time when it's written by the people living then.

Nancy said...

Almack's did not become such a force in the life of girls making their curtsey until after 1815.
An assembly with patronnesses was held at Argyle rooms from early in the century until at least 1815, that I know of. People needed vouchers to be able to buy tickets just as at Almack's.
Both Almack's and Argyle assemblies were held in buildings used for different purposes during the day and rented out to private parties on many evenings.

robynl said...

truly interesting; I think being able to read what one wrote about everyday life, etc. is such a bonus where one can find out about more things such as history and personalities.

I, for one, am so happy that we have access to letters/diaries from people of the past.

yourstrulee at sasktel dot net

kerribookwriter said...

Hey Nancy!

Boy, I wish I could one day refer to myself as a Regency expert. I need to contact you for HELP!!

I'm attempting to write my first regency novel right now. It is a time travel story so only partially set in that era but I'm so nervous about "getting it right".

The research is fascinating but I find that it takes me out of my writing frame of mind.

Any suggestions on when to quit researching and how to keep the story flowing?

Nancy said...

I am the last person to ask about how to research and write as I have let research push writing to the far corners of the day. I still have ideas and still have works in progress but am often distracted by research.
Advice Ihave received -- not that I followed it-- that seems to be good, is to do research before you get much further into the manuscript than the synopsis. It is much too late to do research when the book is at the publisher with a great big historical error such as having an illegitimate child inherit a peerage.
Others suggest gettting a smuch research done as is necessary to make certain the points of your plot are correct, and then write the book. You can mark some facts and things to check after the book is written.
Many authors read some thing like the diaries and letters for fun after having finsihed their daily stint of writing.
Research des matter but it shouldn't take over the writing time completely.

Jennifer Ross said...

Excellent post, Nancy, naturally coming from you.

While I deal more in Victorian times than the Regency, I have found my most interesting bits have been by way of letters and diaries of the people of the time. Very interesting that you'd heard Regency ladies didn't discuss politics--in the Victorian letters I've read, they speak a great deal of politics (although these were the wives of prominent politicians, so that might be why.)

I'm glad I'm not alone with my guilty pleasure of peeking into the private lives of these people. I wonder if our blogs, websites and such will survive for future generations?


Seduced by History said...

Congratulations to Sarah Tormey, who won the drawing for Victoria Alexander's books.

Melinda Porter
HHRW President