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.