LADIES IN WAR-TIME
By ROBERT LYND
LORD GRANVILLE himself is something of a shadow in the two large volumes of correspondence which bear his name. It is his mother and another lady who dominate the book with the reality of heroines in fiction. His mother, the Marchioness of Stafford, was a good mother—an obtrusively good mother. The other lady, the Countess of Bessborough, was a good wife who went through the world with a train of pestering lovers and enjoyed reckoning the number of their scalps, except when Sheridan began to sigh with too public a determination. She put a stop to Lord Granville’s sighs very early—she was twelve years older than he and had four children—but he became the most intimate of her friends and confidants, and his politics and his love-affairs seem to have been a matter of almost more interest to her than they were to himself. She evidently had something of Hedda Gabler’s love of meddling with men’s destinies. Luckily, she was amusing, and had troops of friends and plenty of interests to keep her from a fate like Hedda’s. She was the younger sister of the famous Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and Lady Hester Stanhope said of her: “She had ten times more cleverness than her sister the Duchess.” Her letters are full of character. They are among the most brilliant written by any Englishwoman during the Napoleonic Wars. If one wished to study the mood of England and especially of the English upper classes during those wars, one could scarcely turn to a more instructive and entertaining book than this.
The early letters are full of expressions of pious horror over the French people at the time of the Revolution. Lady Stafford is shocked to find that, in spite of their poverty and want of money, “yet so are that People made, that they are not humbled, and still look on themselves as superior to every other Nation.” Lady Sutherland, who is in Paris at the beginning of 1791, expresses her contempt of people who can remain so tranquil and so unheroically incapable even of crime. She writes:
They let themselves be wound up like watches, ce sont de véritables machines; they have not even courage to rob and plunder unless it is put into their heads and taught, as a necessary part of a système politique and nécessaire pour l’arrangement universel. They will certainly not fight or change their minds suddenly, so that les amies de l’ancien régime have only to wait some centuries till this Fit of Philosophy is over. En attendant some people think that, as simple reasoning and disquisitions will not pay the Taxes, there may be some little disputes about the droits de l’homme when they come in Question.
Lady Sutherland was also of the opinion concerning the “common People” in France that ” there are so many of them to spare that it would not signify much if they were to be treated as Sparrows and killed in dozens at a time.” It was only natural that in circles so stupid with scorn approval should be general of the Duke of Brunswick when, in 1792, he issued his manifesto declaring that as leader of the Allied Armies he had been sent “to lay Paris in the dust, and to crush the republican vipers under his heel.” Lord Granville, who was at Mayence at the time, wrote with grim satisfaction:
The declaration of the Duke of Brunswick with respect to not sparing any man dressed in the habit of National Guards, but treating all the prisoners of the ligue with mercy, will much abate that Spirit of wearing cockades and their vivre libre ou mourir.
Within two months, however, he has changed his opinion:
I have my doubts . . . whether that declaration was politic; it certainly has been the cause of the imprisonment of the King.
And the September Massacres came about the same time to prove that the Duke of Brunswick’s boasts of ruthlessness resulted not in intimidating the French but merely in awakening in them an answering blood-lust.
Lady Stafford’s pious spitefulness was not directed merely against the French. She had a nice malice which would have pleased Jane Austen, and she wore it like a virtue on all occasions. There is a pleasant example of it in a reference to Lady Jersey, with whom the Prince of Wales was brazenly intimate:
I hear Lord Uxbridge will not allow Lady Uxbridge to be at her Grand-Daughter’s Christening if Lady Jersey comes to it. They say her Ladyship is to be at the Drawing-Room this Day. I hope the Mob will attack her . . .
In another letter there is a portrait, condescendingly tart, of the Duke of Bridgewater. “I do not believe,” Lady Stafford writes, “that his Grace’s Face has undergone the Operation of washing these last two months.” And again:
His Grace of Bridge, is with us, not less positive nor less prejudiced than usual. It is a great Disadvantage to live with our Inferiors either in Situation or in Understanding. Self-Sufficiency is the natural Consequence ; but his Want of Religion makes him an Object of Pity. I do not mean that he does not believe in God, but there he is with the Gout and a Disorder in his Stomach, and Death and Immortality never occupy either his Thoughts or Words, and he Swears! . .
Lady Bessborough had none of Lady Stafford’s wooden rectitude, her immoral virtue. She was responsive, tolerant, generous, indecisive, vain, and very little of a humbug. She was a hero-worshipper, but not a blind one. She was horrified when ” dear, delightful Nelson ” permitted the slaughter of the prisoners at Naples: “I cannot bear it,” she wrote. She lamented over the disappearance of chivalry from war—this was more than a hundred years ago! “War,” she declared, “has relaps’d into all the savageness of old times without the bright honour and brilliant courage that us’d to make one overlook its cruelty.” In fact, her letters are very like the letters a charming woman might be writing to-day. Even her quotations from her son’s letters from the front during the Peninsular War sound curiously modern. “I had two letters from Frederick to-day in high Spirits. He says all the croakers are in England.” Her description of the war thrills that raged in the bosoms of those who were of the wrong sex or the wrong age for fighting has also an almost topical interest during the present war. Here is a picture of the patriotic flusterings of Lady Downshire, for instance:
Our neighbour Lady Downshire is certainly in a state of insanity; no character in a play was ever moreoutcried. She is gone Volunteer and News mad. We have had five letters from her to-day—one full of handbills to be distributed about, another to inform us that with the blessing of God we had taken the Island of Tobago, another that to her certain knowledge muskets had been given to five people who had not taken the oath of allegiance and supremacy. Her Servant could be hardly got back when another brought a note to congratulate Lord B. on the safe arrival of the Bombay fleet. Half-an-hour afterwards came four sides of advice, queries, and proposals concerning the Roe and Putney corps, and before we had got through half she arrived in person.
Lord John Townsend, a persecuting amorist turned patriot, was a “ginger” counterpart of Lady Downshire, and longed to toss the Prime Minister of the day in a blanket. The Prime Ministers of those days—the Pitts and the Addingtons alike—were no more fortunate in silencing criticism than is a Prime Minister to-day. We find Canning complaining as early as 1797 that Pitt “is terribly idle and negligent,” and in 1802—the year in which he publicly glorified Pitt in the song “The Pilot that Weathered the Storm”—he privately sneered at him for having become ” as tame as a chaplain.” Canning was an old college friend of Lord Granville, and several of his letters are given in the present collection. The most interesting is that in which he asserts, on the authority of the Bishop of Lincoln, that Pitt’s last words, instead of being the romantic apostrophe usually quoted, were: “I am sorry to leave the Country in such a situation.” Of the many references to Pitt in Lady Bessborough’s letters, one of the most unexpected is that which describes how he “pleased me extremely by crying” in Drury Lane Theatre at the ” Infant Roscius’s” performance in “Douglas.” The “Infant Roscius” was Betty, the boy actor from Belfast, who so resented Lady Hamilton’s kissing him in public. Lady Bessborough tells how, on this occasion, he “coloured up like scarlet,” and protested: “I’m too old to be kissed, Ma’am.”
Sheridan’s is the most unpleasant of the many portraits drawn in this crowded correspondence. He seems to have persecuted Lady Bessborough in her home, at other people’s houses, and even in the theatre. He made eyes at her, both fierce and supplicating, both drunken and sober. There is an edd scene in which, Lady Bessborough having gone to see his wife, Sheridan comes in, ” not perfectly sober,” and protests his love for both of them alternately, his wife interrupting him every now and then with: “Why, S—, I thought Lady B. pursued you, and that you reviled all her violence like a second Joseph! So you used to tell me.” Lady Bessborough stayed until three in the morning, when, with the help of Sheridan’s maid, they locked the great man in and she was able to escape.
It is seldom, however, that Lady Bessborough’s stories flatter their subjects. Much as she detested the mean kind of disparagement, she loved to record the absurdities of her contemporaries. There is an amusing letter in which she describes a visit to Scotland and a drive with Lady Rosslyn and Brougham, whom she suspected of ” making love to Ly. R.” :—
Ly. R. really would be very pleasant if it were not for her party violence, which exceeds anything I ever met with. She will not admit any of Walter Scott’s Poetry into the House, and in showing me his cottage said : ” The Beast who used to live there, and who I wish was hang’d,” &c.; and in passing through Ld. Melville’s park, she leant back, lest she should be obliged to bow to Mrs. R. Dundasand said : ” I believe nothing will ever kill the old Devil; he ought to have been dead long ago.”—”And D——d,” answered Mr. Brougham. Barring this, they are very pleasant and good humoured.
Lady Bessborough has a happy way of putting living speech into the mouths of those of whom she writes. She conveys a situation in a sentence as when she relates how, when
George III. was suffering from one of his attacks of madness, the Princess of Wales used to exclaim: “Oh, my God! let them let out the poor, dear old King, and shut up my Husband.” There are other acid stories of the marital troubles of Lord and Lady Holland and of the Duke and Duchess of Richmond. Lady Bessborough supplied Lord Granville, during his residence abroad on various embassies and missions, with all the gossip of her circle. And yet no one could dismiss her as a scandal-monger. She is too deeply interested in her correspondence, in politics, and in human nature to devote herself to scandal. She is as much bent upon giving Lord Granville advice as upon entertaining him, as in that early letter in which she tells him how to get the better of nervousness while making his maiden speech in the House of Commons:—
Fix your eyes upon the table before the Speaker, and never look at any one person or fancy any one is listening to you. . . . Take two teaspoonfuls of Sal volatile to two tablespoonfuls and a little over of Camphor Julep. Taste it first to see that it is not too strong (that is, makes your mouth water), add a little more Camphor. I do long to have it over
It is not easy for a casual reader of these volumes to realise what attraction Lord Granville can have had for so witty and high-spirited a lady as the Countess of Bessborough. This may partly be due to the fact that Lord Granville burnt a great part of his own letters, and we are left with nothing like so full a portrait of him as we possess of his mother and his Egeria. She asks him to “think aloud” in his letters as ” the most flattering manner in which you can write to me.” We may be sure, however, he was most careful to burn just those letters which Lady Bessborough was most flattered by and which we in our turn would find most delightful to read. Still, we never have the slightest doubt that even the best of them were inexpressive and wooden things compared to hers. It is not that Lady Bessborough deserves a place among the great English letter-writers. She is prolix and we can skip many of her sentences with a good conscience. But she does survive most triumphantly in her correspondence as a figure. She will be as real henceforth in the imaginations of those who read the present volumes as her sister, Georgiana, or her daughter, the freakish Lady Caroline Lamb.