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Thursday 26 June 2014

What can "The Sylph" tell us about its author, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire?

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire  and her sister Harriet, Countess of Bessborough  from Lord Granville Leveson Gower's  private correspondence 1781-1821 (1916)
Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire
and her sister Harriet, Countess of Bessborough
from Lord Granville Leveson Gower's
private correspondence 1781-1821 (1916)
I really enjoyed reading The Sylph. Why? Not because it was a brilliantly written novel; it wasn’t. And not because of the ingenious plot; it didn’t have one. But The Sylph gave me an inside view of life in the ton in the 1770s and, moreover, insights into the life of the author, Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire. If you want to know the plot, read my Regency History guide to The Sylph. In this post, I am going to look at what the book can tell us about the author.

Lady Stanley and the Duchess of Devonshire

There are many similarities between Lady Stanley, the heroine of The Sylph, and Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, the author. Julia Grenville marries Sir William Stanley, a man she hardly knows, at the age of 17, the same age at which Georgiana married the Duke of Devonshire. Lady Stanley had a beloved sister Louisa whom she wrote to after she was married; Georgiana had a devoted sister Harriet, later Lady Bessborough. Julia had two lady advisors, Lady Besford and Lady Anne Parker; Lady Besford is based upon Georgiana’s own worldly-wise friend, Lady Melbourne.

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire from Posthumous memoirs of his own time by NW Wraxall (1836)
Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire
from Posthumous memoirs of his own time
by NW Wraxall (1836)
“Unacquainted with men and manners”

Georgiana expressed her own insecurities on entering the fashionable elite through her heroine’s words. Julia declared at the beginning of the novel:
All my hopes are, that I may acquit myself so as to gain the approbation of my husband. Husband! What a sound has that, when pronounced by a girl barely seventeen,—and one whose knowledge of the world is merely speculative;—one, who, born and bred in obscurity, is equally unacquainted with men and manners. (1)
An “unsafe and critical situation”

Georgiana was well aware of the dangerous position in which she was in. In the words of the hero’s friend, James Spencer:
The most unsafe and critical situation for a woman, is to be young, handsome, and married to a man of fashion; these are thought to be lawful prey to the specious of our sex. As a man of fashion, Sir William Stanley would blush to be found too attentive to his wife.
Two ladies in the newest dress  from drawings taken at Ranelagh May 1775  from The Lady's Magazine (1775)
Two ladies in the newest dress
from drawings taken at Ranelagh May 1775
from The Lady's Magazine (1775)
“A slave to fashion”

Georgiana’s disillusionment with her husband was expressed in Julia’s analysis of her husband’s character:
I think I can discover Sir William Stanley has great pride, that is, he is a slave to fashion. He is ambitious of being a leading man. His house, his equipage, and wife—in short, everything which belongs to him must be admired; and I can see, he is not a little flattered when they meet with approbation, although from persons of whose taste and knowledge of life he has not the most exalted idea.
Sir William Stanley believed that:
Custom justified everything; nothing was indecent or otherwise, but as it was the ton.
An indifferent husband

In the same way that Georgiana was admired and loved by everyone but her husband, so was Julia. The Sylph was published in December 1778, just four years after Georgiana’s marriage to the Duke. Within its pages, we see Georgiana’s disillusionment with her own relationship and the heartbreak she was suffering through a lack of affection from her husband. Julia wrote:
Sir William seemed to tread on air, to see and hear the commendations which were lavished on me from all sides. To a man of his taste, I am no more than any fashionable piece of furniture or new equipage; or, what will come nearer our idea of things, a beautiful prospect, which a man fancies he shall never be tired of beholding, and therefore builds himself an house within view of it; by that time he is fixed, he hardly remembers what was his motive, nor ever feels any pleasure but in pointing out its various perfections to his guests; his vanity is awhile gratified, but even that soon loses its goût (2); and he wonders how others can be pleased with objects now grown familiar, and, consequently, indifferent to him.
Chatsworth House
Chatsworth House, home of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire
 “My damned love of play!”

Both Georgiana and Julia were drawn to gambling, but here the similarity ends. Julia had the counsel of the Sylph to urge her not to pursue her passion for gambling; Georgiana became addicted to play. It was, perhaps, Georgiana’s own feelings that were expressed in the words of Julia’s husband, Sir William Stanley:
Curses, everlasting curses, blast me for my damned love of play! That has been my bane.

The Sylph also urged Julia not to be drawn into a relationship with another man, despite the infidelity of her husband. Maybe The Sylph was a cry for help – Georgiana’s realisation that she faced danger and needed help to make the right choices. Maybe it was a cry for freedom – a freedom that never came. The suicide of Julia’s husband freed her to make a second and better choice. Georgiana’s story had no happy ending.

(1) All quotes are from The Sylph by Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (1778)
(2) Goût is the French word for taste.

Sources used include:
Cavendish, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, The Sylph (1778)
Foreman, Amanda, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (1998)

All photographs © Andrew Knowles -

Saturday 21 June 2014

"The Sylph" by Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire - Regency History's guide

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire  from Posthumous memoirs of his own time  by NW Wraxall (1836)
Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire
from Posthumous memoirs of his own time
by NW Wraxall (1836)
By a young lady

The Sylph is a partly autobiographical novel attributed to Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire. It was published anonymously in two volumes by Thomas Lowndes and offered for sale at the price of “5s sewed, or 6s bound” in December 1778. (1)

Although Georgiana refused to publicly acknowledge that she was the “young lady” who had written The Sylph, the authorship was soon surmised because of the intimate knowledge of the ton that the book displayed and the names and situations of the characters.

For example, Lady Besford, one of the heroine’s worldly-wise advisors, was generally believed to have been modelled on Georgiana’s friend, Lady Melbourne. Similarly, the heroine had a beloved younger sister, just like Georgiana’s sister Harriet.

Lady Melbourne
Lady Melbourne
from In Whig Society, correspondence
ed by Mabell, Countess of Airlie (1921)

Like other novels of the time, such as Fanny Burney’s Evelina, The Sylph was written as a series of letters. It tells the story of Julia Grenville, a virtuous young lady from the country who is beguiled into marriage with the dissipated Sir William Stanley.

The characters

The heroine’s family

Julia, Lady Stanley, the virtuous heroine
Sir William Stanley, Julia’s dissipated husband
Louisa Grenville, Julia’s much-loved sister. Most of the letters in the book are correspondence between Julia and Louisa.
Mr Grenville, Julia’s father

The worldly characters

Lord Biddulph, Julia’s unwanted admirer
Colonel Jack Montague, Lord Biddulph’s corrupt friend
Lady Besford, one of the ladies of fashion that Sir William appoints as Julia’s protector
Lady Anne Parker, the other lady of fashion that Sir William appoints as Julia’s protector

The virtuous characters

The Sylph – Julia’s self-appointed guardian angel, who gives her advice on how she should behave
Henry Woodley, Julia’s childhood neighbour who is secretly in love with her
James Spencer, Woodley’s long-term friend
Baron Ton-hausen, an honourable man in London society who is a complete contrast to Sir William
Maria Finch, the most pleasant of Julia’s London acquaintances
Lady Melford, an old friend who offers Julia wise counsel
Edward Stanley, Sir William’s uncle
Sir George Brudenel, another honourable man

Plot summary

An unequal marriage

Sir William Stanley visits Wales and becomes infatuated with the young and innocent Julia Grenville. Believing Sir William to be sincere in his attachment, Mr Grenville agrees to the couple’s marriage. Sir William whisks Julia off to London to take her place in the ton.

Meanwhile, having inherited a fortune, Henry Woodley returns to England to declare his love for Julia, his childhood sweetheart, to find that she has just got married. Woodley’s friend James Spencer writes to warn him that Julia’s husband is not a man of good character.

The influence of the ton

Julia knows little of the world and finds she does not know how to behave. Sir William introduces her to two ladies, Lady Besford and Lady Anne Parker, to help acquaint her with the ways of the world and be her “protectors in public”. Lady Besford is concerned with helping Julia to make “a fashionable appearance”. Lady Anne Parker “has more artifice” and Julia later discovers she is Sir William’s mistress.

Julia finds herself being sucked into the ways of the ton and is desperately in need of guidance. An old acquaintance, Lady Melford, offers some sage counsel, but when she leaves London, Julia is bereft.

Sir William views his wife as something for others to admire as if she was a possession and ceases to care for her. Julia is at the theatre when the ceiling collapses and she is rescued by the Baron Ton-hausen. Sir William is angry that this causes Julia to have a miscarriage and shows no concern for her safety.

Julia is surrounded by admirers. She dislikes the attentions of Lord Biddulph, who is secretly planning to seduce her, but finds herself drawn to the kindly Baron Ton-hausen.

The Sylph

Julia receives a letter from a gentleman calling himself the Sylph. He proposes to watch over her and offer her advice which she willingly accepts. The Sylph warns Julia against the Baron because his integrity is more attractive to Julia than Lord Biddulph’s unwanted attentions. Julia discovers a love of gambling, but the Sylph urges her to give it up. He quotes a salutary tale of how a lady was forced into compromising her virtue because of her love of gambling.

Card playing at Kew Palace
A growing attachment

Julia’s friend Miss Finch relates a story that confirms the integrity of the Baron and the treachery of Lord Biddulph’s friend, Colonel Montague. Julia confesses to the Sylph that she favours the Baron but declares that she will take “this fatal preference with me to the grave”. Julia meets the Sylph at a masquerade and the Pantheon. She agrees that if ever her circumstances changed and she became free to make another choice, she would ask the Sylph’s advice.

The Pantheon from The Microcosm of London (1808-10)
The Pantheon from The Microcosm of London (1808-10)
Lord Biddulph’s attempted seduction

After the masquerade, Julia goes home with her husband, still masked. He tries to make love to her, but his mask falls off and she discovers that it is Lord Biddulph disguised as her husband. Lord Biddulph says he should have masqueraded as the Baron instead. Lady Anne Parker is slandering Julia about the Baron, forcing the Baron to leave London to protect her reputation. Miss Finch urges her appearance in public as proof that she is not devastated at the Baron’s departure.

Sir William’s perfidy

Sir William is greatly in debt and Julia gives him part of her settlements in order to please him. The Sylph advises her against giving away any more, but she eventually yields to pressure, unwilling to bear the guilt of refusing if Sir William should commit suicide in his desperation.

Distressed for money, Sir William forges his uncle’s signature in order to sell some property in Julia’s settlement in which she only has a life interest. The purchaser, Sir George Brudenel, and his uncle discover the crime and come to London to confront Sir William.

In order to raise the funds he needs to repay Sir George, Sir William agrees to sign over his rights to his wife to Lord Biddulph. Julia refuses Lord Biddulph and runs away to Maria Finch’s house.

When Sir William discovers that Julia has gone, he knows that he is ruined and goes to an inn and shoots himself.

A happy ending

Edward Stanley is distressed that his nephew was driven to such a drastic course of action. He recognises Julia’s virtues and makes financial provision for her. The Sylph relinquishes his post as his guidance is no longer necessary.

There are happy endings all round. Maria Finch marries Sir George Brudenel. Louisa marries James Spencer. Spencer confesses that his friend Woodley has long cherished a passion for Julia, but Julia is still in love with Baron Ton-hausen and refuses to meet Woodley. Julia receives a note from the Sylph saying that he will reveal himself “under a semblance not expected”. Julia discovers that the Sylph is none other than Baron Ton-hausen. The Baron is also her childhood sweetheart Henry Woodley, who inherited the foreign title with his fortune.

Read more about the author, Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire.

(1) Amanda Foreman’s biography quoted the London Chronicle dated 26 November 1778 which promised the publication of The Sylph: A Novel on “Tuesday next”. This suggests a publication date of 1 December 1778 rather than 1779 which is often given.
Although published anonymously by “a young lady”, the printer, Thomas Lowndes, advertised The Sylph alongside Fanny Burney’s already successful Evelina in a way that suggested that Fanny Burney was also the author of The Sylph. Foreman stated that the Burneys complained about the implied authorship of The Sylph as it might damage Fanny Burney’s reputation.
(2) All quotes are from The Sylph by Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (1778).

Sources used include:
Cavendish, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, The Sylph (1778)
Foreman, Amanda, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (1998)

Wednesday 11 June 2014

The wit and wisdom of John Constable

John Constable
from Memoirs of the Life of John Constable
by CR Leslie (1845)
John Constable (1776-1837) was an English painter famous for his landscapes, particularly of the Suffolk countryside. Here is a selection of quotes said by him and about him.

On Brighton

1. “Brighton is the receptacle of the fashion and off-scouring of London. The magnificence of the sea, and its, to use your own beautiful expression, ‘everlasting voice’, is drowned in the din and tumult of stage coaches, gigs, flys, &c. and the beach is only Piccadilly or worse by the sea-side. Ladies dressed and undressed; gentlemen in morning-gowns and slippers, or without them or any thing else, about knee deep in the breakers; footmen, children, nursery-maids, dogs, boys, fishermen, and Preventive Service men with hangers and pistols; rotten fish, and those hideous amphibious animals, the old bathing-women, whose language, both in oaths and voice, resembles men, all mixed together in endless and indecent confusion.” In a letter to his friend, Archdeacon Fisher, from Brighton, 29 May 1824.

Brighton Steyne from History of Brighton and its environs by R Sickelmore (1827)
On Turner and Byron

2. “I dined with the Royal Academy last Monday in the Council room…I sat next to Turner, and opposite Mr West and Lawrence. I was a good deal entertained with Turner. I always expected to find him what I did. He has a wonderful range of mind.” In a letter to his future wife, Maria, 30 June 1813.

3. “The world is rid of Lord Byron, but the deadly slime of his touch still remains.” In a letter to Fisher, May 1824.

Lord Byron from A Journal of the Conversations
of Lord Byron with the Countess of Blessington
Constable’s wit 

4. “The amiable but eccentric Blake, looking through one of Constable’s sketch books, said of a beautiful drawing of an avenue of fir trees on Hampstead Heath, ‘Why, this is not drawing, but inspiration;’ and he replied, ‘I never knew it before; I meant it for drawing.’”

5. “He could not easily resist the temptation of making an unexpected reply, and when Archdeacon Fisher, one Sunday, after preaching, asked him how he liked his sermon, he said, ‘Very much indeed, Fisher; I always did like that sermon.’”

Constable’s wisdom

6. “The difference between power and truth is very material in painting, as it is in other matters of taste. It may be illustrated by an anecdote of Barry and Garrick. Few actors had more power than Barry; indeed, he was able for some time to divide the admiration of the town with Garrick. They played Lear in competition fifty nights; but the public were set right by an epigram, which placed the distinction between them in the proper light, the last line of which was: ‘To Barry we give loud applause, to Garrick only tears.’”

David Garrick
from Memoirs of the Life of David Garrick
 by T Davies (1808)
7. “Whatever may be thought of my art, it is my own; and I would rather possess a freehold, though but a cottage, than live in a palace belonging to another.”

8. “On hearing somebody say of the celebrated collection of Raphael’s drawings that belonged to Sir Thomas Lawrence, ‘They inspire,’ he replied, ‘They do more, they inform.’”

9. “To a lady who, looking at an engraving of a house, called it an ugly thing, he said, ‘No madam, there is nothing ugly; I never saw an ugly thing in my life: for let the form of an object be what it may, - light, shade and perspective will always make it beautiful. It is perspective which improves the form of this.’”

10. “A friend of Constable expressing to him his dissatisfaction at his own progress in art, received (as he told me) the greatest encouragement to proceed he ever met with, in the following answer: ‘If you had found painting as easy as you once thought it, you would have given it up long ago.’”

11. “There has never been a boy painter, nor can there be. The art requires a long apprenticeship, being mechanical, as well as intellectual.”

12. “There were many occasions on which Constable quoted the aphorism of Dr Johnson: ‘That which is greatest is not always best.’”

Drawing manual - the Cabinet of Arts (1805)  from the V&A Museum, London
Drawing manual - the Cabinet of Arts (1805)
from the V&A Museum, London
On the practice of painting

13. “The more facility of practice I get, the more pleasure I shall find in my art; without the power of execution I should be continually embarrassed, and it would be a burthen to me.” In a letter to fellow artist, John Dunthorne, c1799.

14. “I am most anxious to get into my London painting-room, for I do not consider myself at work unless I am before a six-foot canvas.” In a letter to Fisher, 23 Oct 1821.

15. “I am certain my reputation rises as a landscape painter, and that my style of art, as Farrington always said it would, is fast becoming a distinct feature.” In a letter to Fisher, 17 April 1822.

16. “I beg to congratulate you on the appearance of your name in the newspapers. Do not despise them too much. They cannot give fame, but they attend on her. Smoke gives notice that the house is on fire.” In a letter from Fisher dated Feb 12 1824, Weymouth.

On Constable’s love of the Suffolk landscape 

17. “Still I should paint my own places best; painting is with me but another word for feeling, and I associate ‘my careless boyhood’ with all that lies on the banks of the Stour; those scenes made me a painter, and I am grateful; that is, I had often thought of pictures of them before I ever touched a pencil, and your picture is the strongest instance of it I can recollect; but I will say no more, for I am a great egotist in whatever relates to painting.” In a letter to Fisher, 23 Oct 1821.

18. In the frontispiece to English Landscape, Constable confessed: “Perhaps, the Author, with an over-weening affection for these scenes, may estimate them too highly, and may have dwelt on them too exclusively.”

19. “I hold the genuine pastoral feeling of landscape to be very rare, and difficult of attainment. It is by far the most lovely department of painting as well as of poetry.” 17 Nov 1824.

20. “The landscape painter must walk in the fields with an humble mind. No arrogant man was ever permitted to see nature in all her beauty.” In his last lecture, 25 July 1836.

21. “My pictures will never be popular for they had no handling. But I do not see handling in nature.”

On Constable’s life

22. Constable was “remarkable among the young men of the village for muscular strength, and being tall and well formed, with good features, a fresh complexion, and fine dark eyes, his white hat and coat were not unbecoming to him, and he was called in the neighbourhood the ‘handsome miller’.” CR Leslie of Constable.

23. “I see plainly it will be my lot to walk through life in a path contrary to that in which my inclination would lead me.” In a letter to JT “Antiquity” Smith, 2 March 1797, when forced to take on a role in his father’s business rather than pursue his art.

24. “Be assured, we have only to consider our union as an event that must happen, and we shall yet be happy.” In a letter to his future wife, Maria, 1811.

25. “His fondness for children exceeded, indeed, that of any man I ever knew.” CR Leslie of Constable.

26. “It has been delayed until I am solitary, and cannot impart it.” On being accepted as a full member of the Royal Academy in 1829, the year after his beloved wife Maria’s death.

Read about John Constable's life.

More quotes: Beau Brummell, Lord Byron and Richard Brinsley Sheridan.

All quotes are from Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, Esq, RA (1845) by CR Leslie.

Sources used include:
Leslie, Charles Robert, RA, Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, Esq, RA (1845)
Sickelmore, Richard, History of Brighton and its environs (1827)

Thursday 5 June 2014

Georgian pockets

A pair of Georgian pockets  Replicas made by Embellished
A pair of Georgian pockets
Replicas made by Embellished
A pair of pockets

In an age before handbags, ladies used pockets to carry around their personal possessions underneath their skirts. These were not the small pockets we have sewn into our garments today, but deep cloth bags which were completely separate from a lady’s dress.

Pockets usually came in pairs on a cord and were fastened around the waist over a lady’s shift and under-petticoat but below her petticoats. There were slits in the side seams of the petticoats so that these pockets could be accessed. They were often handmade and might be given as gifts, although they could also be bought ready-made from a haberdasher’s shop.

I tried on a pair of pockets made by Joanna Tyrrell of Embellished at the International Living History Fair in October last year. I am afraid that they do not look right over trousers, but it does give you an idea of how big these pockets were!

A pair of pockets modelled by Rachel Knowles at the International Living History Fair
A pair of pockets as modelled by me
at the International Living History Fair
What would you find in a pocket?

All manner of objects might be found in a pocket including money, letters, a journal, a handkerchief, a pair of scissors, a comb, writing implements, keys, a watch, glasses, a snuffbox, smelling salts, food and sewing accessories.

London souvenir box showing the Queen's Palace  From the Museum of London's collection
London souvenir box showing the Queen's Palace
from the Museum of London's collection
As pockets often held items of value, they were liable to theft by ‘pickpockets’, who would cut the pocket strings and steal the pockets as they fell or slash the pockets and retrieve the contents. Sometimes people slept with their pockets underneath their pillows to protect them from being stolen.

Georgian pockets go out of fashion

When dresses became more fitted in the 1790s, pockets went out of fashion and ladies started carrying their possessions around in reticules, which were, in effect, outside pockets.

from La Belle Assemblée (1812)
Sources used include:
Bell, John, La Belle Assemblée (John Bell, 1806-1837, London)
V&A Museum website

All photographs © Andrew Knowles -