Saturday, January 28, 2006

Diary of Lady Shelburne

Like other Victorian biographers, the grandson of the Earl of Shelburne included extracts of letters and other documents in his biography of this politician/statesman of the late 18th century and among the items he included were entries from the diary of Shelburne's first wife, Sophia.

The biography says little about her and few published sources mention her at all. She was 18 when she wed, a young age in an era when delayed marriages were common. Shelburne was eight years her senior and already well established in government. She consequently took on responsibilities as wife of a wealthy and politically ambitious Earl before having much experience of life herself. She managed large households and abundant social engagements while also bearing and raising their first child. So far as I can tell, she did all this very well.

This surprising maturity shows in the diary, which has a deliberate and formal style of a sort we don't usually associate with youth.

She seems to have written it for her own use, but at one point in the entry I've reproduced below she mentions a responsibility she feels toward "posterity, if this Diary should by any means descend to them."

In the extracts within the Shelburne biography there's only one mention of her writing habits. There, she merely mentions that she returned home to write in it while waiting for Shelburne's return one evening.

I plan to give further diary extracts in blog posts over coming weeks, if my interest in this task continues and the time available to me permits. [Update: I've put links to all the Diary posts in the right-hand panel.]

Here, then is a beginning. I'm selecting an entry whose context doesn't need a lot of explaining. Much of her reporting of political events and allusions she makes to these events requires an understanding of the upheavals of the time: the passage and then withdrawal of the Stamp Act, for example, or the election and deposing of John Wilkes. Similarly, many of the people she mentions have significance that she naturally assumes anyone reading the diary would know, and there are very many of them. It would be tedious -- at least here at the outset of this little expedition into the diary -- to explain the importance of events and people she mentions in many of the diary entries.

This is the entry for March 22, 1768. It's not a typical one, as you'll see after I've reproduced a few others. Lady Shelburne was compassionate and generous, but this is the only instance in the published entries in the diary of anything close to pious grand-standing or sentimentality. It's a report on the death of a child. Lady Louisa and Lady Anne were sisters to Lady Shelburne's mother (and thus of course her aunts). Lady Louisa figures in many diary entries. Lady Anne Dawson, not mentioned so often, is pictured in this link. She was 32 at the time of her daughter's death.

Extract from the Diary of Lady Shelburne

22nd. A note from Lady Louisa, who was arrived at Stoke from Ireland, determined me to go and spend the day with her there. I found her looking well, but grown thin, which I was not surprised at. She told me Lady Anne (Dawson) was at Harrowgate and surprisingly well in health; that her attendance on her daughter had been continual, and her sorrow for her of the tenderest, most permanent and reasonable kind, restrained merely by the submission she pays to the power and will of that Supreme Being, whose beneficence had granted her, for eleven years, the most promising of children. I think it right to posterity, if this Diary should by any means descend to them, to relate the most remarkable of many acts of resolution that her sincere piety enabled her to perform, as an example of how parental tenderness ought to operate on such trials, and as a proof that the Divine support can do all things even in a mind torn by grief and a body worn by sickness. In the last visit the physician made her daughter, she followed him out to ask his opinion of her state. He told her that she could not live twelve hours. She then asked him if he expected any struggle before her death. He answered she was so weak he thought she would go off in faintings. Having heard this she returned into the room, and summoning all her courage said to the child, "My dear Henrietta, I have been asking your physician how soon he thinks you will be well, for you have been so long ill we may expect it now every day. He assures me before this time tomorrow , but as all severe illnesses have their crises, you must expect first to be extremely sick and faint, and at last to be quite overcome with sleep, which you have been so long without, that it will be the soundest you have ever had, and when you wake you will be stronger, lighter, and better than you ever remember to have been." The child, who was perfectly sensible, seemed pleased, and asked her how she could know that. To which Lady Anne answered that the course of most illnesses were well known, and that she herself always knew that it would be so in this, as it was one many people had had, but as she did not know the exact time of the crisis, would not talk of it to her for fear of making her impatient. In an hour or two the child called her and complained of extreme faintness, upon which she took her hand and said, "Well then, my dearest Henrietta, think of what I told you." The effect was so blest, that the child smiled upon her and expired.

Here is a citation for the biography in which extracts from Lady Shelburne's diary appear:

Author: Fitzmaurice, Edmond George Petty-Fitzmaurice, 1st
baron, 1846- [from old catalog]
Title: Life of William, earl of Shelburne, afterwards
first marquess of Lansdowne,
Edition: (2d and rev. ed.) ...
Published: London, Macmillan and co., limited., 1912.
Description: 2 v. fronts. (ports.) plates, maps (1 fold.) 23
LC Call No.: DA512.L3F5 1912

To find this book in a library, click here.


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