Saturday, April 15, 2006

Diary of Lady Shelburne -- The Life of Sophie and William

This is the second blog post summing up the life of Sophia Carteret, Lady Shelburne, from what little can be found out about it in the parts of her diary that have been published and from the very few other sources available for her. As before, my main source is the Fitzmaurice biography: Life of William, Earl of Shelburne, Afterwards First Marquess of Lansdowne, by Lord Edmond Fitzmaurice (London, Macmillan and Co. 1912) 2 Volumes. You'll find links to all the posts on Sophie and her diary in the panel to the right.

I said in the first of these wrap-ups that there were some likenesses between Sophie and the character Belle in Mme. Le Prince de Beaumont's Beauty and the Beast. I said that this Mme., who was Sophie's teacher, gave her aristocratic female pupils life-skills to help them manage the transition by which they passed from their families into the control of a man who was quite frequently a stranger, sometimes one to whom they could feel no immediate attachment, and occasionally one who was unpleasant or even brutal. Mme. knew -- as did they all -- that the society in which they lived did not provide women with many alternatives to marriage. It was possible to survive without the support of a husband -- Mme. herself was doing this -- but not easily. Her girls would have to marry and were likely to have little or no influence over the choice of their husbands.

Shelburne himself showed that he understood the problems women faced in becoming wives. In an autobiographical fragment he wrote about the decision of his newly widowed favorite aunt not to remarry: "When her husband died she had too much experience ever to become a slave again, and she refused two or three of the most respectable marriages Ireland afforded." (He was thinking of the more backward society of the Irish peerage rather than of the England of his day. Hence, his statement shows he was capable of seeing wives as slaves, but not that he felt all wives to be so. He certainly did not treat he own wives as chattel, quite the opposite. The quote comes from Fitzmaurice. v.i, p.13 in the 3 vol edition).

I don't know how Sophie came to be betrothed to Shelburne, but it was likely through the agency of a third party. He admired her father and one of Sophie's aunts might have pointed out to him that she would make an excellent match.

I do know something about his approach to the process of finding a mate. Although his biographer is silent about his courtship of Sophie, he copies out a letter that describes his courtship of a young lady who, seven years after Sophie's death, was expected to be his second wife.

Here's the story as Fitzmaurice tells it:
In 1778 Lord Shelburne had been engaged to be married to Miss Molesworth, but the engagement was broken off. "Your divine Miss Molesworth," Miss Elliot wrote to her brother Hugh Elliot then at Berlin, and once the admirer of the lady, "has surprised the world by breaking off from Lord Shelburne. She dined at his house and sat at the head of the table and was seen to cry all dinner-time. Her aunt, when she came home, asked her what was the matter. She made no answer, but ran upstairs to her own room, and sent Lady Lucan a letter to tell her she found she had an antipathy to Lord Shelburne, and begged she would break off the detested match; which was accordingly done, by showing his Lordship the letter. He was angry, as you will believe, to lose £40,000. and so pretty a wife, but put a good face upon it, and said it was proper the ladies should settle those matters." However the following year a lady was found more faithful than Miss Molesworth. (ii, 37-38)
Fitzmaurice's source is A Memoir of the Right Honourable Hugh Elliot, by Emma Eleanor Elizabeth Hislop Elliot-Murray Kynynmoumd Minto (Countess of Minto). Edmonston and Douglas, 1868, p 146.
Notice that Shelburne's intermediary in the affair is Lady Lucan and that he feels comfortable letting the world know that his procedure for finding a mate is to use her and other such ladies as, in effect, matchmakers. Notice also that the writer, Henrietta Elliot, is not forced to go through with the "detested match" so -- in this case anyway -- an intended bride wasn't forced into a marriage which she did not want. Fitzmaurice evidently feels that Miss Molesworth shouldn't have backed out since he approves the greater fidelity of the young lady who "was found" for Shelburne the next year (this was Louisa Fitzpatrick, the second Lady Shelburne).

Though I've no direct knowledge about Sophie's acquaintance with Shelburne before their marriage, there's evidence that she did not find in him an ardent lover, but rather a stiff, over polite, and somewhat inarticulate young man. As I wrote in the first of these appreciation web posts, he had the reputation of a person who held himself in check. Ridiculed as Malagrida, the Portuguese Jesuit, he was considered to be always playing a role and never revealing his true self. This unflattering depiction is actually supported -- in a way -- by his own admission. He wrote in the autobiographic fragment that he overcame the backwardness of his upbringing by self-transformation but always felt he had to be on his guard. This guardedness is probably what made him seem jesuitical. Shelburne might have been giving a hyperbolic portrait of himself when he summed up the personality of his political mentor, William Pitt the Younger. He wrote of Pitt's single-mindedness and ambition, adding: "He repressed his desires.... He was always acting always made up and never natural, in a perpetual state of exertion, incapable of friendship, or of any act which tended to it, and constantly upon the watch, and never unbent." (Fitzmaurice. i. 77)

There's a bit of evidence in Shelburne's writings that he was not burning with desire for Sophie. He mentions her in a section of the autobiographical fragment in which he's describing her father, but he says nothing about his feelings concerning her or how they responded to one another. Writing about Robert Walpole, he refers to Lord Carteret, one of Walpole's rivals: "I ought to be partial to one of his rivals, if not his principal rival -- the House of Commons apart -- Lord Carteret, whose daughter I afterwards married. He was a fine person, of commanding beauty, the best Greek scholar of the age, overflowing with wit, not so much a diseur de bons mots, like Lord Chesterfield, as a man of true comprehensive ready wit, which at once saw to the bottom, and whose imagination never failed him, and was joined to great natural elegance." (Fitzmaurice, i. 29-30)

But if he was somewhat businesslike in his approach to marriage and not a charming suitor, he had many traits that would have appealed to Sophie. In him, she would find one who valued learning, was open to change and new ways of doing things, and who wanted to do good as well as do well in the world. All in all, it's likely she found that she felt about as many affinities with him as antipathies to him and I'd like to believe she was not forced to marry him against her will.

As I've said, once married, she showed herself well-prepared, both capable of succeeding as wife and comfortable in the role. The diary shows her to have been engaged fully in the expected social occasions both as guest and hostess, to have been an ardent participant in discussions with Shelburne and the intellectuals whom he cultivated (David Hume, Adam Smith, Joseph Priestley, and others), and to have appreciated the responsibilities as well as the comforts and pleasures that come with great wealth.

The diary also suggests that she was attached to Shelburne, when -- on an occasion when she did not accompany him to London, but stayed behind, probably because she was then advanced in pregnancy -- she writes of her quiet life at home, of her rounds in the garden, and of missing him. On his part, Shelburne shows his devotion in a way by keeping close to her when he can (the diary does not show that he ever excluded her from political or intellectual discussions that he held) and by not engaging in extracurricular activities that excluded her: he's never shown to be off hunting, out gambling, or carousing at the club. In an age in which extramarital affairs were common enough, there's no evidence that he had a mistress, or an affair, or even succumbed to invitations from London's notorious crowd of prostitutes.

Horace Walpole, who had no great affection for Shelburne, confirms that his marriage was a companionable one. Here's Shelburne's biographer on this subject:
"I am delighted," Walpole wrote on the 16th of June [1779] to Lady Ossory, the sister-in-law of the future Lady Shelburne, "with the confirmation of Lady Louisa Fitzpatrick's match. My acquaintance with Lord Shelburne is very slight; but two essential points are Gospel, that he is a man of sense, and that he made an excellent husband to a wife far inferior to Lady Louisa in beauty. There is a third, which, though negative, I reckon a capital merit at present: he is not a gamester." (ii, 37)

Though the Shelburne biography does not discuss his feelings when she died, his actions and observations from contemporaries show that he was devastated at her loss. He quickly absented himself from London society and from politics, his own party, and the political contests to which he had devoted so much energy and traveled extensively in Europe with his close friend and supporter Isaac Barré. (On January 27, 1771, Horace Walpole wrote in one of his great gossipy letters, "Lord Huntingdon is going abroad, not like your ladyship [Lady Coke], to see Kings & Queens, but because he has fewer opportunities of seeing them than he had. Lord Shelburne is going too, on the Loss of his wife, & Lord Grantham to Spain.")

Shelburne commissioned a monument to Sophie, a statue depicting her with her two young sons, by an Italian sculptor, Agostino Carlini, which stands in All Saints' church, High Wycombe. You can see a photo of it here.

A final piece of evidence to show his attachment to her and grief at losing her, is, as we've seen, the fact that he waited many years before remarrying.

From what I can tell, Sophie enjoyed her short time as Lady Shelburne. She had a good husband and was both enriched by and herself enriched the social and material environment which was her birthright. Though the connection between Sophie Belle in Beauty and the Beast is somewhat tenuous, it's pretty clear she did share with Belle the joys of a happy marriage.

When I have time I'll write one more appreciation of her to tie up some loose ends and draw this series of web posts to a close.

No comments: