Thursday, April 13, 2006

Diary of Lady Shelburne -- Une belle Ladi Sensée

I thought I'd do a single wrapup post on Sophie and her diary, but find I've too much to say. Here then is a first "appreciation" of the lady. It focuses on her as "Ladi Sensée."

Sophia Carteret, Lady Shelburne, was articulate, well-educated, and apparently comfortable with her place in society and with the responsibilities that accompanied it. Like her husband, she held what we would call liberal ideals. She worried about the plight of the poor and believed that aristocrats should use their wealth and power to benefit those who lacked them. It's likely she agreed with Shelburne's support of free trade, electoral reform, Roman Catholic emacipation, and conciliation with the American colonies.

She was neither frivolous nor arrogant. She read memoirs and works of inspiration and in the diary she reminds herself to beware self-satisfaction.

She was interested in women of power, studied and conversed with authors whom we would call feminists or proto-feminists, and, though there's no evidence that she rebelled against her subordination to her husband, it's likely she held her own nicely in conversation with the clique of philosphers, politicians, and scientists that Shelburne brought together.

She gained her formal education from an educational innovator, Mme. Le Prince de Beaumont. See the 7th Diary Post for a brief introduction to this very interesting Frenchwoman. Le Prince de Baumont condemned the arid practice of lecturing and employed instead a conversational technique to teach her genteel female pupils subjects that were generally reserved for educating boys. To her, Sophie was Ladi Sensée, Lady Sensible, a star pupil, on whom she could rely to help instruct the younger girls and help keep them from becoming -- in her view -- vain, idle, and empty-headed. Despite her emphasis on intellectual pursuits, Mme. Le Prince de Beaumont knew well and from personal experience that an eighteenth-century woman had limited opportunities for independent self-expression. She was careful to instill values that were appropriate in young women who would be subject to arranged marriages and who, on marrying, would have limited or no control over their own property. And she made sure her pupils were prepared to make the most of a situation in which they were too often treated as commodities in a market, business assets, useful in the formation of alliances to extend or recover an aristocratic family's fortunes.

I believe it was Mme. Le Prince de Beaumont's goal to see that Sophie was ready for the transition from unmarried to married life, prepared to accept the responsibilities of wife and mother, and able to sustain her intellectual development as she carried out complex social responsibilities.

Mme. Le Prince de Beaumont was author of Beauty and the Beast -- La Belle et la bête -- or it might be better to say that her version of many similar stories is the one best known and most loved. The "Beauty" of the title, Belle, has an attractiveness beyond pleasing physical appearance. Like Sophie, she is well educated and like Sophie her education helps her -- as liberal educations are supposed to do -- to experience and appreciate the diversity of life and its infinitely diverse creatures. I expect it's for this reason that Belle and Sophie are both more than conventionally sensitive to the needs of others and (I'm guessing about this) its the reason they share a desire to do good rather than be admired.

In La Belle et la bête, when there's a chance that their impoverished father may again attain wealth, Belle's sisters ask him for jewels and dresses and Belle, at first unwilling to ask for anything, eventually requests only a rose. Mme. Le Prince de Baumont uses the story to show how, through her own resourcefulness, intelligence, and goodness of heart, a young lady can first learn to accept a bad bargain and then achieve happiness. Although the happy ending is achieved by the conventional waving of a magic wand, I believe the author, who escaped her own marriage to a brutal husband, is saying that an educated and resourceful young lady has a better chance of a contented life than one who is self-absorbed and has no thought for the future. The likelihood that the beast in whose power you place yourself will turn out to be an ideal prince among men is a very small one, but, I'd like to beleve the author is saying, if you possess education, good taste, an immagination, and a courageous heart, you're better off than if you're just a passive victim.

Sophie's betrothal to Shelburne is not Beauty and the Beast brought to life. Shelburne was not a beast and he did not have many of the character flaws of his aristocratic peers. But there is an element of similarity between him and the Beast. Shelburne wasn't warm and charming. To the contrary, among his political opponents (and even the King), he was known as an indiscriminate flatterer, awkward and uncomfortable in society, inarticulate, insincere, and untrustworthy. In an autobiographic fragment, Shelburne himself tells us that he had a wretched childhood that left him totally unprepared for the life of a wealthy English peer and was saved from the beastly life his relatives enjoyed by the generosity of two kind people, an aunt and a British officer. With their help he transformed himself but he recorded that he continually kept himself guard against the return of the prejudices and brutishness which he learned in his youth. It's likely that this self-consiousness kept him from appearing, or feeling, natural, comfortable, or relaxed in any social occasions and particularly ones where the tension level was high -- as well might have been those occasions when he met with the young lady to whom he was betrothed.

It's entirely possible that his awkwardness and the pretty well-known calumnies of his enemies made him seem not beastial, but at best a risky proposition to 19-year-old Sophie at the time of her betrothal. It's interesting to contemplate the degree to which, if at all, the relationship between Sophie and Shelburne, as it developed over the remaining years of her short life, in any way resembled the plot of La Belle et la bête. I hope to develop this idea further in the next post on this topic.

No comments: