Playing with edged tools

We all need a bit of advice from time to time, and it was no different in the eighteenth century. Eliza Taylor, who I wrote about in the last post, had a friend Kitty Talbot, who had been going through some unspecified difficulties, possibly to do with a romance. Eliza had been dispensing words of wisdom, for which Kitty was grateful:

You have frightened me my Dear Mrs Taylor by saying so many more fine things than I deserve… Oh dear Oh dear how shall my poor wooden head… dictate any thing worthy of a Lady so Speechified… So what expedient do you think I have fallen upon? Why to run away from my self as far as I can.

In the rest of the entertaining letter she described herself in the third person to try to gain a sense of detachment about her state of mind, which I’m sure all of us can recognise:

Indeed she has been too sad for some weeks past to be tolerable Company even to herself. Yet she thankfully received your kind Advice, acknowledged it to be very wise & seasonable and has endeavour’d she assures me to follow it… Not as one ought to follow good Advice full Gallop over Hedge & Ditch without once looking behind one, but stealing along a Snails trot, & stopping every minute to parley with less wayward fancies. Parlying with a temptation how dangerous! Every one has its plausible Cant, every one its bewitching disguise, & one fancies one is very laudably following good Nature, Compassion, Reason, Friendship, till at once one is stuck fast in a Slough an hundred miles off from the road one intended to have kept. To be cautious in making a Resolution & obstinate in keeping to it is the only rule. But how does this sad Kate practice the Rules she gives? Many a Morning might you, with a shorter Telescope then shows one the people in the Moon, have seen her riding very briskly in gay Sunshine through a Flowery Field determined to be as chearful as the Scene around her, & the next Minute, from some foolish Connexion of Ideas that she was not aware of, her face cover’d with Tears so that she could scarce see her way. But now she is really better. Not that any length of time she says can efface a Remembrance which will ever be most Dear & Valuable to her, but that Reason & Duty (& a little touch of Experience too for we all want that Teacher) have taught her not to play with edged tools any longer.


Fill in the blanks

Eliza Pierce, born in Devon in the 1720s, had a two-year engagement to Thomas Taylor, son of the MP for Ashburton and a serially unsuccessful businessman. They finally married in 1752, after the death of the aunt she had been nursing. She was by no means shy about stating her opinions, as shown by a faintly menacing letter written before their marriage. She quotes Milton’s L’Allegro – “These delights if thou canst give/Mirth with thee I mean to live” – and continues:

I really think I don’t show my Wisdom by this Choice for I believe the Wisest Men for the most part are the most sedate but however that does not prove they are most happy and that I think is the most Material point we have to look after. More wou’d find it then [than] there do if they wou’d but seek for it. It is what I am determined to try for & make no doubt of attaining, if you don’t take care to hinder it, but you had best be cautious, for I may without any Vanity say that by destroying my quiet you will ruin your own. I may Venture also to Affirm that there can be no true happiness in a Married life unless both partake of it. I fancy you are pretty much of the same Opinion, but people often act against their principles.

That’s telling him! Later in the letter she declares with a pout:

As you don’t like the usual Begining of my letters [Sir,] I am determined to leave a Blank which you may fill up with what pleases you best, T’will be altogether as well as if I had done it & as to the conclusion (which you begin to be affraid will never come) I shall use the same method you see I will take care not to be found fault with twice therefore expect to be told no more then that this Letter comes from
Eliza Pierce of Yendacott
in the Country of Devon Spinster
which is good information

Some years later she used a similar conceit with her son, but he had obviously worked out how to handle her. She writes to her husband:

for this twelvemonth past he has always wrote a story of a Cock & a Bull, and never given an answer to any thing I mention’d in my Letter – for this reason the last time I wrote to him, I told him that as he never wou’d give an answer to any thing I wrote, I thought for the future, it would be full as well for me to send him a Blank paper, as he wou’d see by the directions it came from me; and that if he pleas’d he might answer them in the same manner – that after we had carried on this curious correspondence for some time, we would publish a Book under the title, of Letters between a Mother and her Son; in which should not be one wrong expression, one word of bad English, nor one false narration and I added to be sure the World would be in vast admiration at our Genius’es – after this I wrote him a Story of my own invention, applicable to the affair, his answer was as follows – “Dear Mama – I receiv’d your kind Letter last Monday in which was a Story I like exceedingly, I intend to publish it in the Magazine, as I am willing other people should have the pleasure of reading your Epistle as well as myself – When shall we publish these Letters between A Mother & her Son? when we do I hope to get a little Money, for I am sure I want some much” Do you think I cou’d help sending him some? no I am too silly a Mother

Children (and mothers) today aren’t so different…

Taking the waters

The supposedly curative powers of water from a spring at the foot of a cliff in Scarborough’s South Bay were discovered in the 1620s, and they became widely known following Robert Wittie’s book on ‘Scarborough Spaw’ in 1660. While the spa was well frequented by the ‘quality’ both to take the waters and for amusement, its facilities don’t seem to have been quite as comfortable as those as Tunbridge Wells or Bath, as Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough makes clear in this fascinating account:

I have been at the place where they assemble to drink the waters, very different from Tunbridge or the Bath, very dirty and expresses vast poverty in every part of it. It is besides so extremely steep and disagreeable to get to either in a coach or chair, that I resolve to go no more, but to take my waters at home. But there was one thing I saw to-day which is such a curiosity that I must tell you of it. There is a room for the ladies’ assembly, which you go up a steep pair of stairs into, on the outside of the house, like a ladder. And in that room there is nothing but hard narrow benches, which is rather a punishment to sit upon than an ease. When the waters begin to operate, there is a room within it, where there is above twenty holes with drawers under them to take out and all the ladies go in together and see one another round the room, when they are in that agreeable posture, and at the door, there’s a great heap of leaves which the ladies take in with them. This sight I am sure, diverted the Duchess of Manchester extremely, but it made me very sad. And I came home as fast as I could for fear of being forced into that assembly.

This was 1732, so the sight of fashionable women with their hooped dresses and high-heeled shoes climbing up those stairs must have been something to behold.

The Duchess, who doesn’t seem to have been particularly sociable, described how she spent her day:

The morning is the best, when I drink my waters and at dinner [about 3pm] I have a very good stomach. Soon after that a little room is filled with visitors, most of which I never saw before, and to avoid having it as dismal as a funeral, in such a circle, I play at quadrille for half a crown a fish, which is well enough, for I can’t win whatever I played for, and it makes it more easy to play than it would be to have more conversation.

Quadrille was a trick-taking card game very popular at the beginning of the eighteenth century, until whist superseded it. The half-crown stake she was laying down each round was a sizeable amount, 2s 6d, which would have paid for a whole pig or dinner sent in from a tavern. Keeping oneself entertained was an expensive business!

A royal ravishment

More from Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, in a letter dated 23 September 1732. I love the descriptions – ‘a country clown’ and ‘a jolly crummy woman’. One wonders what the tabloid press would have made of it today…

I have now an account to give you that I believe will divert you… Two or three days ago, Her sacred Majesty [Queen Caroline] was in great danger of being ravished. She was walking from Kensington to London early in the morning and having a vast desire to appear more able in everything than other people, she walked so fast as to get before my Lord Chamberlain and the two princesses upon one of the causeways, quite out of sight. Whether this proceeded from their compliments to let her see how much stronger she was than they or from any other accident, I cannot say. But my Lord Grantham meeting a country clown asked him if he had met any person and how far they were off! To which he answered he had met a jolly crummy [plump] woman with whom he had been fighting some time to kiss her. I am surprised at the man’s fancy! And my Lord Grantham was so frightened that he screamed out and said it was the Queen. Upon which the country fellow was out of his wits, fell upon his knees, cried and earnestly begged of my Lord Grantham to speak for him for he was sure he would be hanged for what he had done. But did not explain further what it was. And her Majesty does not own more than that he struggled with her, but that she got the better of him. And if he should have presumed to have got a good kiss, I think it is much better to conceal it… Upon the whole I should be very glad that somebody would make a ballad of it. For when I was at Scarborough, I learned to sing and I fancy I could perform such a one very well without any graces.

The true interest of England

Self-seeking politicians are, as we all know, nothing new. Here is Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, writing to her granddaughter Diana, Duchess of Bedford in 1733:

What you say of the extremes in elections is a melancholy truth, but considering the vast power that ministers have by disposing of places, honours and money I can’t see how it is possible to keep them within just bounds, but by the help of some that have not thoroughly the principles that one wishes, and some of them may assist those that wish what is for the true interest of England, without being able to effect their own designs.

So, get into bed with people you don’t entirely agree with to achieve a consensus that’s for the good of the country. A lesson for today, perhaps?