Travellers’ tales

Travel difficulties are uppermost in many people’s minds at the moment, but life was much trickier in the eighteenth century. Many roads were virtually impassable, particularly in winter, private carriages were expensive and journeys by public coach were slow, around two hours to cover 12–14 miles; road improvements through turnpike levies did not happen until the second half of the century. Judith Madan wrote of one eventful journey in which a servant was killed:

the roads were intolerable bad & dangerous, so I cannot express my concern & dread… they were forc’d once all to get out of the coach, & the children were carry’d a good way on horse back, before they durst venture them in again, & then so violent the jolting & so deep many of the sloughs, the servants had much adoe to prevent the childrens being thrown against the sides of the coach, or against one another, which occasion’d a misfortune that has given me great pain, & I trust will you, poor Morange was by a violent jolt thrown out, & run over by the wheele which as you may easily suppose left her dead. I am heartily sorry for the accident but thank God it was the worse we met with.

Travelling light was sometimes not an option. Martin Madan sent instructions to his wife who was setting out from Northill (their house in Bedfordshire) to spend some time with her husband in Gloucester. Writing on April 11th, he said:

I have taken 5 bed chambers, two parlours, a kitchen & cellar for which I am to pay two guineas a week, the first week in May I expect you, I shall send a pair of Lady Stapletons horses to Northill to be there the last of this month, if you set out the next day, you will be at Chiltenham the 3d of May. I forgot to tell you sheets & linnen of all sorts you must bring with you, I recommend your bringing a doz of silver knives, forks & spoons, the casters & little salvers, which will be plate enough, & I believe the rest of the plate had better be sent to Mr Palmers – China the landlady is to furnish.

A week later he gave detailed instructions for the route:

I will mention to you the route I wou’d have you take, from Northill to Newport Pagnell, where you’ll dine, & lye at Buckingham, from thence to Chipping Norton. If I remember the distance, you may perform it without baiting, if you shou’d, you may easily lye at Stow in the Wold, & the next day dine at Cheltenham. The first days journey is the only long one, but if you are in the coach at six, you will reach Buckingham in good time.

Nor were travels unaffected by the weather. Martin wrote from Brussels during the War of Austrian Succession:

I told you in my last that our orders were to march the 13th, but the violent snow that fell for 15 days successively has render’d the roads impracticable beyond Maestrich, & as most of the advanced divisions of our army have not been able to stir we were obliged to remain here. The weather is now changed and we are order’d to hold our selves in readiness to march next Teusday, however, I cannot think we shall move so soon, for by a letter to day from Aix la Chapelle we are inform’d that the floods are out, & what gives me great pain, no news is come to us of General Ligoniers command which pass’d the Rhine above ten days ago. Prince George of Hesse said this day that 20 dragoons with their horses were lost by sloughs, I suppose smother’d. Our route will take up 31 days march, so that I may reasonably hope by the length of day & great power of the sun the roads will be much mended before we enter this terrible countrey.

At least they didn’t have to cope with a volcano as well!

Bodleian Library, The Madan papers, MS Eng. Lett. c.284: 100-101, April 18th, 1728; MS. Eng. lett. C.285: 59, April 11th, 1742; 63, April 17th 1742; 87, April 16th, 1743.


Marriage à la mode

I’ve sadly neglected this blog of late – occupied with writing and rewriting (and rewriting) a funding application and then catching up with other work as a result. I will be writing about what I’ve consequently learned about what I want to research and the sources I need to look at, but in the meantime, here are two vignettes of eighteenth-century marriage.

The first is an elopement, between Lord Rochford (William Henry Nassau-de-Zulestein, who was later to become Secretary of State and was 23 at the time) and Miss Young, a maid of honour to Princess Augusta who at the time was living at Norfolk House. Judith Madan writes:

The secret is at last come out – Miss Young is elope’d on Saturday last at about ten at night. She went from her lodgings at Norfolk House & giving no notice to her servants. They sat up all night expecting her home. They found on her table a lettr directed to Mrs Payne. The contents were as follows –
Dear Madam, As I have long had reason to think you my freind, I beg you to present my duty to the Prince & Princess, & beg they would think so favourable of me as they can, but as I never lov’d, nor never could be happy with any man but Lord Rochford, misfortunes have oblig’d me to fly to him for protection. I am Dear Madam &c.

and finishes with a flourish:

I am sorry Miss Young should either have not read Pamela – or read it to so little purpose.

Samuel Richardson’s novel about a servant girl who resists the attentions of her master, leading him eventually to marry her, had been published earlier that year. The Duchess of Somerset also notes the event in a letter to the Countess of Pomfret, commenting dismissively:

Why she named him I cannot comprehend, unless she had said she was to be married to him; which I hear that nobody believes to be the case. In my opinion, she should have left it to the world to make what conjectures they pleased since she was not more particular.

Nevertheless, Miss Young eventually got her way. Inveterate letter writer Horace Walpole reports two years later:

Did I tell you that Lord Rochford has at last married Miss Young? I say, at last, for they don’t pretend to have been married this twelvemonth; but they were publicly married last week.

At the other end of the age scale is the marriage of Judith’s brother, the Reverend Doctor John Cowper, father of the poet William Cowper. John’s first wife, Anne Donne, had died in 1737 at the age of 34. In his second marriage he certainly seems to have met his match. Martin Madan writes:

You will not be surpris’d when I tell you the Doctor is to be married within three weeks, since it is a state that you & all his friends expected he wou’d re-engage in, but he shall, this time, act prudentially, for he settles his person on a widdow that has £500 a year jointure besides some money. My authority for this news is good, your niece Molly… told it me, with many diverting circumstances. The Doctor & the Widdow Marriot, for so she’s call’d, toy & wanton like two lovers of eighteen, no tea can he drink but what she makes, no part of the room is half so agreable as where he sits, but yet she is not so blind but she can find fault, the Doctors wigg is too fair, his coat is ill made, his morning dress is unbecoming, all which he is about to remedy, dark wiggs are bespoke, La Motte, I suppose, for the future is to have the honour to cloath him, & for his disability she has chose him a scarlet banian him’d with black.

In a later letter he adds:

As yet I’ve not seen the Doctor, who I understand is in town, & I suppose designs to continue so, for his bride cannot bear the country in winter, & indeed it is unreasonable for a husband to consult his own inclinations when they disagree with his wife’s, especially in matters of moment, & what can be more so than the pleasure of London…

The relationship was not completely one-sided in terms of power, however, at least at the beginning:

But in return, the Doctor complains her hoop is too large therefore she has sent to town for a larger, thus you find, as yet, the complaisance is not equally reciprocal.

MS. Eng. lett. C.285: 37, May 2nd 1740; 17, Nov 20th 1739; 31, Jan 20th 1740/1

Not raveing but melancholy

I have been reading today about medical recipes for rabies, which reminded me of an incident in the Madan letters (see previous posts). Judith wrote to her husband Martin (away fighting the War of Austrian Succession) about a dog owned by their son, also called Martin:

I had wrote to you last week but was a good deal alarm’d by an accident, which yet I thank God has had no ill consequences & all my fears are now entirely over, nor should I mention it, but as things never loose in the carrying I was afraid you might hear it with adititions from another hand which is truly this – Martins dog Silver show’d one day at dinner signs of madness – not raveing, but melancholy, which is as bad in its consequences; refus’d meat & shun’d water which confirm’d us he was far gone, on which he was ty’d up in the kennel, & continuing in the same way we thought it safest to have him shot which was accordingly done. After this Pen recollected the morning of the day we observ’d his disorder that he had jump’d up & lick’d her lips & also her head, this frighted us extreamly as not knowing how soon infection might be taken, & some days before he had bit the housemaids hand. So on the whole we thought it most prudent to be most secure, & I made the medicine & Pen & the maid took it the proper time, only I gave Pen in proportion to her age 2 spoonfulls less. It was terrible to take but she had resolution to go thro’ it the full time & is perfectly well, & now I am easy in that respect. Martin says if the dog had been mad there could have been no infection where he did not bite & Dr Lane is of the same opinion but I hope you’l think, as I did, the utmost caution not too much in a case of such infinite importance to so dear a child.

Martin replied, rather severely it might be thought:

you acquaint me with Silver’s madness and his having lick’d Pensy, I yet tremble to think of her danger & the fatal consequences that might have attended a favourite dog’s madness, I have very sincerely return’d God thanks for all your preservation, it was like putting poison in a cup of which you were all to drink had not the Hand of Providence directed you to destroy it. I ever had an aversion to the admission of favourite Dogs into the House, many bad accidents have happen’d from it, & your late escape I hope will be sufficient to present your running any future risks of that sort.

Rabies is still almost invariably fatal, so the hysteria over a lick, let alone a bite is understandable. What is more curious perhaps is that fact that a very large number of manuscript recipe books of the period contain a remedy for it, even though these cannot have worked. ‘Remedy for the bite of a mad dog’ is also a frequently occurring artefact among the papers of the clergy – either they were often bitten when visiting their parishioners, or they thought they were likely to be contacted for medical as well as spiritual succour by the afflicted.

The Madan letters, Bodleian Library, MS Eng. lett. c.285: 140, 4th August 1744; 122, August 1744

The shock of the familiar

A couple of weeks ago, after a night at Harpenden House, husband and I decided to visit Hertingfordbury; my MA dissertation was on the family of Judith Cowper, whose family seat was Hertingfordbury Park, and we took a sneaky peek at the house (it’s privately owned and down a long drive, so we tried to blend into the scenery). On the way we were near Stevenage Old Town, where I was born, so we decided to try to find the street I lived in. Determined to get there from memory rather than via satnav, I was temporarily diverted by the fact they’ve built a dual carriageway across the road I used to walk down to get to the High Street, but we finally found it, Orchard Crescent. I remembered the number but when I saw the house was disappointed that it meant absolutely nothing, didn’t stir any memories at all. We drove to the end of the road, turned round, and stopped outside no. 26 on the way back. Looking back to the main road it was then it hit me, an almost physical jolt of memory – I was 10 years old again, walking down the road and round the sweep of the bend that I could see in front of me.

To me, one aim of good history writing must be to evoke that kind of response in our readers, helping them identify with the people of the past and exploring the universality of human experience across both time and space. You can’t experience my memories directly, but if I describe them in the right way I can enable you to feel as if you are and to recognise parallels in your own life. Similarly, when I write about my research, I need to find a way of conveying what one might call the shock of the familiar. Despite a distance of hundreds of years, so often little has really changed.

For example, when I read from an eighteenth-century husband ‘PS Every letter has promised me to fly to your lips in the shape of a kiss’ it makes me think of phrases like ‘sealed with a loving kiss’ (or even SWALK!). When I read in a letter from a new bride to her mother:

I wait with the utmost impatience till you give me notice of your paying me a visit at Hertingfordbury, yet methinks I still wish to defer that pleasure till I am perfectly settled in my belov’d Dwelling; at present I am far from it & cannot expect to be able to receive you as I ought till Mrs C gone, & I am realy mistress of my own house… we laugh, sing, have musick, walking, punning, and content from morning till night. Mrs C & I have much discourse, and seeming satisfaction on both sides…

the tension between her and her mother-in-law is evident and timeless. Familiar also is the type of gossipy information in letters between mother and daughter, today more likely to be exchanged over the phone:

As to the head dress, it appears in so many various forms tis hard to say what is the fashionable standard – numbers wear their hair very well toopee’d & braded up behind & no cap at all, & everybody that wears any wears very small ones, egretts almost always worn of various fashion & colours…

I have not seen Madm Maintenons letters, but shall take thee first opportunity to read them that I may find out what the world has mistaken as to her character – should be glad in your next of your oppinion…

As you ask me what sugar I give Betty, such as is commonly call’d breakfast lump, all the other servants use our own brown, which is purer sugar then any we buy, & I never use any other for apple pyes, tarts, or anything of that kind, unless on some very particular occasion, I realy then I cant say there is any material difference in any respect – as to Lisbon sugar I never use it, it is a very strong ill-sifted sugar.

And which flouncing diva hasn’t felt like this at the actions of an apparently fickle admirer:

How is it possible for me to fancy you as sencire as I would have you, when an opera, nay one you did not like, could make you leave me? I would not say thus much before you went, because you would then certainly have paid me the complement of staying… Judge then how I can bear to be neglected – I would not have left you – Pope might have talk’d, or Guzzoni sung in vain… I have not seen a human creature since you left me – I have had time for reflection – have you any notion of the pain of doubt? If you have, you may perhaps imagin part of what this melancholy evening gave me… you may perhaps, wish to see me soon – when I may be engag’d – it may be in the vast affair of divertion… Tis now near ten a clock – I shall not sleep to night – write to me in the morning & let me know whether you continue to love me or not.

Don’t you just love it? Translation (probably in a series of text messages): ‘Obviously you found something far more important to do than be with me. How could you do this to me? Next time you want to see me I’m going to be busy enjoying myself. Don’t you love me any more?’ Followed by swift change of Facebook status to ‘I was sooo wrong about you’.

Reading the author notes to Wolf Hall, I was struck by Hilary Mantel’s observation that she’d chosen to write in the present tense because then she was deprived of hindsight, like her characters. As historians we don’t have the same liberties that novelists do – and we also want to try to join the dots, make the connections, set everything in context, use our hindsight to highlight what we’ve learnt. Maybe sometimes we need to stand back a bit more, let the sources speak for themselves and bring the past to life.

Quotes from Papers of the Madan family, Bodleian Library, MS Eng. lett. c.284: 26, 1723; 42, April 30th 1724; MS Eng. lett. d.268: 17, 1750; MS Eng. lett. d.286: 21, January 16th 1752; 25, April 1st 1752.