A wedding we are soon to have

Another marriage story, although I’m not sure who’s the more prudent in this situation. I’ll let Martin Madan tell the tale (punctuation as in the original!):

Since I came here, I have acted a part which I beleive will meet with but little approbation from the fair sex, I have been the means of breaking off a wedding. I’ll explain the matter to you. Cornet Carter, who you have seen at my house, had engag’d himself to a young lady of this country of a good family & £3,000 fortune, parents consents were obtain’d, the wedding day fix’t, & a settlement concluded upon… the young gentleman open’d himself to me & confessing many conflicts with himself upon this serious affair, that he consider’d he was of an extravagant disposition & was afraid he cou’d not curb his passions, & that their fortunes were too small to maintain them as they had been bred, I found him so uneasie that I undertook to break off the match, which he consented to. I presently wrote a letter to the young ladys father, as from him, in which I insisted upon a point that I know he wou’d not grant, the letter was sent, the father astonisht, Mama scolding & abusing the promis’d bridegroom, & poor Miss drownd in tears, in short the whole family is in an uproar, my pupil has just receiv’d a message to beg the favour of him to come to the house for Papa to speak to him, I was at first in doubt whether I shou’d let him go, but he seem’d so brave & resolute that I have trusted him, he had been gone there two hours which makes me suspect Misses tears & tender vows will melt my young mans heart once more, in my next I shall be able to tell you what this interview has produc’d, if the paramours re-engage they are for ever undone, this conduct of mine I fancy you’ll blame, you will not be able to get the better of your own sex so far as to judge impartially of this matter, but I am sure & very well satisfied within my self I have done a good thing.

Three days later, he continues:

In my last, I told you I had been endeavouring to separate an amorous couple, but alas! Love had too far engag’d himself on the fair ones side to permit my advice to have the wish’t for success. I thought my pupil was fortified against all the wiles of your sex, therefore permitted him to take, as I thought, a last interview, but the fair one confuted all his reasonings by her too powerful tears. Her declarations to him, of living for him alone, that being his, & his only, was what she prefer’d to all the world besides, that he was the object of her wishes & such kind of intoxicating language sunk my young man into his former lethargy, & he meanly gave up his once redeem’d liberty, and a wedding we are soon to have.

Measuringworth.com calculates that £3,000 in 1725 would be worth £384,000 using the retail price index or £4.89 million using average earnings, so whatever his ‘passions’ were, they must have been extravagant in the extreme. Whether they did get married and what happened afterwards is unfortunately not recorded.

Bodleian Library, MS Eng. Lett. c.284: 85, March 21 1725; 87, March 24, 1725


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

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.