Irish Adventurers

Janet Adam Smith

  • The Grand Tours of Katherine Wilmot: France 1801-3 and Russia 1805-7 edited by Elizabeth Mavor
    Weidenfeld, 187 pp, £17.99, February 1992, ISBN 0 297 81223 8

As readers of her book on The Ladies of Llangollen will know, Elizabeth Mavor relishes spirited, unorthodox women, free with their tongues and ready to snap their fingers at convention. Now she has found a new clutch of them in the Archives of the Royal Irish Academy: an Irish countess, a Russian princess, a young woman from Co. Cork and her lady’s maid. They come to us from the journals that the young woman, Katherine Wilmot, kept during her travels on the Continent in 1801-3 and to Russia from 1805 to 1807, and sent home to her family. Parts of these journals have already been published, in Thomas Sadleir’s An Irish Peer on the Continent (1920) and in Lady Londonderry and H.M. Hyde’s The Russian Journals and Letters of Martha and Catherine Wilmot (1934). For the present selection, which covers both tours, Elizabeth Mavor has gone back to the original transcripts, included some hitherto unpublished material, and provided the historical context.

She has done well to bring Katherine Wilmot back into print. This lively, well-read, intelligent Irish girl was equipped with the qualities of a good traveller: gusto, curiosity, tolerance, endurance, good humour – and an ability to laugh at herself. She is wonderfully free of fashionable attitudes, trusts to her own impressions and offers her own opinions. From the comfort of the armchair, it is a delight to follow her and her fellow travellers trundling in their carriages across Europe.

The first section covers the tour to France and Italy which Katherine, then 29, made with her Irish neighbours and contemporaries, Lord and Lady Mount Cashell. Setting off in November 1801, they, like many other Britons, were taking advantage of the peace brought by the Treaty of Amiens to see for themselves the country of which they had heard and read such lurid accounts. Off they went, gentry and servants: ‘Lord and Lady Mount Cashell, Helena Jane and me pack’d in the Family Coach, with Mary Lawless, Mary Smith, Blanchois, and William in another carriage, driving full speed, nine Irish Adventurers, to the French dominions.’ Two at least of these Irish adventurers were as ready as William Wordsworth had been a decade earlier to feel what bliss it was to be alive. Margaret Mount Cashell was filled to the brim with republican sympathies, inspired by her former governess, Mary Wollstonecraft; in 1798, to the fury of her husband, she had supported the United Irishmen. Katherine was equally enthusiastic. On waking her first morning in France, she wrote: ‘I never remember in all my life a moment of such unfeign’d extacy! Instinctively I fancied some metamorphoses was taking place in me, and putting up my hand, to try if my nightcap at least was not turning into a “cap of Liberty” (still leaning out of bed), I lost my balance and down I flump’d upon the floor, to the utter destruction of all my glorious visions.’ Her republican enthusiasm was later tempered by meeting people who had suffered in the Revolution, but she continued to date letters in republican style, with Thermidor, Fructidor and the rest.

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