Burnished and braced

Alethea Hayter

  • A Second Self: The Letters of Harriet Granville 1810-1845 edited by Virginia Surtees
    Michael Russell, 320 pp, £14.95, April 1990, ISBN 0 85955 165 2

‘Relaxation is my bane, Lady Morpeth. All my habits and tastes lean that way and in consequence I am going to wage war upon them all. I dread a languid yellow old age, hot, perfumed and dawdling, and I prefer our Julia’s course, active, smart, burnished and braced.’ This selection of letters to an adored sister concentrates on the ‘active, smart, burnished and braced’ aspect of an ambivalent personality and pattern of life. It presents Harriet Cavendish (or Hah-yet Candish as it was then pronounced) only as a wife. For her upbringing among the splendours of the Devonshire ménage, and for her widowhood, Betty Askwith’s Piety and Wit is needed as a complement to this sparkling collection of letters, which is confined to Lady Granville’s brilliant social life as Ambassadress in Paris and as guest in the greatest English country houses.

She encountered the most famous and most notorious men and women of her day – from Lord Shaftesbury to Queen Caroline, and from Wellington to Fanny Kemble – but in describing them she excelled at the vivid vignette rather than the comprehensive landscape. She pins down Talleyrand at a Tuileries reception, ‘crawling past me last night like a lizard along the wall’. She pictures Lady Holland queening it in Paris, called on by even the strictest duchesses, ‘encompassed by a solemnity and state of fan and elbow-chair and shaded light which makes them suppose themselves in the presence of Maria Theresa at least’. She sketches highlights in the saga of Byron, Caroline Lamb, Annabella Milbanke and Augusta Leigh, from her first sight of Byron – ‘his countenance is fine when it is in repose, but the moment it is in play, suspicious, malignant and consequently repulsive’ – all the way to the break-up of the marriage, Augusta’s artless lack of remorse, and Lady Caroline shut up at Brocket watched by two nurses, but still able to defy, resist and exasperate all her family.

Lady Granville’s scintillating pen-portraits were not only of the famous. She brings alive for the reader a host of lesser characters: the cuckolded Charles Bagot, ‘pink, erect in native dignity, and, I hope, not valuing her’ – his wife – ‘a pinch of snuff’; old Lady Carlisle in a portrait ‘attitudinising with vases’; the hunting-mad Duke of Beaufort and the ‘brisk intelligent alacrity with which he hunts all his foxes over again’; poor Mary Fox, a beauty but with ‘no spirits, no opinion, no expression, no conversation. Yet she is not low, she is not grave, she is not foolish. She sits by the side of our ladies and answers very prettily when she is spoken to.’ Lady Granville’s wit and social skills made her admired, almost adored, by women as much as – perhaps even more than – by men. Even the disingenuous Princess Lieven made much of her; even the sophisticated Lady Jersey publicly burst into tears of jealousy because Lady Granville had talked more to another woman than to her. Harriet Granville enjoyed her popularity, but was not taken in by it: she knew how fickle her warmest admirers might soon be. Her comments on French high society, at a time when there was fierce competition to be asked to her famous parties in the gardens and conservatories of the Paris Embassy, show she was not deceived as to her French guests’ fundamental contempt for English lack of style. She in her turn thought poorly of them: ‘Their conversation is all upon dress, the Opera, Talma. There is not as much mind as would fill a pea shell. They are pedantic and frivolous, with the most outré consideration of rank and character accompanied by something – only like their houses – into which you grope your way, in the dark, with nobody to show it you, smelling of onions and gutters.’

Some readers of this book may feel that Lady Granville’s own conversation was ‘all upon dress, the Opera, Talma’. These letters were written during the Napoleonic Wars and the Industrial Revolution, but poverty, crime and social injustice simply did not impinge on her consciousness, and war and politics only slightly. The Battle of Waterloo is mentioned only because a relation was wounded at it, and because the French frivolously made a ballet out of it for a royal gala at the Opera. Nor does she evince many intellectual interests. Though she stayed constantly in English country houses which were treasuries of European painting, she seems only to have noticed the occasional portrait. The only reading she mentions often is of contemporary best-sellers like Byron and Scott and Moore who were likely to be discussed at parties. She did enjoy the theatre, and to some extent music, but she has more to say about Rossini’s appearance – ‘a fat sallow squab of a man but with large, languishing eyes’ – than about his music when he performed at Brighton Pavilion, where she was staying with George IV. On flowers and furniture and the arrangement of parties she was an expert; although a plain woman, she took great pains with her dress and appearance when her position made this necessary. It is chiefly the social aspect of Lady Granville that is presented in this selection of her letters.

However, as the double meaning of the title of the book hints, that was not the whole story. Lady Granville’s ‘second self’ was her beloved sister Georgiana, to whom most of these letters were addressed, but there was also a second self within her own personality. The emotional realities and predicaments behind this glittering surface called for, and found, a remarkable and very idiosyncratic moral toughness. Harriet Cavendish was brought up in a household presided over by her father, her mother and her father’s mistress, a ménage à trois which apparently suited all three participants perfectly, but which was not so popular with the three legitimate children, Lord Hartington and his sisters Georgiana and Harriet, who were welded into the closest sibling solidarity by their situation. Harriet’s marriage called for another sort of unresentful tolerance, for her husband had been for many years the lover of her aunt Lady Bessborough, whose two illegitimate children by him Harriet was expected (and gladly agreed) to bring up with her own. Towards all these peculiar sexual connections Lady Granville, herself an irreproachably faithful and loving wife, maintained a drily amused sang-froid. Even her aplomb must have been tested by the occasion when the Bessboroughs, Harriet, her husband Granville and Granville’s and Lady Bessborough’s illegitimate daughter (who was unaware of her true parentage) all stayed together in the country. But in general Lady Granville’s censure was reserved, not for adultery, but for indiscretion. She condoned her father’s liaison with Lady Elizabeth Foster, accepted his subsequent marriage to her, but blamed her severely for her impudence in publicly avowing the parentage of their illegitimate children.

So far, Lady Granville was only conforming to the standards of her coterie. But her judgment in these matters was more balanced and clear-sighted than theirs. There was more to this second self than mere social conformity. Her old age was not to be at all the languid, hot, perfumed dawdling that she had dreaded. When her husband died, she gave up all her social activities and committed herself to a life of piety and good works.

Betty Askwith, in her Piety and Wit, suggests that by this dénouement Lady Granville ‘seems in our eyes to have abandoned her own personality’: but which was her own personality? The second self had always been there. At first sight, her life reads like a novel begun by Fanny Burney and finished by Charlotte Yonge, but it was not simply that she became a Victorian when the Age of Victoria began. Many years earlier, in the midst of all her Parisian splendours and gaieties, she had suddenly told her sister that she had ‘begun reading the Bible with notes regularly. I always liked what is called serious reading, to me so much more light in hand, than much that is called lively reading.’ Reading the Bible was ‘not only the most interesting but the most awakening pursuit’ and was the ‘comfort and delight’ of her life. In the ensuing years, when she was still on the crest of her wave of social success, she occasionally revealed to her sister that she longed to wean herself from the ‘clinging, aching interests of the world’, that she ought to spend her life on her knees from gratitude, that ‘fear and sorrow, terror and bereavement’ brought with them peace in understanding the unbounded mercy of God.

Such sentiments start out of their context in these cheerful ironic letters to surprise the complacent reader who thinks he has got the measure of a witty but shallow character. One obvious comparison comes to mind with another set of letters to a much-loved sister – letters from a woman far below Harriet Granville in the social hierarchy, far above her in genius – Jane Austen’s letters to her sister Cassandra. The women were alike in their warm affection and admiration for their siblings, in the sharp outlines of their pen-portraits of acquaintances, in an apparent preoccupation with dress and parties and gossip about personalities, an apparent ignoring of the great national issues of war and poverty. If we had only Jane Austen’s letters, and not her novels, if we did not know from other sources that she was a devout Christian who composed prayers, we might conclude that Miss Mitford’s description of her as a frivolous husband-hunter was not so wide of the mark. Letters are the biographer’s best tool, but even the most candid and spontaneous letters can be misleading, just because they seem to be, but are not, the whole story. It is easy for biographers today to fall into the trap of an anachronistic oubliette-view of their subjects by omitting the religious side of their lives – which may not have been much mentioned in their letters and journals, only because it was taken for granted as ‘the comfort and delight of life’.

A Second Self gives us the picture of a clever, amusing and strong-hearted woman. It would have been still easier to read if it had been divided into chapters or sections, instead of being run on without a break; and the confusing system of triple annotation – footnotes, source notes at the end and biographical who’s who – makes for restless reading, though it also displays an impressive knowledge of the personalities of the age and their interconnections.