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selection, which covers both tours, Elizabeth Mavor has gone back to the original transcripts, included some hitherto unpublished material, and provided the historical context.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.

Once settled in Paris, at the Hotel de Rome in the Faubourg St Germain, the noble party was showered with invitations and engaged in a social whirl, for all that Lady Mount Cashell was pregnant with her seventh child. There was a ball at Mme de Soubrian’s (a general’s wife whose earrings were cameos of Greek philosophers), where for the first time they watched the Waltz. There was a party at the American Ambassador’s where Katherine was handed into dinner by Talleyrand, who disgusted her by his greed and grossness. ‘For the length of two hours, his mouth was never closed, and even at the intervals of plate changing he fill’d up crevices by demolishing a dish of raw artichokes.’ There was a reception at the Tuileries with Bonaparte, who instantly won Katherine over with his charming smile and ‘his air, tho’ reserv’d, announcing everything of the polish’d gentleman’. Yet she had her reservations: ‘never was a court more manacled by the observances of etiquette.’

On less grand occasions they met the painter David, an Englishman who had befriended Charlotte Corday at her trial, and Charles James Fox – ‘rather lourd and maladroit’. With the help of a young American, Margaret and Katherine visited Tom Paine, ‘up half a dozen flights of stairs, in a remote part of the town’, and found him making models and playing with his two adopted boys. When Lord Mount Cashell (who is all but banished from the journals) went off to Orleans, the two women, escorted by some gentlemen, went ‘vagabondizing on the boulevards, and poking our noses into every haunt of the lower order of people. We have been in cabarets, cafés, “theatres” where you pay a few sous for entrance, in the midst of dancing dogs, conjurers, wild beasts, puppet shews, charlatans, gangues [gangs], and in short every resort where the manners of the people cou’d be characteriz’d, and I protest for the motto of the meanest place, you may put “Elegant Decorum”.’ And all this gadding only five weeks after Margaret, with her new baby, had ‘added a citoyen to the French Republick’.

Much as she enjoyed the months in Paris, Katherine was all agog for the next stage, to Italy. For all its discomforts, she loved the excitement of travel: ‘there is something ridiculously exhilarating in the cracking of the postillions’ whip, as they announce themselves to each town and village.’ So on to Lyons, Avignon, and Nimes, where the children were left behind with a tutor and governess, while Katherine and the Mount Cashells (with new baby and nurse) took the road to Italy through the Savoy Alps and over the Mont Cenis. Here Katherine did for once lapse into romantic correctness: ‘I never shall forget the necromantic beauty of one spot where I should have liked to spend my life. A cave, over which the rock had form’d itself into a gothic castle and mouldering fortifications lost in the shadowings of pine, and symphoniz’d by the music of the waters’ – and on and on, with rivulets dimpling through beds of moss and larches feathering among the coloured clouds, ‘the spot where my spirit wou’d fain have dwelt’, till the sight of a grim jaw-bone in a church brought her down from her high romantic horse. Better to be arriving at a decent inn than to spend one’s life in a damp cave. Later, in the Appenines, there was a night of real horror, as if they had walked into a Salvator Rosa picture: bandits lurked round their squalid inn, they slept on the floor under their greatcoats, and had to make a dawn escape. This was not romantic.

At Florence they met the Countess of Albany, widow of Prince Charles Edward, and Count Alfieri, ‘the Shakespeare of Italy’. In Naples they were welcomed in the highest circles and Katherine found much material for her mocking pen: the royal family ‘cramming like dragons’, the Prince dancing ‘like a cow cantering’, the Queen, ‘a sturdy-looking dame’ trotting about ‘as if she was crying “tooky, tooky, tooky!” after her poultry’. Much more to Katherine’s taste was a trip up Vesuvius where she and an American lady insisted on following the gentlemen into the crater, ‘obliged to totter round the edge of the gulph on this crumbly cindery soil’.

In Rome they toured palaces, churches and galleries and saw so much sculpture that Katherine fancied herself turned into stone. Again the Mount Cashell party had the entrée to celebrities: the painter Angelica Kaufmann; the infamous Lord Bristol, Bishop of Derry, whose mistresses and profane talk made the English colony shun him; Henry Cardinal, Duke of York, brother to Charles Edward, at 78 ‘still uncommonly handsome, with the freshness of youth in his cheeks’; and finally the Pope, whose toe Margaret and Katherine were all agog to kiss, when he ‘by a motion of his hand dispensed us from the tribute’. They talked for an hour and as they departed through the gardens ‘the Pope very gallantly pull’d a hyacinth and gave it to Lady Mount Cashell’.

On their return north in the spring of 1803, calamity struck. Margaret and the baby were taken ill in Florence, war broke out again between Britain and France, and there were anguished discussions in the English colony about how to get home. ‘Ransoms were speculated upon – chains and dungeons glanced at – gentlemen went off in disguise at the peril of their lives – ladies fainted – the Duchess of Cumberland flew to the Pope’s dominions ...’ The Mount Cashells decided to go back to Rome; Katherine found her way home via Venice, Vienna, Germany and Denmark. She bitterly felt her parting from Margaret (whom she was never to see again): ‘Two years uninterrupted happiness in her society was obliterated by the anguish of separation.’ In her journals, Katherine is reticent about this friendship between herself, petite and pretty, and the tall, brawny Countess; there is no open doting as with the Llangollen ladies. What is clear is that the two found each other more congenial, better company, more fun to be with than anybody else, of either sex.

While Katherine was still in Paris with the Mount Cashells, her sister Matty was on a visit, arranged by a friend of the family, to the Princess Dashkov. This remarkable lady had, at the age of 19, ridden with the young Catherine (both in officers’ uniforms) at the head of the Army that deposed Tsar Peter and made Catherine Empress. On a tour of Europe she had met Voltaire and Diderot, and been acclaimed as an intellectual and liberator. Back in St Petersburg, she was appointed by the Empress as the first Director of the Russian Academy of Science. By the time Matty Wilmot joined her, she was in her sixties and living mainly on her country estate not far from Moscow. In 1805 the Wilmot parents decided to send Katherine to bring her sister home, and on 6 August she arrived by sea at St Petersburg and stayed there a fortnight. It was the Russia of War and Peace – brilliant society in the capital, feudal country estates, and Napoleon imminent. Katherine even met General Kutuzov, ‘a most respectable old gentleman’ – for thanks to the Princess Dashkov she was invited to the most glittering receptions. Eight days on the road brought her and her maid Eleanor to Moscow. She was greatly moved to see Matty again – and overwhelmed by the Princess. In Moscow, the lady was regal, ‘in full Star and Garter’; on her estate it was ‘an old brown great coat ... worn to rags is her dress’. ‘She helps the masons to build walls, she assists with her own hands in making the roads, she feeds the cows, she composes music, she sings and plays, she writes for the press, she shells the corn, she talks out loud in church and corrects the priest if he is not devout ... she is a doctor, an apothecary, a surgeon, a farrier, a carpenter, a magistrate, a lawyer ...’ No wonder Katherine suspected her of having supernatural powers.

With such a benevolent monster to write about, Katherine (or her editor) does not have so much time in her journals for minor characters. She sounds less high-spirited than when she was with the Mount Cashells. She didn’t care for the enormous meals of rich food, and she was worried about the Princess’s suffocating affection for Matty, her ‘Angel Child’, whom she treated as a favourite daughter, loath to let her go back home. But if Katherine’s journals become a trifle duller, there is compensation in the lively letters included here from her maid Eleanor Cavanagh, who like her mistress was busy writing home to Ireland. She had her prejudices – ‘wou’dn’t it be enough to turn one’s heart into a curd fairly to hear them say Da instead of Yes and Niet instead of No’ – but she knew how to wonder and enjoy. She found St Petersburg beautiful – ‘Cork is a flay to it’ – though she was startled by seeing ‘a giant of a man on the back of a dragin of a horse’ till she was told he was but a ‘Marble Emperor! Some old snake of a man that they call Peter.’ In Moscow, life below stairs went merrily, with suppers of ‘fish and nice hashes and pies and grapes and apples and water melon’; and with the other maids (who never wore caps) there was an outing to the playhouse: ‘There was a dragon! and kings! and birds! and a witch! and loads of music! and flames, and ladies and gentlemen in gold and diamonds dancing, not on the ground at all hardly, and the beautiful noise! and smoke! and plenty of pleasure of all kinds!’ The Princess (‘the pleasantest Lady I ever seen in or out of Ireland’) presented her with a purse of roubles and a purple shawl, Matty gave her ‘the beautifulest cloak that hands ever made’. ‘Russia! and good luck to you, you are a comical place!’ is her response to these and other marvels, ‘and you’ll give me something to talk of many a long day.’

Travellers during these years seem often to have regarded war on the Continent as inconvenience rather than disaster: no reason everything should grind to a halt because dynasties were in conflict. Katherine philosophically endured many inconveniences on her journey home in 1807 (with Eleanor, but sadly without Matty), for not long before she set out the Treaty of Tilsit had aligned France and Russia against Britain. There was anti-British feeling in St Petersburg and she had difficulty in getting her passport. When their ship neared Denmark they found the Royal Navy besieging Copenhagen, and they had to hang about waiting for a convoy to take them across the North Sea. For once, Katherine was bored: ‘When I say I have walked the deck, wrote, laugh’d at die cook ... help’d to make the pudding, read and slept, I have nothing more to record.’

In a Postscript, Elizabeth Mavor tells us that Matty did come home the following year; that the Princess did not long survive her Angel Child’s departure; that Katherine, finding the Irish climate unendurable, settled in France and died of tuberculosis, aged 51. Lady Mount Cashell abandoned her husband and children for an Irish lover she met in Rome, settled in Pisa under the name of Mrs Mason, made friends with the Shelleys and could air her republican views in the company of the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, the governess who had inspired her long ago in Ireland.

The three ladies – Margaret Mount Cashell, Katherine Wilmot, the Princess Dashkov – had enormous advantages of birth and money, and they used their advantages to strike out beyond the boundaries of wealth and class, to stretch the limits of what women were expected to do or be. Visiting Tom Paine, vagabondising in cabarets and cafés, helping masons to build a wall, making a pudding with the ship’s cook, were hardly the actions of feminist crusaders, but they speak of the firm determination of each to be her own woman. I admire them all, but I wann even more to the lady’s maid, the spunky girl from County Cork, so ready to grasp enjoyment, to greet the unfamiliar with a cheer. We hear nothing of her later life, but I hope that she made a happy marriage and had children to whom she passed on her sense of fun and zest for life.