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Lady Bessborough and Her Family Circle
Edited by The Earl of Bessborough

Review by Cheryl Bolen

Lady Bessborough and Her Family Circle
Edited by The Earl of Bessborough
in collaboration with A. Aspinall, PhD
John Murray, London, 1940

When Castalia Countess Granville published two volumes of private correspondence of her husband’s father, Granville Leveson Gower, in 1917, a whole new generation — and generations to come — were exposed to the dazzling wit of Lady Bessborough (1761-1821). Her letters to her lover (later the first Lord Granville) are the backbone of the book.

The success of that book prompted Lady Bessborough’s great-great grandson to publish letters that elucidated her relationship with her family. Arthur Aspinall, professor and historian of the late Georgian era, edited the work with helpful background information.

The second of the first Earl Spencer’s three children, Harriet (who would become Lady Bessborough at age 32) was noted for being sister to the infamous Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire; mother to Lady Caroline Lamb; prominent member of Whig society in the late eighteenth century; and lover of Granville Leveson Gower, a man twelve years her junior. She met him in Naples in 1794, and apparently fell madly in love with him, and thus began one of the world’s most loyal correspondences. They corresponded until she died, even after he married her niece, Harry-O, the duchess’s second daughter, in 1809. Harriet once wrote, "I loved him to the point of idolatry." With him, she bore two illegitimate children, whom her niece eventually raised.

While this book does not deny that Harriet gave birth to two illegitimate children with Granville Leveson Gower, it certainly does not elaborate on it. Understandably, her great, great grandson wished to depict her in a positive light, and he was adverse to publishing anything that would cast an unfavorable light on his great, great grandfather, whom Harriet married in 1780 when she was nineteen. Her husband, Frederick Ponsonby, Viscount Duncannon (1758-1844) succeeded his father as Earl Bessborough in 1793.

In a span of seven years, the marriage produced four children: sons John William, Frederick Cavendish, Caroline, and William, who was born in 1778.

Letters to all her children, including those to the boys when they were at Harrow, are included here, along with reams written by her mother, Lady Spencer, who was extremely close to her children and grandchildren. "The happiness of my children," she wrote to Harriet, "I think do not deceive myself in saying, is that on which mine entirely depends."

Current knowledge of medicine indicates Harriet suffered from tuberculous and a stroke when she was thirty, necessitating a sojourn on the continent. She and Caroline stayed away from England for three years, much of the journey accompanied by Lord Duncannon, who during that time became Lord Bessborough. When he was separated from his wife, his letters to her were filled with affection and solicitousness over her health. The last several months of her continental stay she was also joined by her youngest son, Willie. In the warmer climate of Italy, her health was apparently restored.

As her children grew up and married, she evidently enjoyed close relationships with their spouses. Her letters to and regarding her daughters-in-law are filled with affection.

It is obvious from the entries that she had a special relationship with the high-strung Caroline. Indeed, Caroline seems to have adored her mother, writing salutations like, "My own dearest, dearest mama."

The explanatory information states that Harriet’s family was not happy when Caroline chose to wed William Lamb, later to become Lord Melbourne, prime minister under Queen Victoria. Caroline’s cousin, Hartington, who became Duke of Devonshire upon his father’s death in 1809, professed to be in love with her. (He died a bachelor.) Harriet’s brother, who had succeeded their father as Earl Spencer in 1783, had wanted Caroline to marry his son.

Caroline’s many marital infidelities, including that with Lord Byron, are chronicled here, but the mental malady that affected her only child (Augustus Lamb) is not. That is only briefly touched on the pages that deal with Harriet’s death. One of her last sentences was that Caroline be told her attending physician has suffered from "fits" until he became a man; then, they ceased. It is obvious that Harriet thought such knowledge might ease Caroline’s concerns about her son’s fits.

Though there are no explanatory notes about Caroline’s own alleged madness, her final letters reveal her paranoia that others thought her so.

To the modern reader, the letters have interesting information. For example, Lord Bessborough cautions his wife not be alarmed that he’s sealed the letter with black. "I had no red," he explains. From this, the reader can deduce that letters bearing tidings of death were sealed with black.

The letters have some interesting insight into the aftermath at Waterloo. Harriet’s second son, Col. Frederick Ponsonby, was severely wounded in the battle, and she flew to his side.

The sixty years of her life span the regency era, and this book should be a welcome addition to the libraries of regency students.

--This review first appeared in Quizzing Glass in July 2006.


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