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Lord Granville Leveson Gower
Private Correspondence, 1781 to 1821

Reviewed By Cheryl Bolen

Lord Granville Leveson Gower (First Earl Granville) Private Correspondence 1781 to 1821,
Vol. I and II
Castalia Countess Granville, editor
London: John Murray, 1916; 1,107 pages

I don't think I've read a single non-fiction book on Regency England that has not cited at least one letter from Granville Leveson Gower's private correspondence.  At least not from a source published after 1916.

For 1916 was the year the Countess Granville gifted us with two volumes of her father-in-law's private letters.  Her father-in-law, Granville Leveson Gower (1773-1846), was said to have been the most handsome man in Regency England. He was the second son (and product of the third marriage) of the wealthy and influential 1st Marquess of Stafford, a Tory who had been Earl Gower. Though Granville served in the House of Commons, as did most noble second sons, his most distinguished service came through the diplomatic corps, his highest post being ambassador to France. All correspondence dealing with his public service was presented to Oxford.

It is the private correspondence that so interests scholars.  Granville's chief correspondent penned the letters that shed so much light onto the most famed people and events of the era.  That correspondent is Harriet, wife of the Earl of Bessborough. Twelve years older than Granville, she was the second daughter of the first Earl Spencer, the sister of Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire, mother of Lady Caroline Lamb. 

And she secretly gave birth to two illegitimate children sired by Granville Leveson Gower.

Granville met Lady Bessborough in Naples in 1794, when he was 20 and she 32. He became immediately drawn to her. Their earliest correspondence reveals that she urged him to accept her merely as a friend, that she can not offer him more. (She had learned harsh lessons about adultery through her sister's recent affair with Charles Grey, which produced an illegitimate child, and through her own scandalous affair with Richard Brinsley Sheridan.) 

Over the next couple of years their friendship turned to passion (though letters of a clearly personal nature were omitted from these volumes). It is clear from the letters that Granville had asked her to write to him every day when they were apart, and she always obliged, even if she were writing in the wee hours of the morning. Her letters are filled with on-dits about the ton and about current events and literature and the theatre.

Interesting facts about the postal service or the astonishingly late hours kept by the ton creep into the posts.

More than six years after they met, she gave birth in secret to their daughter.  This event is never mentioned in the letters.  The child is mentioned but twice.  The first, Lady Bessborough begs Granville to give her a lock of his hair to put in a locket for H. The girl's name was Harriet. The second reference was after Granville had married and brought his illegitimate daughter to live with him (without acknowledging her). Lady Bessborough writes that she knows Harriet is better off.

The son Lady Bessborough bore Granville four years later ten years after their prophetic meeting in Naples is never mentioned in the letters, but those who know the child's birth date can figure out that when Granville left England to be ambassador at Russia, Lady Bessborough was just days away from giving birth.  Though only a few of his letters to her made it into the volumes, there is one wrenching one he wrote on the ship in which he tells her he knows not when he ever experienced a more wrenching parting. Subsequent letters from him express his worry over her.  

Over the twenty-plus years of their correspondence the reader sees how deeply committed Lady Bessborough is to Granville while they also see him pulling away from her. 

He apparently had an affair with Lady Hester Stanhope, Pitt's niece, when Lady Bessborough was pregnant with their son, and in Russia he fell in love with a young princess.  He seemed compelled to let Lady Bessborough know about these affairs.

When he returned from Russia after a lengthy absence (having taken Lady Bessborough's 17-year-old son to serve as his secretary), Granville decided he must marry preferably an heiress.

Lady Bessborough, with a heavy heart, conceded and helped advance his courtship with her niece, the second daughter of her sister, Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire. 

Granville's late 1809 marriage to Lady Harriet Cavendish, nearly 16 years after he had met Lady Bessborough, terminated their love affair.  He confessed everything to Lady Harriet, known as Harry-o, before their marriage and told his prospective wife that he had always shared everything with her aunt, Lady Bessborough, and could never break off that friendship.

They continued to correspond until 1821, the year Lady Bessborough died.  That is the year Countess Granville chose to end Granville's books of correspondence. Clearly, Lady Bessborough had captivated the countess. (Castalia Countess Granville, as her husband's much-younger second wife, had never met her father-in-law, who died before her marriage.) Here is what she wrote about Lady Bessborough in her introduction:

Of a generous, affectionate, and emotional nature, her love for his sister, her children, and her friends was the leading feature of her character. She lived constantly in the midst of social amusements, surrounded by some of the wittiest and cleverest men of the day. It is remarkable how many and how varied were the books she read, and how she found time for the voluminous and entertaining letters she wrote.

About Granville, she wrote:

Like most of those surrounding him, he was a victim to the love of play, and lost very large sums at whist and picquet, for though he was reputed the best whist player of the day, he was never a fortunate one. It is difficult now to realize the strange combination of dissipation and intellectual refinement which characterized society at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries. Drunkenness, looseness of morals and of conversation, were only too common, and gambling for high stakes was the usual amusement of both men and women.

Countess Granville, who spent many years editing and paring down the letters, said that she eliminated deeply personal letters.  She claims that some of Granville's letters to Lady Bessborough, which Lady Bessborough's letters frequently mention as being kept in a cedar box that will be given to Granville upon her death, were returned.

The countess also has surmised that Granville himself, crippled from stroke, must have gone over Lady Bessborough's letters before his death and attempted to assign dates to them.

John Murray publishers must have done well with Granville's letters. My edition is the third printing. Of all the Regency-era diaries and correspondence I've bought, none is more worth the considerable expense than Granville Leveson Gower's.

This article was first published in The Quizzing Glass in May 2008.

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