Correspondence, 1781 to 1821
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
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