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Journal of Elizabeth, Lady Holland

Review by Cheryl Bolen

Journal of Elizabeth, Lady Holland
Earl of Ilchester, Editor
London, 1908

What a stupendous find! The first volume of Lady Holland’s journal is available in its entirety (279 pages) on the internet.

The journal begins when she left England to travel on the continent in June 1791. At age twenty, she had already been married for five years to Sir Godfrey Webster, a man more than twenty years her senior. One wonders why she contracted so disadvantageous a marriage when she was the cherished only child of an immensely wealthy owner of several Jamaican sugar plantations. The only time her early journal deviates from being a mere travelogue is to swipe digs at "the man I had the calamity to be united." She clearly loathes Sir Godfrey, and at one point in her early journal, it is obvious she is contemplating suicide.

In Naples in 1794 she met her second husband, Lord Holland, who was two years and eight months younger than she. There is no hint in the journal that she is falling in love with Holland, whom she finds "delightful." (She was not the only one to find him so; throughout his life people loved him for his affable personality.) She and her friend Lady Bessborough dubbed him Sal Volatile, after the medicinal tonic, for the pleasant effect he had upon his companions. Previously, she had been quick to point out her instances of repelling other men’s advances and her aversion to the rampant adultery which marked her class. Yet, at every Italian village she visits, Lord Holland is at her side – this despite that she was heavily pregnant! They seem to have become inseparable.

We know from other sources that the following year she refused to return to England with Sir Godfrey; however, we don’t read about the marital separation until 1797, following a year-long gap in the journals. Here is what she writes:

My wretched marriage was annulled by Parliament on 4th July [1797]. On the fifth I signed a deed by which I made over my whole fortune to Sir. G.W., for our joint lives...Every mean device, every paltry chicane that could extort money from us was had to recourse to. I was married at Richmansworth Church by Rev. Mr. Morris to Lord Holland, on July 6th, 1797. ..

Her father had died in 1795, leaving her exceedingly rich, with £10,000 annually, but to free herself from her husband she had to relinquish it – and their three children.

In 1799, she confesses that she faked her baby daughter’s death so that she would not have to turn the little girl over to Sir Godfrey: "When I left Florence in ’96 my situation was such that a final separation with Sir G.W. was inevitable as soon as I returned to England. The certainty of losing all my children was agonizing, and I resolved to keep one in my possession, and I chose that one who, from her age [the youngest, at age two] and sex, required the tenderness of a mother." In 1799, she had to return the baby to its father. Women in Regency England – especially divorced women – had no say in the custody of their children. (It must have been a fortunate occurrence for Lady Holland when Sir Godfrey committed suicide the following year.)

The year before she married Lord Holland, she gave birth to the first of the five children she and her new husband would have together, but this birth falls in the year she ceased to make journal entries.

Despite the stigma of divorce, the new Lady Holland (heretofore disinterested in England) settles at London’s Holland House and becomes one of the great Whig hostesses. Night after night the great Parliamentarians of the day assembled around their dinner table. Lord Holland resembled his uncle, the famed Parliamentarian Charles James Fox, not only in appearance but also in political inclinations.

The journal is an excellent source for information on traveling on the continent during the Regency, and it also provides gossipy tidbits about the era’s most notable notables.

This review first appeared in The Quizzing Glass in May 2007.  

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