Philobiblon: Miss Williams Wynn in grand company

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Miss Williams Wynn in grand company

I borrowed a copy of Mistress of the House: Great Ladies and Grand Houses 1670-1830 by Rosemary Baird because I found via an Amazon.com search (one more of the many useful bibliographic tools out there) that it was one of the few books listed containing a reference to my 19th-century "blogger", Frances Williams Wynn.

I can only be in sympathy with its general thesis, that many of the grand country houses of England, Scotland and Wales are primarily the result of their vision and organisational skills, while their husbands - who my limited studies in the area would agree - tended to be usually either away in London on business or politics, or tearing around the hunting field from dawn to dusk. But the men got the credit anyway.

In truth, however, it is one of those studies of aristocratic ladies that I find hard to be in sympathy with. There's a few too many descriptions of grand drawing rooms, and too few descriptions of real lives, to really hold my interest. And the author does seem to have something of a Daily Mail attitude towards the proper behaviour of women. Sarah Jennings, Duchess of Marlborough, as "unattractively aggressive" (p.44) is only one of such descriptions that grate.

But there was the hoped-for bit about the Williams Wynns, in particular Charlotte, Frances's mother:

"When Sir Watkins Williams Wynn died in 1789, he left his widow Charlotte to administer all his estates in Wales during the minority of their eldest son. He had enough confidence in her not to appoint anyone else to the task, whether as administrator, executor, guardian or trustee. His trust was well placed: when, in 19819, Charlotte handed over the finances of her youngest son Henry, not only were they intact, but she was able to tell him from memory and with great precision what he would have, namely 'somehat over £5,700 stock in your 3 per cents, which at £70 per cent (the price they bore the day it was settled) is worth £3,900 & I have a further sum of £71 to be placed in your Account with Coutts.' She also discussed whether he should have the money in exchange bills or stocks." (p. 39)

[The reference supplied is Rachel Leighton (ed) Correspondence of Charlotte Grenville, Lady Willims Wynn & Her Three Sons (1795-1832), John Murray, 1920, a letter of 20 March 1801.)

And I did learn lots of other interesting snippets - the gardens at Kew owe their origins to two royal women, Princess Augusta, the wife of the shortlived Frederick, Prince of Wales (died 1751) and Queen Caroline, her mother-in-law. George III combined them. (p. 48)

And the Gunning sisters, about whom Miss Williams Wynn had much to say, also make an appearance, at a ball in 1757 held by Mary Blount, Duchess of Norfolk (1701-73). "The normally shy Duke appeared particularly relaxed: he danced all evening (it was the custom not to change partners very often) with Lady Coventry, one of the beautiful Gunning sisters. Mrsy Delany commented '... there was at least one happy woman for three or four hours.' The elderly Duke must have been happy too."

I was reminded too of my recent Women Latin Poets review (do please read it if you haven't already - it is a book that deserves to be celebrated and talked about) with Elizabeth Howard, Duchess of Rutland (1780-1825). Baird says: "letters between her and Colonel Frederick Trench, a close family friend, show the COlonel commending her on Latin translations and discussing music with her. In 1819 she accompanied the Duke on another foreign tour, this time to Brussels and the Rhine. By then she was especially interested in cathedrals and churches, commenting on the architecture with assurance in Tournai Cathedral, where she disliked the mixture of Gothic and Grecian, and admiring that at Ghent ... in Brussels she though that John Nash, the great classical architect of the Regency period 'should certainly be sent here, to get some better ideas in his Head, how to improve London'." (p. 243)

I'm listening as I write to Five Live Radio, listening to some bloke mouthing off about women not being interested in science. He obviously hadn't heard of Margaret Portland's "museum". When it was sold off after her death, 30 days were spent, Horace Walpole reported, on selling shells, ores, fossils, birds' eggs and other items of natural history. (p. 60)

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