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Virginia Woolf’s collections of essays, The Common Reader, The Death of the Moth and so on, reward those looking for interesting interstices within English literature. In the latter, in an essay entitled ‘Reflections at Sheffield Place’, I first met John Holroyd, 1st Lord Sheffield, and his daughter Maria Josepha, and found out about their friendship with Edward Gibbon. I then discovered that two volumes of letters by Maria Josepha and her family had appeared in the 1890s and that two more came out in the 1930s, edited by Nancy Mitford. Intrigued, I tracked them down and entered another world.

Lord Sheffield got his title for his heroics during the Gordon Riots in 1780, seizing hold of Lord George Gordon when he arrived outside Parliament at the head of his Protestant mob and promising to run him through if any of them entered the building. Later, leading a regiment of Militia, he defended the Bank of England when the mob attacked it. This was his high point: his brother-in-law, Lord Glenbervie, while recognizing his ‘frankness and good nature’, also remarked on his ‘over-weening vanity’ and how he mistook his ‘very active, bustling temper and turn of mind . . . for genius’.

Virginia Woolf saw Gibbon’s friendship with him as a case of the attraction of opposites, begun when they first met in Lausanne in the 1760s while Sheffield was on a Grand Tour. Besides, the Holroyds were a family on whose bosom Gibbon could recline in great comfort during his visits to England, while his host brought him up to date on politics and other developments. The Holroyds were proud of the friendship of this literary colossus and grateful for the huge improvement to the conversation when he was in their midst, though Maria Josepha also remarked on ‘the Gib’s’ requirement to hold the floor, that he was ‘a mortal enemy to anyone taking a walk’, and that he insisted on a roaring fire every evening. He for his part saw how very in

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Virginia Woolf’s collections of essays, The Common Reader, The Death of the Moth and so on, reward those looking for interesting interstices within English literature. In the latter, in an essay entitled ‘Reflections at Sheffield Place’, I first met John Holroyd, 1st Lord Sheffield, and his daughter Maria Josepha, and found out about their friendship with Edward Gibbon. I then discovered that two volumes of letters by Maria Josepha and her family had appeared in the 1890s and that two more came out in the 1930s, edited by Nancy Mitford. Intrigued, I tracked them down and entered another world.

Lord Sheffield got his title for his heroics during the Gordon Riots in 1780, seizing hold of Lord George Gordon when he arrived outside Parliament at the head of his Protestant mob and promising to run him through if any of them entered the building. Later, leading a regiment of Militia, he defended the Bank of England when the mob attacked it. This was his high point: his brother-in-law, Lord Glenbervie, while recognizing his ‘frankness and good nature’, also remarked on his ‘over-weening vanity’ and how he mistook his ‘very active, bustling temper and turn of mind . . . for genius’. Virginia Woolf saw Gibbon’s friendship with him as a case of the attraction of opposites, begun when they first met in Lausanne in the 1760s while Sheffield was on a Grand Tour. Besides, the Holroyds were a family on whose bosom Gibbon could recline in great comfort during his visits to England, while his host brought him up to date on politics and other developments. The Holroyds were proud of the friendship of this literary colossus and grateful for the huge improvement to the conversation when he was in their midst, though Maria Josepha also remarked on ‘the Gib’s’ requirement to hold the floor, that he was ‘a mortal enemy to anyone taking a walk’, and that he insisted on a roaring fire every evening. He for his part saw how very intelligent she was, though too inclined not to suffer fools: ‘Restrain some sallies of imagination, soften some energies of character,’ he told her. Her father reminisced how ‘Gibbon used to regret she was not a boy, saying she would maintain a contest well with Charles James Fox.’ In 1786, when she was 15, Maria described her daily routine to her aunt in Bath:
Get up at 8, I walk from 9 to 10; we then breakfast; about 11 I play on the harpsichord or draw. 1, I translate, and 2 walk out again. 3, I generally read, and 4, we go in to dine. After dinner we play at backgammon; we drink tea at 7, and I work or play on the piano till 10, when we have our little bit of supper, and 11 we go to bed.
It sounds like a humdrum round such as might have been found in many country houses and rectories. But then one has to remember Gibbon’s judgement on the quality of her letters at this time, with their ‘mixture of just observation and lively imagery, the strong sense of a man expressed with the easy elegance of a female’. In 1789 Maria ‘came out’ into London society, but the following year a letter to her in Sussex from her father at his Downing Street house shows she was used to acting as his farm manager: ‘Tell Fletcher while the roads are cool to send the oxen every second day from Stone to Forest Row; but that he should forward the cabbages and turnips as much as possible.’ In 1791 the Sheffield family went on a Continental tour, by chance arriving in Paris just as the King and Queen were brought back after their attempt to escape from France. There they witnessed the debates over whether the King should be put on trial, as well as the bizarre ceremony of the Apotheosis of Voltaire, who had been appropriated by the Revolution as its leading rational patron saint. Maria said, ‘I could never have imagined such a piece of folly’, describing the floats making up the procession, such as ‘a plan and model of the Bastille; pieces of the Bastille, cut into the form of and painted to look like books, and old pieces of armour and cannon balls, which were found in the Bastille when it was taken and destroyed’. Once Britain went to war with France in 1793, Sheffield Place became a refuge for French exiles, while on the Sussex Downs facing the Channel a series of military encampments were established in case of invasion. Among the soldiery were the Cheshire Militia and among its officers was John Thomas Stanley of Alderley, son and heir of a baronet and six years older than Maria. While she read Mary Wollstonecraft’s ‘many sensible and just observations’ in her Vindication and tried to relieve some of the miseries of the poor when ‘cottage visiting’, Stanley became an increasing preoccupation, together with her duties as unofficial literary executor to Edward Gibbon. The historian died in 1794, leaving behind what were obviously the makings of an autobiography, and there seems every likelihood that it was Maria rather than her father whose editing enabled this classic to emerge. Stanley, whom she was to marry in 1796, had been taken out of school early to travel on the Continent with a tutor, in Neufchâtel getting to know Jane Austen’s brother, Edward Knight, before mounting an expedition to Iceland in his own ship in 1789. Thereafter he was content to be the only Whig among the Cheshire gentry. Maria’s first daughter was born in 1797, to be followed with great regularity by another seven, punctuated by twin boys in 1802. Her last baby came in 1813 but she, like another boy, did not survive into adulthood. There was nothing out of the ordinary either in such a number or in the mortalities – her daughter-in-law Henrietta Maria had twelve children of whom three died as infants. An exchange of letters with her husband Edward Stanley in 1847 seems to indicate that Henrietta tried to practise some form of contraception. When she reported that she was pregnant, he replied, ‘What can you have been doing to account for so juvenile a proceeding?’ She replied, ‘A hot bath, a tremendous walk and a great dose have succeeded, but it is a warning.’ The following year Maria Josepha is writing to her daughter-in-law about acquaintances intending ‘to be delivered without knowing it’, that is with the assistance of chloroform, soon to become quite acceptable after Queen Victoria took advantage of it. Anaesthetics were one of the few medical advances of these years. Maria Josepha had a leg wound ‘enlivened’ with caustic, while it was hoped that the new terrifying cholera could be defeated with opium pills and black pepper. As for visits to the dentist – they do not bear thinking about. The one procedure that was really successful was being ‘cowpocked’ against smallpox; Maria reported in 1802, ‘I have had 36 children of all ages inoculated in Alderley, and all doing well.’ The Stanleys’ world was one of privilege: they knew their place in the hierarchy and were content with it, since it was very near the top. They could enjoy it with the aid of numerous servants, and the new labouring masses of the north-west seldom impinged. But in January 1803 a grand dinner and entertainment, laid on for the local gentry, tenants and tradesmen to celebrate the birth of the boy twins, had to end early when ‘a mob comprised of all the cotton devils in the neighbourhood began to be clamorous to get in’. They were promised two barrels of beer for themselves and diverted to a nearby bonfire and fireworks display. In 1842, at the height of the Chartist disturbances when detachments of troops and artillery had to be sent north,
the weavers go about in parties from 7 to 17 levying blackmail. The 250 who have come to our door this morning in detachments have had a small piece of bread and cheese and one horn of diluted beer, each, with which they have appeared quite satisfied . . . They professed themselves the Turned Out and not the Turnouts and all said they dare not work till the week was passed but I guess there were a few Chartists among them.
In 1843 Maria greatly enjoyed being able at no notice to go from Manchester to York to view the Minster thanks to the railway, but within weeks the family was up in arms over attempts by railway directors to get them to allow more public access to Alderley Edge. Maria remarked that the ‘cottontots’, meaning the mill owners and managers, ‘are much more annoying to one’s comfort and enjoyment than operatives as one can neither hand cuff nor great dog them if they are intrusive or offensive’. There is no mistaking Maria’s Whiggery for radicalism, though she did have a soft spot for Napoleon. In March 1815 she wondered whether ‘the Pope, and the Inquisition and Ferdinand, and fat Louis and his priests, and all the prejudices and bigotry of the ancient regime, which were fast returning to stultify the Continent, would be better for mankind in general than the established firm government of Napoleon’, who had escaped from Elba in February. Her hatred of Catholicism was matched by her dislike for the over-emotional approach increasingly to be found in the Church of England as a result of the Evangelical Revival. When a Stanley niece, whose father was the Bishop of Norwich, fell badly ill, Maria complained to Henrietta Maria: ‘I want to hear more of the Dear Child’s bodily state and less of her mental or spiritual . . . I really think you have all lost your wits – have gone into the seventh heaven of enthusiasm and forgot everything sublunary.’ The tone is unmistakeably rational and Georgian, and tart too, but she could laugh at herself. When the men lingered too long over the port, she curtly demanded to know what they’d been talking about but was amused when told: ‘first about the depression in the [local] salt mines, and that led us inadvertently to pepper, and that led us to cayenne, and that, my lady, led us . . . to yourself’. She must have been daunting as a mother-in-law, for example writing to Henrietta in 1844, ‘I wish I could explain to your clear understanding, that I am more annoyed sometimes by your own anxiety to keep the boys quiet . . . than by anything they can do.’ But in 1845 Henrietta showed her own mettle: ‘I am very glad Alice [her eldest daughter] has given satisfaction, tho’ the information would have been more pleasant to me if unaccompanied by strictures on my possible conduct.’ The character traits of the mother and grandmother were present in Blanche, another of Henrietta’s daughters. In 1851 Henrietta observed of her daughter’s wooing: ‘I do not know why he does not settle it . . . Blanche gets impatient and the more she is so the brusquer is her manner so that I really don’t wonder a poor man cannot begin with sentiment.’ Nancy Mitford remembered being taken, aged 4, to see Blanche, Countess of Airlie, her great-grandmother, and her reprimand when it emerged that she did not yet speak French: ‘There is nothing so inferior as a gentlewoman who has no French.’ Maria’s pugnacity did not fade with age. In 1853 in the preliminaries to the Crimean War she said, ‘I would like to hear that the Russian fleet is annihilated on the Black Sea.’ Even in 1862, the year before she died, when Britain was preparing against the possibility of being drawn into the American Civil War on the side of the Southern states, she wrote, ‘I could be sorry that such preparations should not be used for giving those wretches a good drubbing & when I look at the map, I DO covet Maine so much.’

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 75 © Roger Hudson 2022


About the contributor

Roger Hudson’s An Englishman’s Commonplace Book was published by Slightly Foxed at the end of 2020. For those who would like to read more about the letters and the family, Roger has supplied an appendix. Please click here to read the appendix.

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