“Dear Hammy”: Mary Hamilton & the Bluestocking Circle

September 23, 2012 at 10:51 am (books, diaries, history, news, portraits and paintings, research) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


Some days — after spending all day on the computer at work — I spend all evening on the computer. A research project, such as Smith&Gosling, is exceptionally dependent on FINDING sources. One way is to wait for people to contact me; and I am GRATEFUL for those who have done so. The other way is to search-search-search. Selling sites for letters; library catalogues; published books and their invaluable bibliographies. It was a published book that set me on scent of the letters of young Drummond Smith (Emma’s third brother); the author had cited them and I tracked down the owner. That was four years ago.

So last night I was searching and searching. And somehow turned up the holdings for Mary Hamilton (1756-1816) at the John Rylands University Library.

Mary Hamilton (married in June 1785 to John Dickenson) was a royal governess; friend to Fanny Burney, Joshua Reynolds, the ladies of the Bluestocking circle. How I long to hear more about the content of her sixteen diaries and thousands of letters. Why? Lady Cunliffe (Mary Gosling’s maternal grandmother, who lived until 1814) was in company with many of these same people.

Did Mary Hamilton encounter Lady Cunliffe, her daughters Mary and Eliza?

Although there are internet stories about the sale (via Sotheby’s) and the denial of export to the US (I’m not sure which Library had purchased the archive; I rather suspect the Houghton at Harvard) and the subsequent matching price by John Rylands University Library, I find only veiled hints that scholars are doing research among Mary’s papers, but no hint that there is any plan afoot for the PUBLICATION of her papers. Ah! that would be news! I *love* full printings, big books, multiple volumes. But perhaps that is too much to hope for in this day and age… Especially when academic presses charge so much for the slimmest of books.

Mary Hamilton is being described as a “courtier and diarist” and many headlines call her The Female Pepys! (So doesn’t she deserve the Pepys treatment: to have her full writings published?!)

A quotation writes of Mary’s “keen zest for life, and her intense interest in everything pertaining to it — books, languages, art, travel, politics, people.” Ah! for a Mary Hamilton in my social circle!

Mary was niece to Sir William Hamilton and his wife, Lady Hamilton (the former Emma Hart); she “inadvertently ensnared the heart of the teenage Prince of Wales” while sub-governess to his sisters; and in January 1783 she settled in at 27 Clarges St, off Piccadilly. London, in the 1780s, was the scene for many in the generation prior to Mary and Emma — the grandparent generation, as I often call them.

The biggest “hint” I have about Lady Cunliffe’s social movements is the book Sir Joshua Reynolds: A Complete Catalogue of His Paintings (Yale 2000). David Mannings has taken note of Sir Joshua’s notebooks: “Lady Cunliffe’s name appears almost every year in Reynolds Pocket Books 1777-89 [yes, I AM assuming this is the correct Lady Cunliffe, and not one of her relatives], usually at eight or nine o’clock, apparently in the evening, on one occasion with a note: ‘Cards & supper.’ Sometimes she arrives with Mrs Vesey, Mrs Shipley or Mrs Boscowen and it is clear these are social calls.” [p156]

I do have evidence that she and the girls knew Sir Joshua, and had run into James Boswell — a letter exists between the two men!

There are sixteen diaries (beginning mid-1776 to 1797; not fully consecutive; the bulk covers 1784); thousands of letters; other manuscripts.

It is in the letters from the Royal Princesses that we see Mary Hamilton addressed as “Dear Hammy”. Those “love letters” from the Prince of Wales are also extant. How exciting! Mary Hamilton also has ties to another Mary: Mary Delany, of The Paper Garden fame! Small-small world.

Vanessa Thorpe, in a 2006 article in The Observer, wrote:

“Fortunately when Hamilton began writing her diary she followed the good advice of her friend Lady Charlotte Finch, the head royal governess, who urged: ‘In your journal pray do not forget particulars about yourself.’ As a result her entries give ‘a remarkably complete picture of the day-to-day lives and preoccupations of fashionable and cultivated 18th-century Londoners,’ said the Museum, Libraries and Archives Council’s government adviser, Dr Harris. Especially interesting to social historians is an unpublished 10-page entry detailing a theft in Hamilton’s household and a quarrel between two servants.”

There is SO MUCH here, that I can only skim the surface in a short blog post. I will end with a BBC radio interview (a short listen: only nine minutes), discussing the importance of the Mary Hamilton Papers.

Is THIS the face of Mary Hamilton?

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