A letter written in French in late January 1797, by Augusta (“Mamma”) Smith to her friend Eliza Gosling, had this tidbit of gossip:
“All talk of the death of Lady Rancliffe as sad, & caused by her carelessness; there is surely something that we do not know; have the grace to tell me what caused her death: I hear that she has had some gallantry, & I think with Mr. Matthews. but did she ever leave her husband; we are wholly ignorant of this Chapter.”
Inquiring minds — mine included! — want to know more.
A couple of images of Lady Rancliffe exist – like this 1795 study for a portrait by Hoppner. She was Mrs Parkyns then. And her “biography” is really the only thing I can find. According to the Annual Necrology, Elizabeth Anne James was the only daughter of Sir William James. Her father died on her wedding day! Married to Thomas Boothby Parkyns on 16 Dec 1783. The year of Hoppner’s drawing, 1795, Parkyns was raised to the peerage of Ireland as Baron Rancliffe.
By the time she died, Lady Rancliffe would be written up as “married at 18; has been the mother of nine children in thirteen years, six of which, one son and five daughters, are now living.” Her obituary describes her as, “with every elegrance of person, youth, riches, dignity, and mental accomplishments, in the highest degree refined, and cultivated; matched to a husband, whose worth is equalled only by his benevolence; nothing seemed to have been wanting to complete the happiness of the charming woman whose loss we now deplore.”
So what is the truth?
A happy, charming woman – or a wife on the look-out for other men? What might her “carelessness” have been?
To echo Augusta’s comment, “I am wholly ignorant of this Chapter.”