Maria, Lady Northampton — sister-in-law to Lady Frances Compton (see my last two posts) — kept up a healthy correspondence with her family back at Erle Stoke Park, Wiltshire; letters to her sister Augusta have been preserved, and in them Lady Northampton makes frequent mention of the Militia, and also the general fear of invasion by French troops.
These same rumors and feelings run strong in the letters of Mrs Lefroy, Jane Austen’s dear friend and the wife of the rector at Ashe. Mrs Lefroy was known to the Smiths of Erle Stoke Park; Sarah Smith, mother of Eliza Chute and Lady Northampton, wrote to Eliza, asking her to query Mrs. Lefroy about her ‘straw manufactory’ in early 1797.
In reviewing Lord Northampton’s chapter in the book A History of the Comptons of Compton Wynyates, there is much quoted from the 1790s letters of Lady Northampton to Augusta Smith (yeah!), at the time in the possession of Mr Scrase Dickins.
In the Spring of 1796, Maria could write of her blooming flower-garden; it is suspected that she painted flowers during this period. Works by the sisters of Earl Stoke Park (and their teacher, Miss Margaret Meen) are at the Royal Horticultural Society; type margaret meen into the search box. These particular flower paintings predominantly date from the 1780s.
Maria quipped that in spending the spring at Castle Ashby she was “rusticating in the country” while sister Augusta (and probably sisters Eliza and Emma as well) were “enjoying the town diversions.” As the winter months of 1796 descend, we begin to see mentions of the Militia – but Maria also comments, asking her sister, “What think you of the Memorial about peace; I fear it is very distant, and I fear much we shall be invaded.” Reading the quotes included in the book, it is an extremely TENSE time; mobs, rioting, troops quartered. Towards the end of one letter Maria could say, “one of our carpenters was the principal person at the riot at Yardley, and is of course no longer employed here.”
There exists also (in a private collection) a chatty letter from Eliza Chute to Augusta Smith, who is still feeling the effects of a fall, probably from a horse; a gossipy letter, written in French by ‘Auguste’ also comes from the early period of 1797. It seems as if the sisters are trying to buoy flagging spirits. Then more “news”: of a failed French invasion at Pembroke; banks stopping payments of gold. Amid all the fears and frivolity, Eliza Chute meets the new Mrs James Austen (Mary Lloyd): “she is perfectly unaffected, and very pleasant; I like her.” The Austens’ would hear soon of the death of Cassandra Austen‘s fiancé Tom Fowle; and sister Jane Austen would put the final touches on her manuscript, “First Impressions.” Life, never on hold because of war and civil unrest, going on…