The Brilliant Vortex: Revealing the Regency, 1812-1821

May 31, 2018 at 3:35 pm (books, diaries, history, news, people, research, World of Two Teens) (, , , , , )


Charles Brockden Brown’s 1806 quote, “If it were possible to read the history of those who are doomed to have no historian, and to glance into domestic journals….” condenses into a single thought my entire project. Two diarists, Mary Gosling (1800-1842) and Emma Smith (1801-1876), have left a vast array of journals and letters, which have hitherto remained unused by historians except for information on Jane Austen (Emma married Austen’s nephew James Edward Austen in 1829). A large deposit of material resides at the Hampshire Record Office (Winchester, England) due to this familial relationship.

Films have made Jane Austen’s six novels beloved by a vast readership. Readers interested in English history, the Regency period, Cultural history, Women’s history, as well as Austen’s work and life are my target audience for the biography under research. The Brilliant Vortex: Revealing the Regency in Letters and Diaries of Two Teens in the Time of Austen, 1812-1821 uses the lives of these two diarists to discuss English gentry life during the Regency. The milieu of Jane Austen’s novels is but one aspect of this project.

elizabeth and darcy

Darcy & Elizabeth’s wedding

The Brilliant Vortex references the “London Season” and its influence in the lives of the future Lady Smith and Emma Austen, next-door-neighbors in a desirable London neighborhood. Based on manuscript sources, the book opens (“prelude”) with the assassination of Prime Minister Spencer Perceval. Newly-discovered letters indicate that Emma Smith’s cousin, Lady Elizabeth Compton, resided in the Perceval household at the time. Mary Gosling’s family is introduced (“Chapter I”) amid a journey to Oxford in June 1814, during celebrations for the Allied Sovereigns following the cessation of hostiles; Emma Smith’s family is introduced (“Chapter II”) at the time of her father’s death (May 1814).

The framework provided by diaries and letters guides our exploration of an extended, well-documented landed gentry family. Not a traditional cradle-to-grave biography, the families’ tentacular reach – into politics, commerce, war, even stretched into the royal family; as well, group interests in art, literature, music, theater, travel expand the picture beyond notions of daily sameness.

Eliza-Chute-letters

Letters, written 1796, from Eliza Chute of “The Vine” (in Hampshire)

Extrapolation and in-depth interpretation permits an overall picture of society at this crucial period in English history. The Smiths and Goslings esteemed cutting edge technology, patronized leading lights of industry and the arts, and geography placed them front-and-center in a London rife with unrest. For them, the Regency period brought years of tribulation, scandal, and personal growth, amid a large family unit.

A brief chronology of the times and the lives of the Smiths and Goslings:

1815: Removing from their respective country estates Suttons and Roehampton Grove, the Smiths and Goslings arrive for the Season (February-May) at their London residences, No. 6 and No. 5 Portland Place, bringing the families into near-daily interaction. Emma begins master-led lessons in music, painting and drawing, and Italian language. She attends Covent Garden and Drury Lane; actors seen include Miss O’Neill and Mr. Kean. A week of riots at the House of Commons due to the Corn Bill ensues in February. Emma notes the shifting impressions and rumors surrounding Bonaparte’s escape from Elba. News of the Battle of Waterloo filters to them on June 21st. In an extended essay, she describes the arrival at Castle Ashby of newlyweds Lord and Lady Compton (who had married in Edinburgh); the Scottish bride had been a ward of writer Walter Scott. Once back at Suttons, the farming season draws attention. Family visitors replace the balls, concerts, plays, and gallery visits prevalent during their London stay. The end of the year sees an extensive round of visits – shifts from estate to estate – taking place.

1816: No sooner does the family celebrate the national Thanksgiving for Peace (January 19) then they go into mourning for Mrs. Smith’s seventy-five-year-old uncle (Mr. Gosling’s former brother-in-law) Sir Drummond Smith, baronet. Emma’s eldest brother Charles inherits his title. February sees the joint debuts of Augusta Smith and Elizabeth Gosling. The first Colebrooke enters their circle; Henry Thomas Colebrooke is the youngest son of Lady Colebrooke, the half-sister of Emma’s late maternal grandmother. These Colebrooke relatives are entangled in a series of court cases which will last decades; in the opening gambit, Mrs. Taaffe, the estranged mother of Belinda and Harriet Colebrooke, institutes a petition to regain custody. Another relation, Ann Rachel Hicks, is disinherited by uncles William and Thomas Chute (two childless brothers, successive owners of The Vyne) after eloping with an Irish baronet whom she had met in Cheltenham. On their European honeymoon, her bridegroom runs off with her maid! Mrs. Smith falls ill with erysipelas, and is laid up six months. Among doctors in attendance: Farquhar, Astley Cooper, and Baillie, which introduces concepts of contemporary medical science.

Austen_Emma

Emma Smith (1820s)

1817: A notation that “Grandpapa [Joshua Smith] was in good health at the age of 84” opens the year. Emma mentions the tumult occurring when the Prince Regent attends the House in late January. Sixteen-year-old Charles Joshua Smith returns to his studies; and eighteen-year-old Augusta is presented to the Queen at the February 20th Drawing Room. In company with Mrs. Gosling, Fanny and Augusta Smith see Kean as Othello, but they encounter riotous spectators due to the non-appearance of the actor Booth. Mrs. Gosling’s ball & supper ends a day of dancing – and makes the papers (as they always do), having attracted more than three hundred “fashionables.” In the midst of the season, Queen Charlotte is taken ill. Caroline Wiggett, adopted “niece” of the Chutes of The Vyne and of an age with Augusta Smith, seems to enjoy less of the season than any of the Smith children. The Smiths meet children of the Duke of Clarence and Mrs. Jordan. Mary Gosling tours the Brighton Pavilion (“magnificently furnished”); a new building scheme has been embarked upon. News comes in about the latest election. The Colebrooke court case heats up after the two girls, Belinda and Harriet, visited England and were barred from returning to Scotland by the Lord Chancellor. The latest attempt by Mrs. Taaffe to gain access to her two daughters is a thwarted kidnapping on a lonely stretch of heath. The estranged mother will be brought into court. Days after seeing the Queen pass through Devizes en route to Bath, news comes about the confinement – and death – of the Princess Charlotte and her child. Emma refers to her as “the much lamented Princess.”

1818: With London shrouded in fog, gossip floats around the city that Sir Richard Croft, Princess Charlotte’s accoucheur, has shot himself. “Some strange ideas” are cropping up about the Duke of Devonshire: that the 5th Duke’s son and heir was the product of his liaison with Lady Elizabeth Foster. Matrimonial shenanigans regarding the Duke of Clarence dribble through the gutter press. The “present blessed mode of Husband-hunting” is blamed for the false-report of a marriage for Lady Elizabeth Compton. Excessively-high winds play havoc with London houses – two deaths resulting. Emma and a large family party visit ships about to embark on a voyage to North America and the North Pole. They are escorted by Lieutenant William Edward Parry, the explorer. Spencer Smith leaves prep school to begin at Harrow, but the start of the term is put off on account of Dr. Butler’s marriage. Schoolboy rebellion at Winchester College ends in the expulsion of Caroline Wiggett’s brother. When news of the death of Queen Charlotte reaches the populace, Emma and the Goslings overnight in Windsor to witness her funeral procession.

1819: The Chigwell Ball becomes the first public ball Emma ever attends. Bennett Gosling has taken rooms at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in order to finish his law studies. Reports surface of Grandpapa’s deteriorating health. Joshua Smith, long-standing Member of Parliament for Devizes, dies at Stoke Park on 20 March. Miss Ramsay’s illness prompts a governess search. The Smiths see “the Charity Children at St Paul’s” – 1500 people in the church and 7000 charity children. Charles returns from Cambridge; he dines at the Catch Club. He and Bennett Gosling attend a fancy ball at Almacks. After eighteen years in service to the Smiths, Kitty Hunt, a nursery maid, marries the cook/housekeeper’s nephew John Marshall, a former prisoner of war in France. Parliament is opened by the Prince Regent, with Lord Compton attending. Rumors circulate about the King’s death, “but without foundation.” The Chutes dine and sleep at Stratfield Saye, the Duke of Wellington’s. On the last day of the year, Emma composes a tender essay on her friendship with the late Miss Ramsay, “a friend from my youth” when the year began but come the end of the year, “I am bereft of her.” Warm feelings for her mother, Mrs. Smith – reflecting on God, death, acceptance, and reflection – ends the entry.

prince of wales

Prince of Wales, later George IV

1820: Suttons’ upper servants attend a ball at the Talbot, though snow the next day prevents many from attending church. News of the death of the Duke of Kent is followed by far graver news: the death of King George III. James Edward Austen commences his last term at Oxford; like his father, Edward is preparing to enter the Church. The Smiths distribute food and clothes to the parish poor. One of Emma’s Sunday scholars is dying of a consumption. On the day she reads to the girl, Emma notes the proclamation of George IV as King and the untrue reports of the new king’s death. Emma, Fanny, and Mrs. Smith visit Carlton House to “enquire after the King’s health”. Amid the flurry of drawing and music Masters and Mistresses, Emma mentions the “most horrid conspiracy,” now known as the Cato Street Conspiracy. Mrs. Smith’s youngest children are resident in Portland Place; her reaction is expressed in a letter to daughter Fanny: “horror struck”, “what wickedness!”, “all London must be in consternation.” The Smiths visit, for the last time, Earl Stoke Park, her late-father’s estate. Mrs. Smith takes leave of prior friends and “poor villagers” with whom she has interacted for more than forty years. Special attention is given to the absence of Macklin, a servant (possibly Irish Catholic) who has struck up a friendship with Mrs. Smith’s youngest sister (“Aunt Emma”), which is causing concern – and rifts – among the family. Parliament is dissolved, and Uncle Chute makes the momentous decision not to stand again; he was member for Hampshire nearly thirty years. Lord Compton loses his election. He never again stands for Parliament. With the death of Joshua Smith and the removal of Mr. Chute and Lord Compton, the era in which the Smiths and Goslings hear first-hand about government comes to an end. Emma meets John Stuart – the young man Belinda Colebrooke wishes to marry. The largest impediment is the smallness of his fortune in comparison to her own; a Chancery suit ensues, and the specter of her illegitimacy arises. Twenty-year-old Sir Charles Joshua Smith departs on a Grand Tour, accompanied by Charles Scrase Dickins; they will be gone through 1821 and go as far as Sweden and Russia. As the men cross to Calais, rumors “were afloat” that the Queen had perhaps already landed at Dover. Violence – in Portland Place! – against households “illuminating for the Queen.” No. 6 Portland Place (Smiths) was illuminated, but their windows were luckily not broken, though houses further up the street sustained damage. Tensions are running high on both sides of the Queen debate; and crossing either group can end in the same manner: A Riot.

1821: Mrs. Smith and her elder children (Augusta, Emma, Fanny, Spencer) go through London en route to Roehampton, joining a large party at the Gosling country estate. Charles has sent more gift boxes from abroad. The Goslings’ ball begins at ten, and lasts till five in the morning – with guests going “in detachments” to supper in the library. Quadrilles were the dances of choice, two nights in a row. The Smiths, with Augusta as secretary, near completion for a local book society. The current novel being read is Kenilworth, by Walter Scott. Aunt Judith Smith takes Augusta to see “the female prisoners at Newgate” who are under the direction of the influential reformer, Mrs. Elizabeth Fry. In a similar vein, Elizabeth Gosling and the Smiths view the penitents at “the Magdalen.” At Drury Lane, to hear the newest singing sensation, the Smiths share Aunt Emma’s box, which includes Miss Macklin – their former servant, as Miss Smith and Miss Macklin prepare to leave the country. The women set out for the Continent in mid-February; weeks later news comes of war being declared between the Neapolitan government and Austria. In anticipation of a future Drawing Room, the girls choose dresses. At this Drawing Room Aunt Northampton, Mrs. Smith and her two eldest daughters (Augusta and Emma) are presented to King George IV. Lady Compton’s son is christened; Mrs. Smith and Sir Walter Scott are two of the sponsors. Lord Northampton is in London to attend the House of Lords during the raising of “this Catholic question,” but the last reading gets postponed. The group from Portland Place joins a party on board the Fury for a dance given by Captain Parry. Emma estimates that between three and four hundred people were on board. The impending sale of Tring Park, property of their late uncle Sir Drummond Smith, embroils the Smiths in bringing an Act of Parliament before the House of Lords. Charles’ twenty-first birthday is announced, but he is still abroad; the tenants at Suttons have a celebration dinner nevertheless. The Gosling girls and Emma go by appointment to Westminster Abbey, to view preparations for the upcoming coronation. Then comes the thunderbolt report of Bonaparte’s death (which occurred two months previous). The Northamptons arrive from Switzerland “on purpose to attend the Coronation”— which the Smiths and Goslings also attend. Mrs. Smith records “London was in quite a bustle” and afterwards pronounces the Coronation “a most splendid spectacle.”

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