Sinclair Extracts -This scene was almost entirely edited out of the final version of the book. I enjoyed writing it as I was developing the characters of Sinclair and Greenwood. In these scenes, the men emerged as they appear in the final novel. The scene is based very loosely on the events surrounding the sinking of the East Indiaman, Halsewell in 1786 which was one of Britain’s greatest maritime disasters. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Once again he made his excuses early and retired to his cabin and as he lay on his bed thinking about the other passengers his attention was suddenly aroused by voices coming from below. He strained to hear what was going on. He was sure something was not right. He put on his greatcoat and his hat and set out to find out what was happening. With his lantern in hand he climbed the narrow flight of steps to the Saloon and opened the door but there was no sign of the Captain or the ship’s officers so he went on to the upper deck. The light from the Saloon skylights illuminated the ship’s deck. All was quiet on deck as he knocked on the Captain’s door. He waited then knocked again but still, there was no reply. A passing midshipman came to his aid. “I’m looking for Captain Richards,” he said holding the lantern up to see the man’s face.
“He’s down below, Sir,” replied the seaman. “We’re taking on too much water, see. There’s five feet of water in the ‘old. T’aint good if you ask me, sir, t’aint good. Refitted, she’s supposed to be an’ as good as new; t’aint good,” he muttered blowing out clouds of white breath into the freezing night air.
“Thank you,” said Sinclair hesitating not knowing the man’s name.
“Franklin, sir; my name’s Franklin,” the man said removing his hat and bowing. “The captain will have everything ship shape when ‘es got the pumps going. No need to worry sir, no need to worry.”
“Aye, well, thank you, Franklin, thank you very much.”
“You’re welcome, sir,” replied the man as he disappeared into the shadows.
Unsure what to do next Sinclair returned to his cabin to find the commotion below replaced by the rhythmic thud of pumps and the unwelcome smell of stinking bilge water in the air. Above him, he could hear the muffled sounds of the women’s conversation as they prepared to settle down for the night. He lay in his cot thinking about what had happened and what Franklin had said and wondered if the ship was in danger. Then he heard the ship’s officers making their way to their beds. They made no mention of the commotion or the water in the hold so he told himself that everything was alright. He took out his pocket watch to check the hour; it was past 10 o’clock and time to be turning in for the night himself. As he lay in his cold and uncomfortable cot his thoughts began to wander as he recalled Franklin’s words. Taking on too much water was a serious thing, should he go back to the Captain and demand an explanation or should he leave things alone now that everything seemed to be under control? He held the thought in his mind for a moment then he decided on the latter course of action and pulled his coat over him to get warm. The lack of sleep from the previous night, the fresh sea air and the excitement of everything was taking its toll on him, he was exhausted. He closed his eyes and soon he was fast asleep.
He woke cold and to the sound of pumping in the hold. He washed and dressed quickly without shaving wondering if he should grow a beard then pulling his coat over his shoulders he made his way to the Saloon where his fellow passengers were already up and warming themselves on a barely adequate brass charcoal brazier. When he had taken tea and a bowl of porridge he made his way onto the deck again. The sunshine of the day before had been replaced with a blanket of thick grey cloud and a fine drizzle of snow was filling the crevices in the deck planking as he walked the length of the ship. Above him, the great sails were hanging stiff and motionless covered in a thick coat of ice and salt and the ship was motionless, becalmed in a flat grey sea that seamlessly merged with the sky in whatever direction he looked.
As the morning progressed the snow became heavier and Captain Richards was forced to order his men to clear the decks with brooms. In the Saloon, the women chatted and sewed while Sinclair read his book. The room was warm and steamy, the skylights, obscured by a lace of dense condensation that dripped intermittently onto the dining table provide a feeble grey light. As the snow fell on the outside it silently slid down the panes forming icy drifts at the bottom. The day’s light faded and the wind began to fill the sails again. This time it was coming from the south and much to everyone’s delight the ship began to move again.
At supper, Sinclair fell into conversation with the handsome Captain Greenwood a young man like himself intent on forging a successful career in the East. He was a retired British Army officer who like so many others had been let go after the defeat in America. Greenwood, much to Sinclair’s chagrin, was admired by both the men and the women on board. His good looks and easy temperament seemed to smooth all his social interactions. He was gracious, charming and good company. He spoke eloquently of his experience in the American War telling Sinclair that he had had a mainly diplomatic role and had not seen much in the way of fighting. His main role had been in organising the evacuation of New York in 1783; he told Sinclair that he had sailed from Nova Scotia up the mighty Hudson River with his commanding officer Sir Guy Carleton the last British Army and Royal Navy commander in British North America to a conference with General Washington at Orangetown to discuss how what was left of the British Army and the thousands of ordinary people who had remained loyal to the Crown were to be removed from the new and Independent country of America.
Greenwood recalled the animated discussion between Washington and his commander of the subject of Negroes, a subject he understood well as his family owned a good many of them on what he called their small Jamaican plantation, and how Carleton had refused to return those men of colour he considered to be free saying that they could go anywhere they wanted which had incensed Washington and the Americans much to Carlton’s delight but that it was something his father would have been furious about too because slaves were a man’s property and jolly expensive too. Then he told him how he and a group of fellow officers had removed the cleats and greased the flagpole of the fort in New York so that the victorious Americans could not remove the Union Jack without chopping the flagpole down as their parting gift to the victors. How they had howled with laughter he said. They drank a bottle of claret and played a game of chess after supper and Sinclair found himself feeling quite jealous of this man of easy conversation and conscience. Greenwood it seemed had no moral qualms about slavery and seemed to accept the world as he found it. For him what was moral was what most people accepted as normal, he was comfortable in the world and saw no reason to change it. After their game, they made their way to their cabins and said good night both feeling happy and relaxed for the first time.
The next morning Sinclair was woken abruptly by the sound of his books falling on the floor. The ship’s rafters were creaking and the wind was whistling through the leaky wooden hatch covering his porthole. The ship was listing at a good 20 degrees making it difficult to get about and impossible to shave so he dressed quickly and headed to the Saloon for breakfast. This was the first time he had really needed his sea legs. The ship was being buffeted by the wind and ploughing at speed through wall after wall of white-topped waves. He made his usual sortie onto the deck and met Mr. Hodge doing the same.
“Bracing isn’t it?” said Hodge holding onto his hat.
“Aye, you could say that,” replied Sinclair. “It’s a wee bit rough for my liking,” he said looking out at the rows of white horses prancing on top of the ocean.
“Ah, this is nothing laddie, wait till we get to the Cape. You’ll know what a rough sea is when you’ve been through that.”
“I look forward to it,” he shouted against the wind. His teeth were already chattering and he was holding onto his hat. “I don’t think I’ll be out here long.”
“Come on then laddie, once round the deck then back inside,” Hodge shouted back and headed off towards the bow. Sinclair followed but when Hodge suggested that they do it again he declined and went below to lash his furniture to the floor and walls with a strong rope given to him by Franklin. He did the same for Greenwood but found that the ship’s officers had already done their own. By lunchtime, the wind was gusting into a gale and the ship was pitching and crashing through a battery of ten-foot waves.
Like the other passengers, he felt sick; he craved distraction from the fear that was welling up in his belly. The usually chatty women and girls were quiet. In one corner of the room Miss Morris was trying to sew, in the other, the Richards girls were trying to read, and perched on the lockers he could see Mrs. Evans and her daughters who were trying to distract themselves by knitting but they were physically shuddering at every creak and crack in the ship’s wooden hull as it lumbered through the barrage of waves. Sinclair was unable to read so he spent the afternoon playing whist with his fellow Scot, Mrs. Campbell. From his position at the table, he noticed that the wind now contained squalls of snow. With each gust, the skylights were covered with a thick layer of it which then slid down the panes forming little drifts that were washed away each time a wave broke over the gunwales. Mrs. Campbell looked over the top of her half-moon spectacles and tapped the table. “I can’t go. It’s your turn, Dr. Sinclair.” He looked at his cards, his hand was all hearts, he was going to win without much effort but he knew that he would not enjoy his victory.
In the hold, Captain Greenwood was with his men. They were all young and inexperienced, boys from farms and small towns unaccustomed to the confines of a ship. The lack of air in the hold coupled with the motion of the ship and the stink from the bilge was making them fatigued, disoriented and now as the ship pitched up and down they were vomiting freely across the deck and in their hammocks. Anything not tied down slewed across the stinking planks rattling backward and forwards through the pools of vomit and piss. For Greenwood and his men, the ship’s hold was beginning to feel like a condemned cell, a prison from which the only escape route was death.
As the afternoon went on Greenwood found himself having to assert his authority in disputes between his frightened men. On the one hand, he found himself quietening down spats between the more aggressive men and on the other reassuring those who were whimpering for their mothers in their hammocks. He was doing his best to maintain morale and keep his men under control but he was as seasick and as frightened as they were.
The afternoon drifted into the evening and the atmosphere in the ship was as tight as a drum skin. The ship lurched to starboard with a mighty crack. In the Saloon Sinclair found himself being flung to the floor. The table stayed in place but the chairs slewed across the floor crashing into the women passengers as they piled into the wall lockers on the starboard side and the plates and glassware crashed and smashed around inside them. He looked up and saw the hot coals from the upturned brazier searing the wooden lockers at the far end of the room. He pulled himself up and staggered towards the brazier and kicked the hot coals back into the pan.
The women slowly steadied themselves; their faces dazed and white with fright. They looked at each other and at the room; the chandelier was hanging at forty-five degrees and above them, they could hear the waves smashing into the deck. As they silently wondered what would happen next the ship suddenly righted itself sending them and all furniture hurtling back to the other side of the room. It was dark, the candles had gone out but the women picked themselves up again and started to search for the lights.
Mrs. Evans was the first to light one of the fallen candles using the hot coals in the brazier. In the gloom, Sinclair could see the young girls rubbing their bruised limbs and holding each other while Mrs. Campbell was scrabbling around of the floor looking for her spectacles and Miss Morris was searching for her shoes. The Richards girls who were crying and Mrs. Evans was reassuring her daughters. Sinclair pulled himself up from the floor and finished scraping up the scattered coals with the dustpan and the sole of his boot. Then a strange calm came over him. He mentally moved from passenger to doctor and found himself attending to each little group of women asking them about their injuries, checking their bumps and bruises and assuring them that they were no longer in danger. Much to his surprise, the women seemed to accept his reassurances and once he was sure that they were calm enough to be left he went to find out what had happened.
He climbed the narrow steps up to the door that led onto the deck and forced it open. Immediately he was blinded by a blast of snow-laden wind that stung his eyes and face. He put his hand up to protect his eyes and was able to make out a party of men struggling to tie down what was left of the mizzen mast at the back of the ship, this was the short mast that helped with steering and it had snapped in two and that he thought accounted for the awful crack they had heard in the Saloon. He stepped forward to ask what was happening but was immediately told to get back inside by Mr. Allsop. Reluctantly Sinclair obeyed and returned to the Saloon where he told the women that a small mast had snapped and that everything was now under control. He did not mention that without this small mast steering the ship would be more difficult as there was absolutely no point in alarming them further.
He sat down and took out his pocket watch, he rolled it in his hand and flipped the case open to check the hour, it was six o’clock and the wind was still screaming like a demonic choir outside. He felt isolated and alone as the exhausted women huddled together to comfort each other. Mrs. Campbell pulled a small prayer book from her bag and began to pray, “Thou O Lord, who stillest the raging of the sea, hear us, and save us, that we perish not. O blessed Saviour, who didst save thy disciples ready to perish in a storm, hear us, and save us, we beseech thee. Lord, have mercy upon us. Christ, have mercy upon us. Lord, have mercy upon us. O Lord, hear us. O Christ, hear us.”
As he watched the group of praying women his thoughts turned to Voltaire again. He could see that in the face of overwhelming fear a belief if a supernatural father who would rescue them was an undeniable comfort, indeed as Voltaire himself had written, “Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer” in other words “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” But for him, the act of prayer was one of self-delusion. How could the words of man alter the course of nature? His knowledge of science told him that it needed much more than words to do that. And then he thought about his own father and how he had spent his life attending to the needs of this tyrannical God trying to placate him with his prayers whilst ignoring or ridiculing his own child’s needs and fears and treating them as weaknesses that were to be beaten out of him. How could he believe in a god that would have such followers?
Just as he and the women passengers were beginning to get used to regular thumps of the vicious waves again, the ship rolled on its side again sending them and all the furniture flying like gaming counters against the cabin walls once more. The shock was just as great as the first time it had happened and they were all stunned into silence and fear seized their hearts and their tongues. They were in the dark again. He fumbled around in the pile of furniture and frocks searching for a candle. He found one and took a tinderbox from his pocket and lit it. When the ship had stopped moving Sinclair looked up to see the women sprawled across the lockers once again with their petticoats and stockings on full display and the saloon chairs jammed hard against them. They lay there waiting for the ship to right itself like it did before but this time there was no correcting movement, the ship simply sat in the water being battered by the waves listing at a horrifying 45 degrees.
He scrambled to his knees again steadying himself on the storage lockers while the women re-arranged their dresses and huddled together for comfort. A feeling of overwhelming loneliness flooded over him and he was unsure what to do. Fear was pulsing through his veins but he did not want to join the women in their prayers. He knew that if he was going to survive it would be due to Captain Richards’ seamanship or his own wits or a combination of both.
His suppressed panic was broken by the sound of an ear-splitting crack followed by a thunderous crash. His heart leaped and he let out a low groan, surely this was it, he was going to die! His mind was racing, the ship was breaking up and in moments he would be on his way to a cold watery grave. He felt the whole ship shudder from bow to stern then in one swift motion it righted itself again throwing him and the women around the Saloon. When the ship was the right way up again he scrambled to his feet. He was still holding the candle and found that by some miracle it was still alight. The Evans girls were screaming on the saloon floor refusing to stand up but before he could get to them the Captain’s daughters Eliza and Mary-Ann got to them and took them in their arms and started to comfort them. Their mother was helping Mrs. Campbell up to her feet and searching around on the floor for her spectacles again and Miss Morris was like Sinclair already on her feet and assessing the situation.
“What’s happening, Mr. Sinclair?” cried Mrs. Evans.
Sinclair looked to Miss Morris unsure what to say.
“I think the Captain has cut down the mast,” she replied for him.
“What!” exclaimed Mrs. Campbell smoothing down her clothes to regain some composure and putting her spectacles back on again.
“My uncle is trying to save the ship,” asserted the ashen-faced Miss Morris rubbing away the pain in her sprained wrist. “Now could you help me get these coals back in the brazier before we are on fire to boot?”
Sinclair was in the process of scooping up the coals with Miss Morris when Lieutenant Merrick opened the door to the saloon. “Good evening ladies, I know that you have had a dreadful fright but please be assured everything is under control now. The Captain will be along to see you shortly but as you can imagine he is somewhat occupied at the moment. Dr. Sinclair, would you please come with me, Mr. Hodge needs you.”
Sinclair looked around the room, “Is anyone injured?” he asked. The women shook their heads signalling that apart from more bumps and bruises they were well. “In that case, I will gladly come, Mr. Merrick,” he said and he followed the officer out of the room leaving the women to comfort each other.
I loved Mary Wesley’s books. I think I read them all in the 1980s and 1990’s before my children were born. I really enjoyed the TV adaptations too. Her work was refreshing, vivid and bittersweet, her style was effortless. She is a great influence on me still.
Mary Wesley, died aged 90. She amazed the literary world by having her first novel published when she was 70, in 1983.
She went on to write nine more (three of which were filmed for TV), figured regularly in the bestseller lists and was appointed CBE in 1995. A remarkably good-looking woman, she had a commanding presence and could appear reserved when meeting people she did not know. But she was much less confident than she seemed and she had a wonderful sense of humour. She was also a generous friend.
She often claimed that her novels were not autobiographical, but aspects of her life are reflected in the themes that run through them. A typical Wesley heroine is a young woman, damaged by parental dislike or neglect, who ties herself to a conventional man who does not understand her, only to find happiness later with an eccentric, tender lover, who values in her all the qualities no one else has recognised.
The third child of Colonel Harold Mynors Farmar and his wife, Violet, Mary Aline was born at Englefield Green, Windsor Great Park. She grew up hardly knowing her father and believing that her mother preferred her elder sister.
It was assumed that she would never have to work for her living and so she was not sent to school, which added to her isolation. Her beloved nanny was sacked when she was three and her minimal education was left to a series of foreign governesses.
Regretting this, in the 1930s she attended lectures on international politics and anthropology at the London School of Economics (60 years later she was awarded an honorary fellowship there).
She was presented at court and married Lord Swinfen in 1937. Having given birth to two sons, she had fulfilled her parents’ expectations, only to scandalise them when she left her husband. They were divorced in 1945. The second world war, which was to form the background to many of her novels, changed everything for her.
Like so many well-bred young women, she found work in intelligence. She once told an interviewer that the war years gave her generation a very good time: “an atmosphere of terror and exhilaration and parties, parties, parties”.
It was in 1944, dining at the Ritz, that she met Eric Siepmann, the Winchester and Oxford-educated playwright, and journalist. Siepmann’s father was German and his mother Irish. Her family strongly disapproved.
They lived together until his second wife could be persuaded to divorce him and then married in 1952, settling in Devon. Ten years after their first meeting he wrote in his autobiography, Confessions Of A Nihilist, that she was “somebody whom I really loved, who believed in God and who thought that loving meant what you give and not what you take”.
Their years together were so happy that Siepmann’s death in 1970 devastated Wesley. She felt as though she had been cut in half, “like a carcass at the butcher’s”. Siepmann had changed jobs frequently and never accumulated any capital, and his death left her bereft and without an income. Wesley sold her jewellery and knitted for whatever her customers could pay.
She had been writing for years but had no confidence in what she produced, in spite of her husband’s encouragement, and threw most of it away. Her first published works, in 1968, were two children’s books, and a third followed in 1983. It was only after Siepmann’s death that she found her voice.
Then, in Jumping The Queue, she wrote about a woman who could not bear to go on living after her beloved but eccentric husband’s death and planned a suicidal picnic.
This quirky, sad and very funny novel was quite unlike anything else that was being published in the early 1980s. Had it not been for the intervention of her friend Antonia White, it might have followed its predecessors into the bin. With White’s encouragement, Wesley began to submit the manuscript to publishers.
Several companies turned down Jumping The Queue on the grounds that there was no interest in “that kind of book”, but when her then agent Tessa Sayle sent the book to James Hale of Macmillan, he confounded his rivals. Her work soon found a wide public and was admired by critics.
Much was made of the fact that the novels are full of illicit sex and that the characters are free with the sort of four-letter words that few women of Wesley’s age and class would use. Perhaps more interesting, although it was less remarked at the time, is the hate and violence beneath the surface. Several of her heroines kill, from Mathilda in Jumping The Queue to Sophie, the unloved but deeply lovable child of The Camomile Lawn (1984, and filmed for TV in 1992).
It is the violent expression of long-buried anger and distress, quite as much as the frank sexuality of her heroines, that makes her work so different. Her novels are suffused not only with her humour but also with the emotions she preferred not to discuss, and they are inimitable. A book about the West Country with photographer Kim Sayer, Part Of The Scenery, was published in 2001.
She had always dressed elegantly, even when she couldn’t afford a railway ticket to London. She enjoyed success, the strange circus of book launches and the excitement of planning the film of a book (even if she tended to dislike the films that emerged). Book promotion tours made her feel she was earning her living and doing something for her publishers in return. She delighted in good reviews and was stung when she was attacked, especially since she avoided reviewing books which she did not like.
She really enjoyed writing, and that quality of pleasure is in everything she wrote. She complained bitterly when a plot got stuck, but she was desolate and lonely when a book was completed and had been handed over.
Her best-known book, The Camomile Lawn, set on the Roseland Peninsula in Cornwall, was turned into a television series and is an account of the intertwining lives of three families in rural England during World War II. After The Camomile Lawn (1984) came Harnessing Peacocks (1985 and as a TV film in 1992), The Vacillations of Poppy Carew (1986 and filmed in 1995), Not That Sort of Girl (1987), Second Fiddle (1988), A Sensible Life (1990), A Dubious Legacy (1992), An Imaginative Experience (1994) and Part of the Furniture(1997). A book about the West Country with photographer Kim Sayer, Part of the Scenery, was published in 2001. Asked why she had stopped writing fiction at the age of 84, she replied: “If you haven’t got anything to say, don’t say it.”
Her take on life reveals a sharp and critical eye which neatly dissects the idiosyncrasies of genteel England with humour, compassion, and irony, detailing in particular sexual and emotional values. Her style has been described as “arsenic without the old lace”. Others have described it as “Jane Austen plus sex”, a description Wesley herself thought ridiculous. As a woman who was liberated before her time Mary Wesley challenged social assumptions about the old, confessed to bad behaviour and recommended sex. In doing so she smashed the stereotype of the disapproving, judgemental, past-it, old person. This delighted the old and intrigued the young.
Sources: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2003/jan/01/guardianobituaries.books1, Wikipedia
The dead are always present, says Hilary Mantel, they live with us in our memory, in our genes and in the legacy of their decisions and actions that shaped the world we live in today. In the words of St Augustine, she says, they are ‘invisible, they are not absent’. My inspiration for it Sinclair was family history. Whoever we are we all have some sort of family and some sort of history, we could not have got here without it even if we do not know that history.
There is a poem by WH Auden, called “As I Walked Out One Evening”:
‘The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead’
Like most people I come from a long line of very ordinary people; people who struggled most of their lives to make ends meet them to keep a roof over their head. These are not the people we think of when we think of history. History was, until the last century, very much the domain of great men and great events. When we imagine the past in drama, in books, and, in films, the characters are always the movers and shakers of history; their decisions and actions change the world. Rarely do we think of the ordinary run of the mill people in the background who were most likely our ancestors.
My grandparents were born at the turn of the 19th century, they were Victorians. They lived through great events, the Great War, the economic depression of the 1930s, the Second World War, and the post-war boom but they did not shape them. They were lucky, they survived these huge historic events and so did their children; all of them living to ripe old age thanks to the introduction of the National Health Service in 1947. They were the first generation to live in Council Houses, proud tenants who always paid the rent on time. They worked hard and life was not easy but it was certainly better than it had been for their parents who had lived in overcrowded city-centre tenements with no interior sanitation. My Victorian ancestors worked hard, feared the workhouse, died young and were buried unceremoniously and as cheaply as possible.
My novel, Sinclair, is inspired by my husband’s family, the Leadams, who came from Walkington near the market town of Beverley and city of Hull. Christopher Leadam trained as a surgeon in York then moved to London sometime in the 1770s. I recently visited Walkington to look at the place he left to work at Guy’s Hospital. The contrast between this rural idle of the East Riding and the busy streets of Southwark could not be greater. Walkington is a beautiful place but as the 10th child in a family of farmers Christopher, who was clearly bright and adventurous, knew that if he was going to make a life for himself he had to leave the place of his birth.
Christopher died when he was relatively young, probably around 40. We know from the historical record that when he died he was the owner of an apothecary shop in Tooley Street and that he had a 14-year-old son and a wife. Christopher was not a great man of medicine but he was one of the cast of players who helped to heave medicine out of its medieval roots into the modern scientific age.
The Leadams of Tooley Street has led me on a journey into the 18th century and early 19th century. My novel begins in the aftermath of the disastrous American War and ends as France is about to throw the shackles of the ancient regime. Most historical romance is about aristocratic families, families with connections and status. My fiction is about a family too but this family has to make their own way in the world. They have no estate or inheritance to come into; they have to use their hands and their brains to make their way in the world. Men like the Leadams and the fictional Sinclair were men of the professions, industry, ideas, and commerce; they were the men for a new and enlightened age, the men who shaped the world we know today.
As a novelist, I want to tell the story of that change, of the development of the middle class if you like. The middle class is much maligned and forgotten in the pages of history and novels. Today middle-class values are under attack from libertarian capitalists who view government as a barrier to the unfettered accumulation of personal wealth, they do not believe in society or collective endeavour. In the historical novel, the middle class gets lost between the aristocratic splendour of the ballroom and the rags to riches stories of the poor.
‘The pursuit of the past makes you aware, whether you are novelist or historian, of the dangers of your own fallibility and inbuilt bias’ says Mantel. I agree I am the product of my own history. I am not the past I am now writing about the past in a language that is understood today. I am a writer of fiction but I am a historian too; an anachronism an oxymoron. The 19th-century historian Lord Macaulay said, “History has to be burned into the imagination before it can be received by the reason.” I burn with a passion for the past, but I also burn with a passion for the future, for a better future for my children and mankind. I’m biased and I don’t feel guilty about it; all history is biased, I am not perturbed about my desire to tell stories about people who live in townhouses and not country estates, people who value education for its own sake, people who want to engage in the political life of the nation because they want to improve the lives of others and build a better future.
Mantel says, “The historian and the biographer follow a trail of evidence, usually a paper trail. The novelist does that too, and then performs another act, puts the past back into the process, into action, frees the people from the archive and lets them run about, ignorant of their fates, with all their mistakes unmade.” Sinclair makes plenty of mistakes.
Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £2.42 Also available on:
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The pursuit of love and happiness was an 18th-century ideal.
Voltaire (1694-1778), the French philosopher and author was one of its chief exponents and is one of the heroes of my character Sinclair. Sinclair takes his copy of Candide, Voltaire’s satirical novel to India with him but he loses it when the ship goes down. Once he’s established himself in Tooley Street he’s quick to buy himself another copy.
Candide was an 18th century best seller. The story is about a young man who is the illegitimate nephew of a German baron. He grows up in the baron’s castle under the tutelage of the scholar Dr. Pangloss, who teaches him that this world is “the best of all possible worlds.” Candide falls in love with the baron’s young daughter, Cunégonde which does not please the baron at all and so the young man and his teacher are thrown out of the castle and their adventure begins.
The work describes the abrupt end of their idyllic lifestyle and Candide’s slow, painful disillusionment with the world as he witnesses and experiences its hardships.
The book ends with Candide, not rejecting Dr. Pangloss’s optimism outright but advocating that “we must cultivate our garden”, rather than rely on optimism alone to make it flourish. Thus, Candide rejects the Leibnizian mantra of Pangloss, “all is for the best” in the “best of all possible worlds” for the act of making the world we desire by cultivating it like a garden.
Voltaire was a man of passion and emotion as well as ideas. At the age of nineteen Voltaire was sent as an attache to the French Ambassador to the Netherlands. It was there that he fell in love with Olympe Dunover, the poor daughter of lower-class women. Their relationship was not approved of by either the ambassador of Olympe’s mother and Voltaire was soon imprisoned to keep them apart.
Writing from his prison cell in The Hague in 1713 he poured out his love for Olympe.
“I am a prisoner here in the name of the King; they can take my life, but not the love that I feel for you. Yes, my adorable mistress, to-night I shall see you, and if I had to put my head on the block to do it.
“For heaven’s sake, do not speak to me in such disastrous terms as you write; you must live and be cautious; beware of madame your mother as of your worst enemy. What do I say? Beware of everybody; trust no one; keep yourself in readiness, as soon as the moon is visible; I shall leave the hotel incognito, take a carriage or a chaise, we shall drive like the wind to Scheveningen; I shall take paper and ink with me; we shall write our letters.”
“If you love me, reassure yourself; and call all your strength and presence of mind to your aid; do not let your mother notice anything, try to have your pictures, and be assured that the menace of the greatest tortures will not prevent me to serve you. No, nothing has the power to part me from you; our love is based upon virtue and will last as long as our lives. Adieu, there is nothing that I will not brave for your sake; you deserve much more than that. Adieu, my dear heart!”
His time in prison was brief. Being young and fit and the prison not so secure, he jumped out a window and got away.
Twenty years later, in 1733, Voltaire would meet the love of his life, Émilie, Marquise du Châtelet. She was the wife of an aristocrat. He, by then was by then a successful writer. Having just returned from a period of enforced exile from France for his political views Voltaire was introduced to Émilie by friends.
The attraction was immediate, physical and cerebral. He wrote of her; “That lady whom I look upon as a great man… She understands Newton, she despises superstition and in short, she makes me happy.”
Soon the pair were living together in the Marquis du Châtelet’s chateau. The arrangement suited them all. Voltaire who was a rich man paid for the much-needed renovations to the chateau, Émilie’s husband the Marquis hunted all day and at night he lent Voltaire his willing wife.
Their love bore intellectual fruits; Émilie translated Newton’s Principia Mathematica and wrote her philosophical magnum opus, Institutions de Physique (Paris, 1740, first edition), or Foundations of Physics. Her own work circulated widely generated heated debates and was republished and translated into several other languages. During her time with Voltaire, she participated in the famous vis viva debate, concerning the best way to measure the force of a body and the best means of thinking about conservation principles. Posthumously, her ideas were heavily represented in the most famous text of the French Enlightenment, the Encyclopédie of Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond D’Alembert.
In 1737, Châtelet published a paper entitled Dissertation sur la nature et la propagation du feu, based upon her research into the science of fire, that predicted what is today known as infrared radiation and the nature of light.
In another publication, she debated the nature of happiness. During the Age of Enlightenment, personal happiness was one of the great philosophical themes. Many philosophers and writers studied it. There were many discourses on the subject but they were by men. Chatelet offers a new perspective on the philosophical question of happiness, a woman’s perspective. Her views on happiness were published posthumously long after she had ended her relationship with Voltaire.
Chatelet begins her work on happiness by recognising the difficulty of finding or achieving happiness due to the obstacles of circumstance such as age and other hindrances. She explains that fortune has placed individuals in specific states and that one of the most important elements in achieving happiness is not to try to change those circumstances. Chatelet’s way to happiness is to be satisfied with the condition we find ourselves in.
Happiness for Chatelet lies in satisfying personal tastes and passions and from “… having got rid of prejudices, being virtuous, getting well,….” In other words, she says it’s up to the individual to know and do what makes them happy.
I suppose that was alright for her she was a Marquise with a chateau, a husband, and rich lovers.
Her pet hate was religion which she saw as the ultimate prejudice. Prejudice she believed made people vicious and we cannot be both vicious and happy. Happiness, she believed came from virtue, inner satisfaction and the health of the soul. Finally, she concluded that happiness relied on illusion or the arts and that it was important to retain the illusions that produced pleasant feelings, such as laughter during a comedy.
Whilst I cannot argue with her view that pursuing interests, being free from prejudice and enjoying the arts all help us to achieve a state of happiness I cannot help being aghast at this very clever woman’s nativity. Perhaps she was so happy for most of her life, so happy with her studies and her lovers that she didn’t notice the people around her. Perhaps she didn’t notice the poor people who did her cooking and cleaning and grew everything she ate. Perhaps she lived life through such rose-tinted spectacles that she was blind to the routine injustice the state handed down to ordinary people and anyone who got in its way. Was Chatelet like so like so many aristocrats who met with Madame Guillotine a generation later – totally unaware of how they had created their own grisly fate? Did they not see that they had failed to ‘cultivate the garden’?
Julia Herdman writes historical fiction. Her books are available worldwide on Amazon.
Jane Austen – Pride and Prejudice
Austen’s letter from Darcy is the watershed moment in Pride and Prejudice. From this moment on Elizabeth Bennet knows she has misread him. Oh, how her heart must have ached after reading it. It is an extraordinarily long letter for a novel these days. I wonder which of us who write would dare to put a letter this long into one of our books today.
Austen’s most usual plot devises are of course well known: Journeys, Revelations, Elopements, Illnesses, Alternative Suitors and the social position of her characters. Chance and coincidence play their parts, and Jane Austen does not try to disguise this. In Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen displays her ability to vary the devices she uses to bring Darcy and Elizabeth together, using holidays, illnesses and social gatherings. And of course, she writes this wonderful letter from Darcy. In it, Austen reveals all the heartache and frustration of this oh so proud man.
Austen is not the only writer to use the letter as a serious plot device. Thomas Hardy is another.
Thomas Hardy – The Mayor of Casterbridge
The private letter is the one space in a novel that provides lovers, or anyone else, to make contact without it being public. In Thomas Hardy’s the Mayor of Casterbridge for instance no fewer than sixteen notes or letters crisscross between the lovers. Though Hardy invariably reveals their contents to the reader, their privacy is respected within the fiction. Even when the sender remains anonymous, as Susan does when she brings Elizabeth-Jane and Farfrae together, the letters reach their intended readers. In the world of Casterbridge, letters function as specially protected spaces where secrets, plans, and requests can be communicated in true privacy.
Edith Wharton – Focus
Edith Wharton, who was a great letter writer herself, wrote of the need to focus the reader’s attention on the character’s point of view in an easy and compact way and advocated the use of the letter motif. Wharton resorts to this device in three stories—whose characters are all writers – and which connect the epistolary motif with a reflection on literature, a clear attempt on Wharton’s part to examine letter writing both as a narrative process and a literary topic.
Darcy’s Letter to Elizabeth Bennett
“Be not alarmed, madam, on receiving this letter, by the apprehension of its containing any repetition of those sentiments or renewal of those offers which were last night so disgusting to you. I write without any intention of paining you, or humbling myself, by dwelling on wishes which, for the happiness of both, cannot be too soon forgotten: and the effort which the formation and the perusal of this letter must occasion, should have been spared had not my character required it to be written and read. You must, therefore, pardon the freedom with which I demand your attention; your feelings, I know, will bestow it unwillingly, but I demand it of your justice.
Two offences of a very different nature, and by no means of equal magnitude, you last night laid to my charge. The first-mentioned was, that, regardless of the sentiments of either, I had detached Mr. Bingley from your sister,- and the other, that I had, in defiance of various claims, in defiance of honour and humanity, ruined the immediate prosperity and blasted the prospects of Mr. Wickham.- Willfully and wantonly to have thrown off the companion of my youth, the acknowledged favourite of my father, a young man who had scarcely any other dependence than on our patronage, and who had been brought up to expect its exertion, would be a depravity, to which the separation of two young persons, whose affection could be the growth of only a few weeks, could bear no comparison. But from the severity of that blame which was last night so liberally bestowed, respecting each circumstance, I shall hope to be in future secured, when the following account of my actions and their motives has been read. If, in the explanation of them, which is due to myself, I am under the necessity of relating feelings which may be offensive to yours, I can only say that I am sorry. The necessity must be obeyed, and further apology would be absurd.
I had not been long in Hertfordshire, before I saw, in common with others, that Bingley preferred your elder sister to any other young woman in the country. But it was not till the evening of the dance at Netherfield that I had any apprehension of his feeling a serious attachment. I had often seen him in love before. At that ball, while I had the honour of dancing with you, I was first made acquainted, by Sir William Lucas’s accidental information, that Bingley’s attentions to your sister had given rise to a general expectation of their marriage. He spoke of it as a certain event, of which the time alone could be undecided. From that moment I observed my friend’s behaviour attentively; and I could then perceive that his partiality for Miss Bennet was beyond what I had ever witnessed in him. Your sister I also watched. Her look and manners were open, cheerful, and engaging as ever, but without any symptom of peculiar regard, and I remained convinced from the evening’s scrutiny, that though she received his attentions with pleasure, she did not invite them by any participation of sentiment. If you have not been mistaken here, I must have been in an error. Your superior knowledge of your sister must make the latter probable.- If it be so, if I have been misled by such error to inflict pain on her, your resentment has not been unreasonable. But I shall not scruple to assert, that the serenity of your sister’s countenance and air was such as might have given the most acute observer a conviction that, however amiable her temper, her heart was not likely to be easily touched. That I was desirous of believing her indifferent is certain- but I will venture to say that my investigations and decisions are not usually influenced by my hopes or fears. I did not believe her to be indifferent because I wished it;- I believed it on impartial conviction, as truly as I wished it in reason. My objections to the marriage were not merely those which I last night acknowledged to have required the utmost force of passion to put aside, in my own case; the want of connection could not be so great an evil to my friend as to me. But there were other causes of repugnance;- causes which, though still existing, and existing to an equal degree in both instances, I had myself endeavoured to forget, because they were not immediately before me. These causes must be stated, though briefly. The situation of your mother’s family, though objectionable, was nothing in comparison of that total want of propriety so frequently, so almost uniformly betrayed by herself, by your three younger sisters, and occasionally even by your father. Pardon me. It pains me to offend you. But amidst your concern for the defects of your nearest relations, and your displeasure at this representation of them, let it give you consolation to consider that, to have conducted yourselves so as to avoid any share of the like censure, is praise no less generally bestowed on you and your eldest sister, that it is honourable to the sense and disposition of both. I will only say farther that from what passed that evening, my opinion of all parties was confirmed, and every inducement heightened which could have led me before to preserve my friend from what I esteemed a most unhappy connection. He left Netherfield for London, on the day following, as you, I am certain, remember, with the design of soon returning.
The part which I acted is now to be explained. His sisters’ uneasiness had been equally excited with my own; our coincidence of feeling was soon discovered, and, alike sensible that no time was to be lost in detaching their brother, we shortly resolved on joining him directly in London. We accordingly went- and there I readily engaged in the office of pointing out to my friend the certain evils of such a choice. I described, and enforced them earnestly. But, however this remonstrance might have staggered or delayed his determination, I do not suppose that it would ultimately have prevented the marriage, had it not been seconded by the assurance which I hesitated not in giving, of your sister’s indifference. He had before believed her to return his affection with sincere, if not with equal regard. But Bingley has great natural modesty, with a stronger dependence on my judgement than on his own. To convince him, therefore, that he had deceived himself, was no very difficult point. To persuade him against returning into Hertfordshire, when that conviction had been given, was scarcely the work of a moment. I cannot blame myself for having done thus much. There is but one part of my conduct in the whole affair on which I do not reflect with satisfaction; it is, that I condescended to adopt the measures of art so far as to conceal from him your sister’s being in town. I knew it myself, as it was known to Miss Bingley; but her brother is even yet ignorant of it. That they might have met without ill consequence is perhaps probable; but his regard did not appear to me enough extinguished for him to see her without some danger. Perhaps this concealment, this disguise was beneath me; it is done, however, and it was done for the best.- On this subject I have nothing more to say, no other apology to offer. If I have wounded your sister’s feelings, it was unknowingly done; and though the motives which governed me may to you very naturally appear insufficient, I have not yet learnt to condemn them.
With respect to that other, more weighty accusation, of having injured Mr. Wickham, I can only refute it by laying before you the whole of his connection with my family. Of what he has particularly accused me I am ignorant; but of the truth of what I shall relate, I can summon more than one witness of undoubted veracity.
Mr. Wickham is the son of a very respectable man, who had for many years the management of all the Pemberley estates, and whose good conduct in the discharge of his trust naturally inclined my father to be of service to him; and on George Wickham, who was his godson; his kindness was therefore liberally bestowed. My father supported him at school, and afterwards at Cambridge,- most important assistance, as his own father, always poor from the extravagance of his wife, would have been unable to give him a gentleman’s education. My father was not only fond of this young man’s society, whose manners were always engaging; he had also the highest opinion of him, and hoping the church would be his profession, intended to provide for him in it. As for myself, it is many, many years since I first began to think of him in a very different manner. The vicious propensities- the want of principle, which he was careful to guard from the knowledge of his best friend, could not escape the observation of a young man of nearly the same age with himself, and who had opportunities of seeing him in unguarded moments, which Mr. Darcy could not have. Here again I shall give you pain- to what degree you only can tell. But whatever may be the sentiments which Mr. Wickham has created, a suspicion of their nature shall not prevent me from unfolding his real character- it adds even another motive.
My excellent father died about five years ago; and his attachment to Mr. Wickham was to the last so steady, that in his will he particularly recommended it to me, to promote his advancement in the best manner that his profession might allow- and if he took orders, desired that a valuable family living might be his as soon as it became vacant. There was also a legacy of one thousand pounds. His own father did not long survive mine, and within half a year from these events Mr. Wickham wrote to inform me that having finally resolved against taking orders, he hoped I should not think it unreasonable for him to expect some more immediate pecuniary advantage, in lieu of the [preferment], by which he could not be benefited. He had some intention, he added, of studying the law, and I must be aware that the interest of one thousand pounds would be a very insufficient support therein. I rather wished, than believed him to be sincere- but, at any rate, was perfectly ready to accede to his proposal. I knew that Mr. Wickham ought not to be a clergyman; the business was therefore soon settled- he resigned all claim to assistance in the church, were it possible that he could ever be in a situation to receive it, and accepted in return three thousand pounds. All connection between us seemed now dissolved. I thought too ill of him to invite him to Pemberley, or admit his society in town. In town I believe he chiefly lived, but his studying the law was a mere pretence, and being now free from all restraint, his life was a life of idleness and dissipation. For about three years I heard little of him; but on the decease of the incumbent of the living which had been designed for him, he applied to me again by letter for the presentation. His circumstances, he assured me, and I had no difficulty in believing it, were exceedingly bad. He had found the law a most unprofitable study, and was now absolutely resolved on being ordained, if I would present him to the living in question- of which he trusted there could be little doubt, as he was well assured that I had no other person to provide for, and I could not have forgotten my revered father’s intentions. You will hardly blame me for refusing to comply with this entreaty, or for resisting every repetition of it. His resentment was in proportion to the distress of his circumstances- and he was doubtless as violent in his abuse of me to others as in his reproaches to myself. After this period every appearance of acquaintance was dropped. How he lived I know not. But last summer he was again most painfully obtruded on my notice.
I must now mention a circumstance which I would wish to forget myself, and which no obligation less than the present should induce me to unfold to any human being. Having said thus much, I feel no doubt of your secrecy. My sister, who is more than ten years my junior, was left to the guardianship of my mother’s nephew, Colonel Fitzwilliam, and myself. About a year ago, she was taken from school, and an establishment formed for her in London; and last summer she went with the lady who presided over it, to Ramsgate; and thither also went Mr. Wickham, undoubtedly by design; for there proved to have been a prior acquaintance between him and Mrs. Younge, in whose character we were most unhappily deceived; and by her connivance and aid, he so far recommended himself to Georgiana, whose affectionate heart retained a strong impression of his kindness to her as a child, that she was persuaded to believe herself in love, and to consent to an elopement. She was then but fifteen, which must be her excuse; and after stating her imprudence, I am happy to add, that I owed the knowledge of it to herself. I joined them unexpectedly a day or two before the intended elopement, and then Georgiana, unable to support the idea of grieving and offending a brother whom she almost looked up to as a father, acknowledged the whole to me. You may imagine what I felt and how I acted. Regard for my sister’s credit and feelings prevented any public exposure; but I wrote to Mr. Wickham, who left the place immediately, and Mrs. Younge was of course removed from her charge. Mr. Wickham’s chief object was unquestionably my sister’s fortune, which is thirty thousand pounds; but I cannot help supposing that the hope of revenging himself on me was a strong inducement. His revenge would have been complete indeed.
This, madam, is a faithful narrative of every event in which we have been concerned together; and if you do not absolutely reject it as false, you will, I hope, acquit me henceforth of cruelty towards Mr. Wickham. I know not in what manner, under what form of falsehood he has imposed on you; but his success is not perhaps to be wondered at, ignorant as you previously were of everything concerning either. Detection could not be in your power, and suspicion certainly not in your inclination.
You may possibly wonder why all this was not told you last night; but I was not then master enough of myself to know what could or ought to be revealed. For the truth of everything here related, I can appeal more particularly to the testimony of Colonel Fitzwilliam, who, from our near relationship and constant intimacy, and, still more, as one of the executors of my father’s will, has been unavoidably acquainted with every particular of these transactions. If your abhorrence of me should make my assertions valueless, you cannot be prevented by the same cause from confiding in my cousin; and that there may be the possibility of consulting him, I shall endeavour to find some opportunity of putting this letter in your hands in the course of the morning. I will only add, God bless you.”
Source: Miss Austen of course and Suzanne Keen. Victorian Renovations of the Novel: Narrative Annexes and the Boundaries of Representation. Cambridge UP, 1998.
Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £2.42 Also available on:
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Klemens Wenzel Nepomuk Lothar, Fürst von Metternich-Winneburg zu Beilstein otherwise known simply as Metternich was probably the greatest diplomat of the nineteenth century. As well as being a towering intellectual he seems to have been a very physical man, if not on the field of battle then in the bedchamber. In her book, Dorothea Lieven: A Russian Princess in London and Paris, 1785-1857, Judith Lissauer Cromwell describes him as, “witty and charming, above average height, slim and graceful, “the Adonis of the Drawing Room.” A man with, “fair hair, an aquiline nose, a well-shaped mouth, a high forehead, and piercing blue eyes.”
He served as the Austrian Empire’s Foreign Minister from 1809 and Chancellor from 1821 and was responsible for what historians call ‘The Concert of Europe.” This was not a forerunner of the Eurovision Song contest but a concert in the sense of an arrangement of something by mutual agreement or coordination and the thing he was in charge of arranging was the restoration of Europe to its state before the French Revolution after the defeat of Napoleon. He managed what is called ‘The Congress System’ from 1814 until the liberal revolutions of 1848 finally forced his resignation. But it is not his achievements as a statesman or his politics I am interested in today, it is achievements as a husband, lover, and as one of the most prolific love letter writers in history.
Metternich had three wives, obviously not all at the same time although one suspects he might have managed that if he had had the opportunity he rarely had only one bed to go to at a time. With his first wife, Princess Eleonore von Kaunitz (m. 1795–1825) he had 10 children, with his second wife, Baroness Antoinette Leykam (m. 1827–29) he had one child; and with his third wife, Countess Melanie Zichy-Ferraris (m. 1831–54) he had another five. You would think that was more than enough for any man but Metternich did not stop there. He managed to squeeze in another child with his mistress Katharina Bagration. Princess Marie-Clementine, was born on 29 September 1810 in Vienna and to save face was promptly adopted into the Bagration family in Russia.
At the Congress of Vienna in 1815 Metternich had two mistresses in tow. His long-standing mistress the widow Katharina Bagration and his new love interest the Duchess of Sagan.
Both women ran pro-Russian, anti-Napoleonic salons in the city mainly financed by the Tsar and in the case of Bagration by her besotted but estranged husband until he died from his wounds at the battle of Borodino in 1812. Bagration was known as le bel ange nu “the beautiful nude angel” because she wore low cut dresses with bare shoulders, and la chatte blanche “the white cat” for her white Indian muslin dresses that clung seductively to her body and her wily intelligence. Her influence on the politicians and statesmen who frequented her salon was significant and Napoleon is said to have considered her a formidable opponent.
But by 1815 Bagration’s charms were becoming less beguiling to Metternich. The new woman in his life, Katharina Friederike Wilhelmine Benigna, Princess of Courland, Duchess of Sagan (1781-1839) a German noblewoman from what is today part of Latvia was taking over his affections and attention.
There was intense rivalry between the women who were living in separate wings of the Palm Palace in Vienna in 1815, both the paid guests and informers of Tsar Alexander. This state of affairs was a complication even the greatest diplomat in Europe found hard to manage. “What a detestable complication your residence is in Vienna,” he wrote Sagan but he was not going to give up Sagan. He had been infatuated with her since 1813 and besides she was useful. Over the years he had built up a network of female informants or ‘spies’ who had been his lovers like Caroline Bonaparte, now Queen of Naples and Laure Junot the wife of the French General and Bagration and Sagan would be no different in the end.
Sagan had been perusing Metternich since 1804 when the ambitious young widow’s family moved to Berlin so that she inveigle herself into his affections but he did not fall under her spell then so she remarried only to divorce her new husband a year later saying, “I am ruining myself with husbands.” When their affair began it was intense and Sagan demanded that Metternich divorce his wife and marry her if he wanted to continue. Her demands were brushed aside but the affair continued. While he was in her thrall he wrote Sagan over 600 letters. The letters which were read by the Austrian Secret Police who rightly suspected Sagan of being a Russian spy at the time were lost and remained hidden until 1949. Reading the letters more than 100 years later it is easy to see that Sagan mimicked her lover’s prose, they reflected his opinions back to him, confirmed his conceits and his image as peacemaker and conqueror. In short, she pandered to his enormous ego and he loved it and her much to the Tsar’s delight. In the summer of 1814, the pair fell out. She wrote, “Everything has so completely changed between us that it is not at all astonishing that our thoughts and our sentiments agree on anything. I am beginning to believe that we never really known each other. We were both perusing a phantom.” The break up was acrimonious with Metternich saying as he took to the baths at Baden that they were, ” to arm his skin,” against her.”
Three years later, Metternich began another affair with Princess Dorothea von Lieven (1785 – 1857). Dorothea was a Baltic German noblewoman and wife of Prince Khristofor Andreyevich Lieven, Russian ambassador to London from 1812 to 1834. It seems Metternich had a penchant for aristocratic women from the Baltic, she was the third in succession of Baltic lovers. Cromwell describes Dorothea as a “tall and slender woman, distinguished rather than beautiful, with a strikingly proud bearing.
Dorothea was not an instant success in London and was considered cold and snobbish by London Society. She had a long and elegant neck that earned her the nickname, “the swan” and by those who disliked her, “the giraffe. But her reputation did not bother her she was not after friendship she was after power much like her predecessors Sagan and Bagration and she used her intelligence, charisma, and social skills to make herself a leader of London’s politically infused society. She cultivated friendships with the foremost diplomats of the day. Not only did she become Metternich’s lover she was also reputed to have had an affair with Lord Palmerston, although there is no firm proof of this and she was a close friend of Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh, and Lord Grey.
Her hard work paid off and she became a leader of London society; invitations to her home were the most sought after. She was the first foreigner to be elected a patroness of Almack’s, London’s most exclusive social club, where she introduced the scandalous dance, the waltz to England when Tsar Alexander came to London in 1818. It was during that visit the two great lovers first met. They took an instant dislike to one another. She thought he was cold and intimidating and far too self- important. He dismissed her as just a pretty woman travelling in the Tsar’s wake and treated her with complete indifference.
However, at a party hosted by the Dutch Ambassador on 22nd October at Aix-La-Chappelle that year, they found themselves sitting next to each other and she played him for all he was worth drawing him out with questions on his favourite subject; Napoleon; and by indulging his ego and listening to his every word she won him over. The next day she found herself alone in a carriage with the Prince and as they chatted, they found that they had much in common. They were both disappointed in the people they were married to, they hated getting up early in the morning, they liked the same paintings, the same novels, and literature, the same style of furniture – in fact, they were kindred spirits. A few days later, their notorious liaison began with Dorothea concealing her identity by wearing a long cloak and veil in order to enter the Prince’s apartment incognito.
In Metternich Dorothea had found her equal, he was a man she could love wholeheartedly, who could satisfy her physically, emotionally and intellectually. She wrote, “Good God! My love, I know how to rejoice in so few things, do you understand what makes me feel true happiness, it is you, only you! My Clement, if you cease to love me what will become of me? … My dear friend promise to love me as much as I love you; our lives are pledged in this promise.”
In Dorothea Metternich had met the woman of his dreams, she could match his intellect and his passion. She could speak and write in four languages and her wit and intelligence were as sharp as his. He wrote, “My happiness today is you. Your soul is full of common sense your heart is full of warmth … You are as a woman what I am as a man.” “Why are your letters so like mine? Why do you write to me almost the same words I have written to you, and you have the air of knowing them whilst my letter is still in my room? Will such perfect identity of our beings be so complete that the same thought only finds the same expression in each of us, when a word, a single phrase will succeed in expressing what we feel? …. I could write volumes, I could repeat to you a hundred times in one page that I love you.”
Their heated, clandestine, affair soon succumbed to the requirements state. They continued their liaison mainly in letters continuing their physical relationship whenever their paths crossed. Metternich described writing to Dorothea as like speaking to her, or chatting to her as if she were in the room with him because she was ‘in him.’ “You are my last thought before I go to sleep at night and first thought when I awaken,” he wrote.
The pair were tortured by their affair not only because of their separation but also because they both knew that they were married to others and that they could never be together. Dorothea was well aware of Metternich’s reputation with women and called his fidelity to her into question on occasion. In the early years of the affair he chastised her for such thoughts but of course the inevitable happened and she broke off their relationship in 1826 when she found out that he traded her in for a younger woman.
Towards the end of her life, Dorothea burned Metternich’s letters afraid that their intimacy would shock her family and ruin their reputations but she copied sections of his letters into her notebook. In one letter, that survived because it was copied by the French Secret Service, Dorothea writes about a dream she had when she was staying at Lord and Lady Jersey’s house one summer evening. She wrote; “We spoke a great deal, and for fear we would be heard, you took me on your lap so that you could speak to me more quietly; my dear Clement, I heard your heart beating, I felt it under my hand so strongly that I woke up, and it was my own heart reacting to yours. Mr. God, my love, how it still beats at this moment …. will my dream ever become a reality?”
Metternich occupied her imagination from 1818 to the beginning of 1826. By the end she was disillusioned; references to him in letters written after that date, are cold and spiteful and it seems that time did not heal her broken heart. She had nothing good to say about him or his third wife when she saw him in Brighton in 1849 describing him as “slow and tedious” and his wife as “stout and well-mannered.” By then she was the wife in all but name of the French politician Guizot and living in Paris. It was said that even though she was a widow by then she refused to marry Guizot as she would have to give up her title of ‘Serene Highness’ something the proud and regal woman was never going to do. Like her former lover, she was ancien regime through and through.
Dorothea Lieven died peacefully at her home, 2 rue Saint-Florentin, Paris, aged 71, on 27 January 1857, with Guizot and Paul Lieven, one of her two surviving sons, beside her. She was buried, according to her wish, at the Lieven family estate, Mežotne (near Jelgava) next to her two young sons who had died in St. Petersburg. She is a recurring minor figure in many historical novels about the period, notably those of Georgette Heyer. Heyer generally portrays her as a haughty, formidable, and unapproachable leader of society, but in The Grand Sophy she is described as “clever and amusing”, and there is a passing reference in that book to her role in political intrigues.
Metternich died in Vienna two years later on 11 June 1859, aged 86. He was the last great figure of his generation; almost everyone of note in Vienna came to pay tribute at his funeral but in the foreign press his death went virtually unnoticed. Of course ‘the coachman of Europe’ is the topic of much historical discourse. His reactionary political views held sway in Europe for the best part of 35 years and his love affairs were a source of fascination and intrigue throughout the courts of Europe.
Dorothea Lieven: A Russian Princess in London and Paris, 1785-1857 By Judith Lissauer Cromwell
The Congress of Vienna: Power and Politics After Napoleon By Brian E. Vick
1815: The Roads to Waterloo By Gregor Dallas
Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £2.42 Also available on:
Amazon New Zealand
Amazon South Africa
Also on Smashwords