Aristocrats

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 2 (Summer 1995), Reviews, Volume 3

Aristocrats
Caroline, Emily, Louisa and Sarah Lennox 1740-1832
Stella Tillyard
(Chatto and Windus, £20)

Aristocrats is a tour de force. Stella Tillyard has used the stories of the four sisters of its subtitle, largely taken from their copious correspondence, to immerse the reader in the eighteenth century on both sides of the Irish Sea. The sisters happen to be the great-granddaughters of Charles II and Louise de Kerouaille, whose son, to conceal his bastardy, was given many titles including that of Duke of Richmond. Moreover in addition to an annuity of two thousand pounds he was given a royalty of twelve pence per chauldron on coal dues at Newcastle. This turned out to be a solid base on which to found a dynasty for as the industrial revolution gathered pace so did the family’s wealth. The first duke eventually bought Goodwood in Sussex where he spent much of his time and to satisfy a gambling debt arranged for his son to marry Sarah Cadogan. She, however, tried to forget her Irish connection so it was Emily, their second surviving daughter, by her marriage to the Earl of Kildare in 1744, who blazed the trail that led to the family’s involvement in Ireland and its politics. Because of his dynastic position, in spite of his lack of political talent, Kildare led the ‘patriot party’ and controlled a large block of MP’s in the Irish House of Commons.
Emily’s elder sister Caroline, who was to be the mother of Charles James Fox, had eloped with the politician Henry Fox. Consequently, the parents considered Emily a more appropriate guardian for her younger sisters in the event of their death. So it was that in 1751 Carton in County Kildare became the home of Louisa, Sarah and the baby Cecelia, with Emily as their second mother. Seven years later, at the age of fifteen, Louisa married her neighbour, the wealthy Thomas Conolly, Speaker of the Irish House of Commons, thus becoming the mistress of Castletown, the largest house in Ireland, for the next sixty-three years.
Sarah, who left Carton at the same age had a more chequered destiny. Staying with Caroline and Henry Fox at Holland House, she was instantly launched into London society. The future George III fell in love with her and she became a pawn in the game of political rivals. Bute, who had become the king’s mentor, could not countenance him marrying a close relative of Henry Fox and the third Duke of Richmond. His own political career would be doomed. So he forced a loveless marriage to a plain German princess on the king. Sarah felt humiliated but her heart was not involved. Her marriage to Charles Bunbury in 1762 turned out to be equally unsatisfactory. She eventually gave birth to a daughter in December 1768 but confessed that her lover, Lord William Gordon, was the father. Then she eloped with him. This escapade led to twelve years of humble seclusion at Goodwood before she found happiness with an impoverished army officer, George Napier. The fifth sister, Cecelia, who had shared her childhood with Emily’s elder daughters, her contemporaries, had a short life for, aged only nineteen, she succumbed to consumption.
A glance at the list of sources and bibliography will give some idea of the immense archive Stella Tillyard has digested and, thanks to an exceptional talent, regurgitated so brilliantly that the Irish Times mistook it for a novel and entered it under fiction in its list of best sellers. The four protagonists of this family drama and their supporting cast of husbands and children are presented as fully rounded characters with whom the reader can instantly empathise. Moreover this life-like effect is enhanced by skilful detailed descriptions of portraits which also appear among the thirty two pages of illustrations. It is fascinating to follow the way the siblings interrelate as the story of their lives unrolls when in turn they take centre stage. Like a theatrical director the author orchestrates their exits and entrances using entr’actes to set the historical scene.
As a curtain raiser, the opening of Coram’s Foundling Hospital in Hatton Garden in 1741, at which Caroline and her parents are present, is described with great feeling. It accentuates the sharp distinction between rich and poor. As a prologue it is a masterstroke for it foreshadows as well as being a foil for the illicit affairs and illegitimacies in the extended Lennox family. Though women all had to bear the same shame the fate of the offspring was very different. On the other hand it was taken for granted that men would not be censured for their profligacy and their wives just had to accept it. Louisa believed she was fortunate in having a faithful husband. But when she went through his papers after his death she was devastated to find he had had a mistress. She wrote to her brother of her feelings and how she had decided not to let it mar her memories of a happy marriage. This is one of the many instances when we have the privilege of getting to know the sisters intimately by sharing in their confidences. One of Sarah’s extramarital affairs has already been mentioned. Five years after this Emily was also condemned by society. Her first-born son had died in 1765 soon after leaving Eton. So she had decided to educate her younger children at home and, having offered the post to Rousseau who declined, she hired William Ogilvie, a dour Scot. He lived with the children at Frescati, Blackrock, to be near the sea for bathing. There he became much more than a tutor to them and eventually their mother’s lover. Under cover of her marriage Emily could keep the affair secret. Emily’s nineteenth child, a son whom Ogilvie fathered, was accepted as a Fitzgerald but after the duke’s death in 1773 she was exposed to rumour and gossip since she had no cover-up for a further pregnancy. So in September 1774 she and Ogilvie set out for France with all the younger children and at some stage shortly before or after their departure Emily did the unforgivable in the eyes of society and married the tutor. They had two daughters and their love lasted till they were parted by Emily’s death in 1814.
Ogilvie takes the stage for the book’s epilogue. He had outlived all Emily’s siblings and retired to Ardglass Castle on the north-east coast of Ireland which had belonged to Charles Fitzgerald, his first pupil. There, living the life of a recluse, he endeavoured to tame the sea by building a pier and a life-boat station.
One of the entr’actes features an international gathering in Paris of Friends of the Rights of Man at which Edward Fitzgerald renounced his hereditary title thus taking a step towards his doom in 1798. ‘Fatal year’ wrote Emily on one of his letters and her words head the section which starts with a graphic description of the state of Ireland and the ramifications that preceded the rebellion. Before an account of the events which led to Lord Edward’s arrest and tragic death, a description of the reactions of the members of the family most closely involved vividly brings their predicament home to the reader. Emily was on tenterhooks in London after Edward joined the United Irishmen and became more and more fatalistic as the months went by. His favourite sister Lucy at first found conspiracy exciting and was infatuated by another United Irish leader, Arthur O’Connor. Sarah, who was living in Celbridge at the time could view it all objectively. She remained calm and sympathised with the rebels. But for once Louisa completely lost her equilibrium. She panicked, put Castletown in a ‘state of defence’ and rushed round knocking on doors begging her tenants to desist and put their trust in Tom and herself. She felt that forty years of looking after them had been in vain, her raison d’être had been shattered. She identified with the government, considering an attack on it was an attack on herself. However on hearing of Lord Edward’s imminent death she was galvanised and succeeded in getting permission for herself and his brother Henry to visit him.
After the rebellion she resumed her philanthropic role and when Tom died in 1803 declined her brother’s invitation to live with him at Goodwood. Castletown was her pride and joy and largely her creation. When in London she had always been anxious to get home and after the Act of Union she felt it her duty to do what she could for her ‘Paddys’, as she called her tenants. She used the outbuildings for small industrial enterprises, built a school and also a church where, twenty-three years after the rebellion, her funeral took place amidst hundreds of mourners from every walk of life. The grief and gratitude shown by her tenants, as recorded by her nephew George Napier, bears witness to the success of her endeavours to improve their lot. She was the only one of the sisters to die in Ireland.
It is impossible to encapsulate in a review the wealth of information provided in 423 enthralling pages. Apart from the biographical particulars there are detailed descriptions of the family homes: Goodwood, Holland House, Carton and Castletown, a comparison between how the latter two were run and the consequent costs, the hierarchy of servants and how they related to their employers. A long passage on eighteenth century letter writing, its style and content, explains why we are able to get to know these sisters of another century as though they were contemporary friends. But instead of having to go to the original letters Stella Tillyard has made it much easier by handing us their ingredients on a plate garnished with the relevant gobbets of history. This is a book for those wanting to know more about that special cross-bred race known as the Anglo-Irish and how, in the eighteenth century, it related to both countries, through an intimate acquaintance with a particular family. It is also for those who are tired of history from a male point of view. Here we have at first-hand how intelligent, well-read women thought about themselves and what was important to them. Thirdly it is for those who enjoy a good historical novel but who would prefer to know that it is entirely based on fact.


Eleanor Burgess

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