Sunday, November 20, 2011

Bess of Hardwick and Her Circle!

Our book today is from 1910: Bess of Hardwick and Her Circle by Mrs. Matilda Carbury - I beg your pardon, Mrs. Stepney Rawson, a bustling literary lady from the beautiful Berkshire countryside who ingratiated herself to various book-column editors in Edwardian London to look kindly upon her various and numerous productions - some of which needed all the friends they could get. In a later generation, the author of such works as Journeyman Love, The Apprentice, and The Stairway of Honour would inevitably turn out to be a sham persona concocted by Bertie Wooster (and given ample form by the unfailing Jeeves)(and a generation after that, she'd take the form of Miss Amelia Nettleship and rob poor Rumpole of his sleep), but in the early years of the 20th century, she was all too real, and her letters to prospective reviewers - smilingly imploring them to look kindly upon her poor efforts - have a decidedly Carburyesque tone to them that the reader might wish had been deliberate parody on her part.

Alas, no: Mrs. Rawson was nothing if not earnest, whether organizing the church theatricals and musicals of which she was so fond or writing the books for which she was known and somewhat celebrated in her own time, though she's entirely forgotten in our own. Sic transit gloria Mudie's.

Her best-selling book was a frothy piece of fiction called A Lady of the Regency, for which she managed to obtain quite a few favorable (though often somewhat grudgingly so) reviews. Romance novel fans might note it now for one main reason: it was one of the earliest of the archly formulaic Regency novels that would later account for such staggering swaths of the Western world's book-production (if you took away Regencies, whodunits, and westerns, the total number of books every published would drop by half). Nearly a decade after the success of that novel, Mrs. Rawson finally realized a long-held ambition to write a big, serious work of biography, a serious "exploration" (as she put it) of history.

She chose as her topic that most fascinating of Elizabethans, Elizabeth Hardwick, "Bess of Hardwick," the feisty, pretty daughter of a prosperous Nottinghamshire squire who took unusual care that all his children were well-schooled in letters and literature. The crucial formative fact that her parents took her seriously as a person gave Bess a steel rod for a personality, and she'd no sooner hit puberty than she was helping her mother (and her mentor, Anne Gainsford, a beautiful beaker of pure poison who'd warrant a biography of her own if any reader could be found to stomach it) find her a likely husband. The first of these, a handsome local heir, coughed himself into an early grave before he could even deflower Bess, which infuriated her. An intense amount of lobbying and odds-handicapping followed, the fruit of which was a marriage much higher up the food chain: fifty-something Sir William Cavendish, a very prosperous courtier and landowner who'd already lost two wives to the childbearing bed. With Sir William, Bess became Lady Cavendish, she became a mother many times over (Sir William was a vigorous man), and almost accidentally, she fell in love with her husband.

Who died ten years later and left Bess on the marriage-market once again. She waited a decent two years and then married an even wealthier landowner, Sir William St. Loe, who (mincing, beady-eyed) was the exact opposite of Sir William Cavendish in all ways but one: he also quickly came under the spell of his new wife, taking her opinions exactly as he would those of a man, watching in wonder as she whipped his various estates into shape (many of the letters we have in Bess of Hardwick's hand are hot-tempered instructions to wayward stewards - even now, their words snap: they can't have been pleasant to receive), trying to keep up with her in the banquet hall and bedroom. Sir William was only human: he died after about five years in the whirlwind. He was also immeasurably grateful for the ride: he left Bess everything, making her a stupendously wealthy woman.

Her next and last husband was her worst: George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury - an even wealthier landowner than her previous two husbands, an intimate friend of the Queen, one of the great powers in the realm, and the mother of all humorless pricks (actually, considering the remorseless slab of beef his son Gilbert turned out to be, probably more accurate to call him the father of all humorless pricks). Through George Talbot, Bess finally had access not only to vast wealth and land but to the electrified cables of actual power, and the proximity worked its customary dark magic on her. She conceived dangerous ambitions - not for herself but for her daughter Elizabeth, whom she pushed into a marriage with Charles Stuart, the brother of the second husband of Mary Queen of Scots (who was later quartered on the Talbots for large chunks of her house arrest in England, a discreet form of punishment meted out by an unforgetting Queen). Such a marriage was of course treason without the Queen's consent, and when Elizabeth I found out, Bess was ordered to report to London and explain herself. But she was ambitious, not crazy: she stayed on her impregnable country estates and waited for the Queen to calm down. And the Fates remembered her insolence: she was to have a grievously tempestuous relationship with Elizabeth's stunning daughter, Arabella Stuart.

Naturally, all this is catnip for Mrs. Rawson - how could it be otherwise, when she'd spent her entire literary apprenticeship as a novelist trying in vain to cook up plots half so enthralling? She goes at her subject in Bess of Hardwick and Her Circle with the same zeal she used in writing her novels - the exact same zeal, so this big, enjoyable book is full of 'my lady's and 'my good lord's and even a couple of brief dramatic scenes complete with stage-directions, which our author breathlessly defends:
The orthodox may be affronted at two brief incursions into fiction ... Let them skip these judiciously, magisterially. For my own part, I needed consolation at times for certain hard and bitter facts of history. Therefore, since the way was sometimes long, and the wind, in my imagination, very cold - as it whistled in and out of the ruins of those manors and castles, where the Scots Queen and her married gaolers dwelt, or as it drove the snow across the splendid facade of Hardwick (to say nothing of the draughts of the sombre, public research libraries) - I first drew my Countess down from her picture-frame to marshal her household, and then lured her child and her child's lover after to gladden your road and mine.

Well, how can you argue with that?

The 'orthodox' will find a great deal to object to in these pages other than amateur theatricals, but no matter: the romantic at heart, the dreamer, and especially anyone who's ever visited Hardwick Hall will very likely love this florid, heartfelt book. Certainly much better biographies of Bess of Hardwick have been written (Mary S. Lovell's is not to be missed), but none more passionate. If you can find a library that still stocks it, borrow a copy without delay! Mine came from this one, but they're no longer in business, unfortunately:



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