Thursday, November 17, 2011

Lady Suffolk and Her Circle!

Our book today is the 1924 volume Lady Suffolk and Her Circle by Lewis Melville, a wonderful and indefatigable hobby-historian who achieved his full writing powers in the all-too-brief Edwardian era and produced a shelf-full of great, meaty works of biography, letters, and history. Like everybody else, he wrote a book about Nell Gwyn (although his had the benefit of deep familiarity with the world of the theater, since that was his day job), and his Victorian Novelists is - or rather was - a classic. His Farmer George was the first readable biography of King George I (and it's still the most readable, not that it has much competition), and his "Life and Letters"-style studies of William Beckford, John Gay, William Cobbett, Mary and Agnes Berry, Lawrence Sterne, and the Duke of Wharton were the fruits of enormous industry and taste and are in most cases any researcher's starting-point on their various subjects. He wrote a biography and two very genial studies of his beloved Thackeray, several subject-histories of the Regency period, and an odd and extremely endearing book called Some Eccentrics and a Woman.

All of these books are extremely good - none of them deserves to be out of print for all eternity - but perhaps the warmest and wittiest of them all is this big, stuffed "Life and Letters" study of Lady Suffolk and the bright, sharp-tongued courtiers, politicians, and poets who made up her circle. You'd expect the bright and lively Henrietta Hobart, daughter of a baronet, sister of the future first Earl of Buckinghamshire, to have such a circle of attendants and followers. But the future Lady Suffolk's circle was much larger than it would otherwise have been, because she was the long-time mistress of a stout, coarse, near-buffoonish ignoramus named George Lewis, who instead of becoming Elector of Hanover and drinking himself into an early grave became, through circumstances known (and regretted?) best to God, King of England as George II. Among common readers, the Hanoverian Georges are the least-known of all the rulers of England (except of course for George III, and even he is remembered mainly because he lost America and went insane - other details of his enormous reign are now completely forgotten), and with good reason - George II had an ill repute right from the start, with court gossip maintaining that he only ever truly hated three people: his father, his wife, and his son.

Still, he certainly didn't hate Henrietta Hobart - quite the opposite: he quickly came to depend on her enormously. Her social and political cache was enormous - possibly eclipsing his own (as has so often been the way with royal mistresses throughout the ages), as Melville writes:
The social interest, however, is abundant, and from the letters Lady Suffolk wrote and received the Court of George II, both as Prince of Wales and as King, can be reconstructed. Not to know Lady Suffolk, first at Leicester House and Richmond Lodge, then at St. James's and Hampton Court, and finally at Saville Row and Marble Hill, was to argue oneself unknown to political circles; and, therefore, in the correspondence all the notabilities of the day make their bow. Three Prime Ministers wrote to her, Pelham, Grenville, and Pitt. Lord Peterborough, who was really old enough to know better, made "gallant" love to her. Pope and Arbuthnot were devote to her; as were Lord Bathurst and Lord Chesterfield; while Gay and Swift sought her influence with the King.

[caption id="attachment_4121" align="alignleft" width="215" caption="the king and his lady love, by kitty shannon"][/caption]

She had a rival in George's actual queen, Caroline, who was also well known to dominate the King - to the extent that she came in for some public joking on the subject, as in the poem that circulated:
You may strut, dapper George, but 'twill all be in vain:

We know 'tis Queen Caroline, not you, that reign -

You govern no more than Don Philip of Spain.

Then if you would have us fall down and adore you,

Lock up your fat spouse, as your Dad did before you.

As Melville writes:
George read the pasquinade, and was furious. He showed it to Lord Scarborough, who admitted he had already seen it but, when the King asked who had shown it to him, he refused to say, telling his Majesty that he had passed his word of honour, even before reading it, not to mention from whom it came. "Had I been Lord Scarborough in this situation, and you King," said his Majesty wrathfully, "the man would have shot me, or I him, who should have dared to affront me, in the person of my master, by showing me such insolent nonsense." "I never told your Majesty that it was a man," said the Master of the Horse dryly.

On page after page of Lady Suffolk and Her Circle, there are juicy anecdotes like this one, and judicious historical insights, and the whole bustling, decadent, fascinating world of the Georgian England that thrived and strived and revelled an entire generation before what most people think of when they think of "Georgian" at all. And at the heart of this portrait is the lady herself, proud but sensible, sharply intelligent but oddly non-manipulative, very human and very, very funny. History has largely forgotten her as it has her royal lover, but in the pages of a book like this one, she lives again.

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