Thursday, May 19, 2011

Michelle Styles: Blind Alleys and Research

When I was researching my latest book (accepted yesterday!), I had cause to wonder about the Lady Patronesses of Almack’s. Specifically I wanted to know who was a Lady Patroness during the 1811 season. The answer – you have to make an educated guess. The only list we have is for the 1814 Season. Using some detective work, I managed to eliminate Countess Lieven as her husband hadn’t become ambassador to the Court of St James. The same is true of Princess Esterhazy. It was unlikely that Lady Castlereagh had risen to the heights as her husband had not become Secretary in the Foreign Office. So I started looking at the others. Lady Shefton probably was and so was Sarah Child Villiers Lady Jersey. To my shock and amazement, I have been unable to find a good modern biography of Sarah Child Villiers. Here is a woman who not only play a significant role in English high society as a leading hostess but also was the senior partner at Childs and Co, one of London’s oldest bank. She maintained a desk there and according to the snippets I read online did not allow any of the men in her life to take an active part in the business. She served as the senior partner of the bank from 1806 – 1867. Childs still maintains her papers in their archives, mostly dealing with partnerships. She inherited the bank from her maternal grandfather who was annoyed about her mother’s elopement with the Earl of Westmoreland. Childs provided the bulk of the Jerseys’ considerable fortune. The fact that she was actively involved in the business surprised me. She is also rumoured to have had several affairs including one with Palmerston as far as I can determine. As a Lady Patroness she was responsible for bringing the quadrille to London and had a hand in the introduction of the waltz. According to Princess Lieven’s letters such was her power that she was known as ‘Queen Sarah.’ And in 1820 she held her salon supporting the Opposition rather than the government. Captain Gronow who did the biography of Brummell and who originally gave the list for the Lady Patronesses of 1814 is less effusive saying that she looked like tragedy queen and was ill-bred. (Perhaps Childs had refused him credit.) She was known to be talkative and was sometimes called Silence as a result.

It seems astonishing to me that no biography of Lady Jersey exists and that she tends to be overlooked in favour of her mother-in-law Frances who had an affair with the Prince Regent. If anyone knows of a biography, please tell me. Surely her life is ripe for re-examination.

Actually I would love to see a well-done biography of all the Lady Patronesses or even an examination of Almack’s and its role. There is apparently a 1924 book on Almack’s and Lady Dorothy Nevill’s Memoirs among others are useful at providing snippets but there is nothing solid.

One of the reasons I love writing historical is the opportunities for research. It can be annoying though when one wants to know more!


Carol Townend said...

Congratulations on your acceptance, Michelle!

Evangeline Holland said...

Your mention of Lady Jersey made me do some digging, and I stumbled across this book, which amazed me! Plot bunnies are bouncing through my brain as we speak!

But those unsung hero(ines) are always slightly bittersweet. I always feel compelled to track down the stories of those who've slipped through the cracks of time because there's something so compelling about someone who was quite well known or celebrated, but slipped into obscurity soon after their death.

And I second Carol's congrats!

Michelle Styles said...

Evangeline --
The book has been ordered! It sounds way too interesting. It is a hugely neglected area and absolutely fascinating.
Did you ever read James Clavell's TaiPan and Noble House? I always wanted to know what happened to daughter who inherited and how she became so fearsome.
It just strikes me as strange that sometimes women who have had much less influence are noticed (say Lady Caroline Lamb or even Emma Hamilton) and others are not. Why should there be a biography of Harriet Wilson but none of Sarah Villiers?

And thank you both for the congrats. I am so pleased and relieved.

Evangeline Holland said...

I have not! Now my TBR is groaning beneath the weight of recommended books! ;D

I completely agree with your second sentiment, but even the most unique women in history are boiled down to just their scandals and love life (I'm looking at 2008's The Duchess with Keira Knightley, which didn't show half of Georgiana's fascinating and nuanced personality and life). However, that's one of the joys of writing and reading historical romance! The genre successfully balances the extraordinary qualities of the heroine with her romantic life!