In an era when the written word was the primary source of communication, it is no surprise that notables of the Regency left monumental paper trails for future historians to follow. Yet it is the contemporary accounts of a handful of well-connected Georgians to whom all historians are drawn.
This small group of dedicated diarists consists of Charles Greville, Thomas Creevey, Horace Walpole, Fanny Burney, and Lady Mary Coke. To a lesser extent, the correspondence of German Prince Puckler Muskau, while not published until the 1980s, provides a detailed look at social practices of English aristocrats in the late 1820s, and The Private Correspondence of Granville Leveson Gower contains some of the most gossipy tidbits of the era.
The Greville Memoirs
The British library is the receptacle of the 29 manuscripts of Charles Cavendish Fulke Greville (1794-1865). His prime minister grandfather, the third Duke of Portland, obtained for him the post of clerkship-in-ordinary to the privy council. This appointment ensured he was accepted everywhere, from the finest drawing rooms in Mayfair and the grandest country estates in the kingdom to the confidence of prime ministers Wellington, Melbourne, Palmerston, and Peel.
Historian Christopher Hibbert, author of Greville’s biography in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, said Greville’s diaries “are not only an extremely important source for the history of British politics from the Regency to the Crimean War but a social document of wide range and the most accurate observation.”
Ever cognizant that someday his diaries would be published, Greville took great pains to give elucidating accounts and often rewrote entries he later found to be inaccurate. Following his death, expunged editions of the diaries were published by Appleton in 1874, 1875, and 1887. Volume 2 is available on the internet in its entirety. In 1938 the diaries were published in eight volumes. One of the editors of that edition, Lytton Strachey, had become acquainted with the diaries while researching his Queen Victoria.
The Creevey Papers
Thomas Creevey (1768-1838), who aligned himself to the Whigs, was first elected to Parliament in 1802 and served on and off until 1832, when his borough was abolished with the Reform Act of 1832.
“No one described more graphically the appearance, or recorded more faithfully the looks and the talk of the royal personages and major politicians of the time,” said historian William Thomas of Creevey.
Because Creevey and his wife, the former widow Eleanor Ord, lived in Brussels during the Waterloo campaign, he was in unique a position to give a thorough accounting of that battle and its aftermath.
Sixty-five years after his death, his diaries (passed down by his step-daughters) were finally published. The two volumes, edited by H. Maxwell, were published in 1903. The 521 pages of Volume 2, beginning in 1831, are available on the internet.
Memoirs of the Reign of George III
Though Horace Walpole (1717-1797) served for many years as an MP and met with a modicum of literary success, most especially with his paranormal, Castle of Otranto, his literary reputation rests on his letters and memoirs which chronicled party politics, foreign affairs, literature, art and gossip. Few were in a better position to do so than the effeminate Walpole, whose father, Robert Walpole, was Britain’s longest-serving prime minister.
From an early age, Walpole realized his gossipy letters formed a bountiful source for the scores of memoirs that were published after his death. He thoroughly covered the last ten years of George II’s reign in three volumes, and his Memoirs of the Reign of George III ran to four volumes. The first volume of that — 422 pages — published by Bentley in 1848, is available on the internet. His Journals of Country Seats was not published until the 20th century.
In all, Walpole’s writings fill some 48 volumes, edited by Yale scholar Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis (1897-1979), who dedicated his life to Walpole research. Lewis’s acquisitions of Walpole memorabilia is archived at Yale, where the 48 Walpole volumes were published.
Famous in her lifetime as a novelist, Fanny Burney (1751-1840) is more well known two centuries later for her diaries. Because of the acclaim of her first anonymously published novel, Evelina, which was read by King George III and his queen, Queen Charlotte asked Fanny to serve as one of her ladies-in-waiting. Burney was living with the royal family when George III suffered his first bout with madness (which she recorded) and, later, she was at Waterloo when Wellington defeated Napoleon. Her access to the royal family and her friendships with notables such as Dr. Johnson put her in a unique position to observe those who shaped the Georgian era.
Though she began the diaries when she was still a girl and continued to enter her observations — which sometimes ran as long as 7,000 words for a single day’s recollection — throughout her long life, she did not consider their publication until her old age.
Her niece Charlotte Barrett “edited” the journals which were first published in seven volumes two years after Burney’s death. Burney gave directions that “nothing should in any wise be altered or added,” so editing consisted of eliminating uneventful passages — primarily those written before she was 25, the year Evelina was published. Successive editions have been respectful of her wishes.
Lady Mary Coke
Lady Mary Coke (1727-1811), the daughter of the Duke of Argyll and Duke of Greenwich, recorded her keen, often-abrasive observations of the Regency’s principal figures in informative letters to her sister, Lady Strafford. These recollections are recorded in 26 books that are mostly housed at the National Registry of Archives at Edinbburgh. Of primary interest are the years 1766-1791, which are the years recorded in the four published volumes that were edited by her great, great, great-nephew James Archibald Home and published in 1874.
Prince Puckler Muskau
In 1987 P.M. Hermann edited and Collins published a series of letters written between 1826-1829 by Prince Puckler Muskau to his former wife describing society of England, Wales and Ireland. Titled Puckler’s Progress: The Adventures of Prince Puckler Muskau in England, Wales and Ireland 1826-29, the letters give an interesting depiction of aristocratic British life during the era. The impoverished German prince had been forced to divorce the wife of whom he was very fond in order to capture a wealthy Brit hungry for a title, and his letters provide an outsider’s glimpse into the loftiest levels of Regency society.
The Private Correspondence of Granville Leveson Gower
Though he served as an MP and an ambassador to France and was married to the Duke of Devonshire’s daughter, Lord Granville (1773-1846) would have been consigned to a historical footnote were it not for the letters he saved throughout his life. These letters, covering a 40-year span beginning in 1781, were published in two bulging volumes of over 1,000 pages by his daughter-in-law, Countess Castalia Granville, in 1917. His principal correspondent, Lady Bessborough, wrote to her lover almost daily not only for the 17 years of their affair but until her death in 1821, the year his daughter-in-law chose to end the entries.
Some 12 years older than her handsome lover, Lady Bessborough held an exalted position in British society and was at one time the object of the Prince Regent’s romantic overtures — which she repelled. Lady Bessborough was the mother of the infamous Caroline Lamb, the daughter of the first Earl Spencer, and the sister of prominent Whig hostess Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, which put her in the inner sanctum of Whig politics, which she recorded faithfully and with sparkling wit. Works of twentieth century historians have been enriched by the accessibility of Lord Granville’s private correspondence.
Indeed, all who research the Regency are indebted to the diaries and correspondence of these Georgians who so acutely observed their era.
Everyone who leaves a comment will be eligible for a drawing of a used copy of Lord David Cecil’s The Young Melbourne.
Fascinating post! Lord Granville’s family gatherings must have been interesting, what with his lover being his wife’s aunt.
Oh, it gets even better in the Granville household! His wife agreed to have his two illegitimate children come to live with them, knowing her aunt was their mother! It was thought the children, a daughter and a son, were never told Granville was their father and Lady Bessborough their mother, but they must have surmised the truth. Lady Granville loved the children, and the son served as his father’s secretary.