“A true representative of myself”: Georgiana Townshend’s letters

Mary, Countess of Chatham was, as I have mentioned before, one of a large family. She was very close to at least three of her surviving six siblings, but the one she was arguably closest to was her unmarried elder sister Georgiana.

Georgiana Townshend was born on 1 June 1761. She seems to have been plainer than her younger sisters, at least two of whom (Mary and Katherine, who later became Duchess of Buccleugh) were described as beauties. Although she seems not to have given up hope of marriage until she was in her forties, Georgiana seems never to have caught the eye of a suitable husband. She eventually became Housekeeper of the Royal Apartments at Windsor Castle, with an apartment of her own on the premises, but apart from this seems to have spent her time either living with the Chathams or with her brother the 2nd Lord Sydney, for whom she seems to have been a live-in babysitter.

Part of the reason for her remaining a spinster was, no doubt, her plainness. (If the one portrait I have seen of her is a good likeness, she was not ugly but also far from beautiful.) Georgiana’s personality is best described as “sunny disposition”. And to judge from her correspondence, my God that girl could talk. I have absolutely no doubt of why the taciturn 2nd Lord Chatham chose to marry Mary Townshend rather than Georgiana: he and the quiet, reserved Mary were much better suited. Had he married Georgiana, I suspect his brain would have been oozing out of his ears within months.

Georgiana wrote copious letters on a daily basis to family and friends. Regrettably, many of them survive. No doubt she had nothing much better to do, and since she lived at Windsor many of her letters are full of interesting vignettes about the Royal Family. Just as often, however, she was clearly writing because it was an expected social duty. Generous, well-meaning, adorable, and guileless are all words that could be used to describe Georgiana’s style. She was clearly a lovely person, but I suspect her friends could occasionally have used a pause button. Perhaps she was physically unable to use her brain while her hand was moving, I don’t know, but the result is a stream-of-consciousness mess that, presumably, reflected Georgiana’s personality like a well-polished mirror. She was endearingly aware of it herself: “I am sure you must be tired of my Stupid Letters,” she wrote to Mrs Stapleton, the Dowager Countess of Chatham’s companion, “but they are a true representative of myself, stupid & newsless, therefore you will know what to expect when you see one.”[1]

So what did Georgiana write in her letters? Well … she wrote about fashion.

“Now you will expect to hear if I was well dressed at the birth day therefore I will indulge you, with telling you that I was vdeery well dressed, my train was brown sattin & my petticoat yellow crape with silver spangles, & decorated about very well, with yellow, & brown Roses.”

A lot.

“She [Lady Harriot Pitt] was very well dressed her Jacque became her very much, to be sure she was lucky as to the colour, only think of her having chosen a buff & blue Sattin to go to the Queen’s House in, but it was vastly pretty, she looks vastly well this Evening…”[2]

No, really. A LOT.

“It is to be the fashion to wear the hair down the back this Winter, I would not have believed it, if I had not seen it, I really saw Lady Duncannon the night before last, with her hair all down her back & curled at the ends, her hair was dressed very full before, and a good many little curls upon the Topp [sic], she had two curls of each side, the upper ones were pinned up, the lower ones flowing & just curled at the ends, she had a very pretty hat a la figaro, her head was altogether too large, if it had been smaller I think it would have been very becoming, but it must be vastly uncomfortable, & very nasty to have all that powdered hair hanging about her, though there is not much powder…”

She wrote about being teased about being single (she seems to have been the butt of a number of jokes, poor girl, many of which I fear went right over her head):

“I do not know that I made any conquests though a L[ad]y attacked me rather violently to know if I was not going to be married, & though I said upon my honour not, I do not think she believed me, she took me quite by surprize, as I have very little acquaintance with her, but I … shall avoid her like the plague [at the drawing room] on Thursday”.

“The Duke of Cumberland says he has found [a husband] for me; he said he was sure I should not refuse him … therefore I only begged I might know not who it was … he told me he wished me married, as he was sure I should make a good Wife, I should like to know who he means”.

She wrote about the Royal Family:

“I was looking at some plants that the P[rincess] Augusta was shewing me, & to my astonishment I felt somebody whip me gently, I looked quiet [sic] round, & perceived that it was her Majesty who had done me that honor, she said I believe you never was whipped by a Queen before, which to be sure was pretty true. What a dear charming woman she is.”

“There were several men very drunk that made it very disagreable so we came away, there was one worse than all rest … he … was most beastly drunk indeed, you may guess who I mean ye first in company but quite otherwise in behaviour [the Prince of Wales] he was drinking with all the Regimental band that was there, & was at least carried out speachless [sic], one of our servants who was there said he never saw such a sight in his life, people were getting upon chairs & tables to look at him till they absolutely gave way, … I never heard anything like it, he sung & hallowed until he lost his voice.”

“The Royal Family have been by to the Cathedral [St George’s Chapel, Windsor] & returned of course. Dearest dear Pss Mary saw me, & kissed her hand to me. How often I wish more in the world were like her, she is such an Angel, that you will say, is no news for me, but is often the burthen of my song, & so it always must be, to those who sing of her.”

She talks of literature:

“I have been refreshing my memory since I have been confined, with to my mind a very pretty interesting book, which I had read so long ago, that it was quite new to me, who have a bad memory, the Vicar of Wakefield, I have jst finished it this Even, it has amused me very much, & there is plenty of good avice in it, if people woud follow it.”

And, er, not-quite-literature:

“I am afraid you will be disappointed in the book I promised to send you [Marcellus and Julia: a dialogue, a thinly-veiled satire on the Prince of Wales and Mrs Fitzherbert], I cannot imagine how any body ould say it was very clever, it is very plain who Marcellus & Julia are meant for, and I have heard that they had a great quarrell last year … I really am quite ashamed of sending you such nonsense as the book you will receive with this, I should not have thought of sending it you if I had read it first”.

Sometimes, ill-advisedly, she talks politics:

“I am sure you must rejoice in all the wicked people being taken up, I hope, as I am afraid there is no doubt of their guilt, that some of them will be made an example of, what a mercy it is, that the wretches were discovered in time. I am afraid they have poisoned the minds of many weak people, but I suppose it was best to wait till they had strong proof against them, before they were taken hold of.”

“We are just come home from the second day of Mr Burkes speech [at Warren Hastings’ trial in 1788], he would have ended to day, if he had not been taken ill with a violent Cramp, it is no wonder he excites himself, he is so very violent. … Besides his great abuse, he has entertained us with the accounts of the most horrid torments, & not all the most decent, inflicted upon a number of poor creatures. I think he mght as well have contended himself without describing the tortures, it really made one quite sick.”

And often she talks of, well, absolutely nothing at all:

“Now I hope the weather is growing fine, I shall have a great many walks with them. How has your Farm & Plantation borne this Winter? Have the Farmeresses been successfull? & how does your new Cow succeed?”

Lastly, her life was occasionally enlivened by the possibility of having her purse relieved by a highwayman:

“We [Georgiana and her mother] were followed by two Highwaymen; as we have every reason to believe, they were very near stopping us when we discovered them, upon which we made the Coachman drive home as fast as he possibly could, & made the footman who was on horseback … keep close behind, the Phateon, & the lanes were as narrow that they could not pass us, but they were in sight till we got very near home [Frognal in Kent], I never was more rejoiced in my life to find muself at home.”

I could go on, but my own head would probably explode.

I may be rather unfair on Georgiana. She wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, but she loved her family. Her letters about her nieces, her sister Mary, whom she nursed tirelessly through her many illnesses, and her obvious concern for all the people she loved, mark her out as being a person I would very much like to have known. I suspect, however, that a little of Georgiana went an awful long way.

References

[1] Unless otherwise marked, all quotations come from National Army Museum Combermere MSS 8408-114

[2] Georgiana Townshend to the Dowager Countess of Chatham, 3 March 1785, PRO 30/8/364