Confession: a significant error of interpretation in “The Late Lord”

I’m sure it happens to most biographers, but I must confess to an important error of interpretation in The Late Lord.

marychathamrosenburg

Mary, Countess of Chatham (ca 1800) by Charles Rosenburg of Bath; in the possession of Ron Mills

On pp. 181-2, I describe the death of Mary, Countess of Chatham, on 21 May 1821:

On Monday, 21 May 1821, Chatham, at home in Hill Street, received the visit of Sir William Bellingham [an old friend] … The two men sat down to dinner at 5 o’clock. Lady Chatham did not join them. She had been unwell with a liver complaint since Saturday … She greeted her husband’s guest, then took a glass of barley water and brandy laced with laudanum and retired early to bed. Her maid remained in the room with her as she drifted peacefully off. She was so peaceful, in fact, that it was some time before the maid realised Lady Chatham was no longer sleeping. … What exactly killed her is a mystery, although the signs point to an accidental laudanum overdose.

This passage came from two separate letters in private hands. I can’t reproduce either of them here, but one was written by J C Villiers, a close friend of Chatham’s who saw him on 22 May. The other was written by a third party, reporting a conversation with Sir William Bellingham.

I came across my transcripts of those two letters yesterday, and it immediately struck me that I had completely misinterpreted them. Eighteen months of not thinking too much about it allowed me to see new connections between the two accounts (which I had previously found somewhat contradictory).

Far from being a “mystery”, I think Mary’s death was due, not to any laudanum overdose in the barley water, but to the liver complaint from which she was suffering. It sounds like it was sudden but extremely virulent. According to Villiers’s letter, she was fine on the Friday and dead by the end of Monday. The crucial thing I’d missed is that Bellingham wasn’t there because he happened to be visiting: he had been called in because Lady Chatham’s death was imminently expected to happen, and Chatham didn’t want to be alone when it did.

Hyperacute liver failure it is, then. The only mystery is what might have caused Lady Chatham’s liver to fail so rapidly (under 72 hours).

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Mary, Countess of Chatham’s “Rheumatick complaint”

[Mary] has not I think been quite well lately. Some how or other she has got a Lameness in her Hip. It is better now and perhaps nothing of any Consequence but I think it makes her look Languid and pale.”[1]

So wrote Lady Harriot Pitt to her mother of Mary Elizabeth Townshend, soon to be engaged to Harriot’s brother Lord Chatham. Mary’s lameness passed, and no further mention is made of it in Harriot’s correspondence. Three weeks later John Chatham proposed to Mary Townshend; within two months they were married. Nobody anticipated that Mary would spend nearly the whole of the first three years of married life an invalid.

The “lameness” Harriot noticed in May 1783 may have been due to a number of things. It may have been a congenital issue, such as hip displasia, that was not picked up until later in life. It may have been early onset arthritis; it may have been some sort of deeper-seated metabolic illness like fibromyalgia. It may have been something entirely different. Whatever the cause, and whatever brought on the attack (a miscarriage perhaps?), by April 1784 Mary had taken to her bed.

The first record I have seen of her illness is Frederick Robinson writing to his brother, Lord Grantham, on 1 April 1784. “Ly. Chatham suffers cruelly when she moves but is rather better,” he wrote, suggesting Mary had already been ill for some time.[2] Three weeks later there was little improvement. On 20 April 1784, in the midst of a general election, William Pitt the Younger wrote to his mother that “Lady Chatham mends a little”. On the same day Mary’s sister Georgiana, devotedly nursing her younger sister, also wrote to Mary’s mother-in-law:

My Sister had a very good night last night, and I hope is better to day. Dr Warren has put off her getting up till tomorrow, on account of her being still a little fatigued with the Physic she took yesterday. Indeed I flatter myself that she is certainly gaining ground, & I hope when the weather is quite fine, that her amendment will be much quicker. It is really quite horrid to think how much she has suffered. … Getting up has hitherto always thrown her back, owing to the fatigue from the great pain she has always suffered, which naturally gives her a great dread of it. … She feels [the pain] more in her knee & leg than she did. What would I give to see her walk again.”[3]

But Mary did not walk again for a very long time. In November 1784, Anne Robinson (Lord Grantham’s sister) reported that “Lady Chatham … now talks of Standing which she has not done for above eight months”.[4] Two months later Mary was still ill, although by this time she seems to have been improving. Lord Grantham noted he had heard she was now able to use a “Merlin’s Chair”, a sort of wheelchair invented by John Joseph Merlin, a Swiss inventor.

A "Merlin chair" from Kenwood House (photo Ashley Wilde)

A “Merlin chair” from Kenwood House (photo Ashley Wilde)

The chair enabled Mary at last to navigate around her house and her spirits rose accordingly: her “health is now very good”, Lord Grantham reported. “She has Strength sufficient to get in and out of her Chair.” By the middle of January she was finally walking across her room for the first time since at least the previous March.[5]

A Merlin chair from 1811 (Wellcome Library)

A Merlin chair from 1811 (Wellcome Library)

A year after taking to her bed Mary was finally getting out and about, although mostly in search of further medical assistance. “I have been taking a long airing with Mary today,” Georgiana reported to the Dowager Lady Chatham on 3 March 1785. “… Going out certainly does her a great deal of good … She has been twice at Mr Partingdons [sic] … & finds great benefit from being Electrified with his large Machine.”[6]

Various medical electrical machines, ca 1770

Various medical electrical machines, ca 1770

“Mr Partingdon” was in fact Miles Partington, a fashionable surgeon whose speciality was to use the power of static electricity to treat rheumatic and nervous complaints in his patients. Mary would have come to his house on Great Russell Street, and would have sat in a comfortable chair propped up on glass blocks while a servant turned the handle of Partington’s machine. A large wheel rubbed against a cushion stuffed with horsehair, while metal rods channelled the resulting static electricity into a Leyden jar. Once fully charged, Partington would have put on a pair of gloves, taken hold of two metal rods insulated with glass handles, and channelled the electricity onto specific points on Mary’s leg and hip. I can’t believe it worked very well, but Mary by this time must have been desperate to believe in anything.

An electrical machine of the sort Miles Partington might have used on Mary

An electrical machine of the sort Miles Partington might have used on Mary

At this time Lord Chatham’s childhood tutor, Edward Wilson, “had the pleasure” of reporting to the Dowager Countess of Chatham that her daughter-in-law was “actually in a state of recovery which I had considered as a hopeless event.”[7]  But Mary’s improvement was much slower than anticipated, and she possibly suffered another relapse shortly afterwards. At any rate, Lord Chatham cancelled plans to travel to Ireland to visit his friend, Lord Lieutenant the Duke of Rutland, and took Mary to the fashionable spa of Buxton instead.[8] The Peak District waters did not do their job: “Lady Chatham has not received so much benefit from Buxton as she expected, but is told it will appear when she has left the place a little time,” Anne Robinson wrote to her brother Frederick.[9] By December, however, she was well enough to go on a hunting trip with her husband near Grantham.[10]

It must have been a temporary rally, however, for in 1786 Mary’s health was still uncertain. By the summer John was happy enough to leave her with Georgiana at Weymouth and at last make his long-delayed trip to Dublin, but it is clear from her father’s letters to her eldest brother John Townshend that she was not as well as her family would have liked. “Lady Chatham is better,” Lord Sydney wrote in August 1786, “but, I am sorry to say, has left Weymouth for Burton [Pynsent, in Somerset, to visit her mother-in-law]. I hope in God, that she will return [to Weymouth], & not trifle with so serious a business. Her recovery may depend entirely upon her use of the warm bathing this year.”[11]

By the end of the year, though, Mary’s health was much better established, so much so that she became pregnant (possibly for the second time). “We have been seasonably chear’d with a piece of news that was communicated to me last Sunday, from the very highest Authority [probably Lord Chatham himself], respecting Lady Chatham on which we most cordially congratulate your Ladyship,” Reverend Wilson wrote to the Dowager Countess of Chatham on 5 November 1786. “Besides the welcome prospect of increase we hope it will be a means of restoring her Ladyships health”.[12] Alas Mary’s pregnancy ended in a miscarriage before the end of the year, but she does not seem to have been especially unwell during 1787. By 1788 was at last able to engage in some political work, canvassing for Lord Hood during the 1788 Westminster by-election and, in 1789, acting as a patroness for the White’s Ball in honour of the King’s recovery from insanity.

It was not, however, the last word, and her “rheumatism” left her permanently lame on one side. In 1795 she seems again to have had a serious rheumatic attack. “Lady Chatham has got the Rheumatism in a very disagreeable Way”, the Dowager Countess wrote to Pitt, “… but … she is otherwise well and grows Fat”.[13] In February 1796, however, she was still ill:

Lady Chatham is I am afraid going to have some return of her old Rheumatick complaint. She has been for some time much more lame than usual: and I called a few days ago when she could not well move out of her Chair. This she attributed to having been electrified too much; but I am afraid she does not get better.[14]

All Lord Chatham’s friends would have remembered, all too well, what long-term effects Lady Chatham’s “rheumatick complaint” might have. On this occasion nothing seems to have come of it, but its spectre must always have hung over their marriage. Unfortunately for the Chathams, Mary’s health was not destined ever to be robust, and in later life she succumbed to mental instability on at least two prolonged occasions. Whether that mental instability was a progression of her earlier rheumatic problems I cannot say, but one thing is for sure: Mary Chatham was never an especially healthy woman.


References

[1] Lady Harriot Pitt to the Countess of Chatham, 19 May 1783, John Rylands Library Manchester University Eng MS 1272 f 38

[2] Frederick Robinson to Lord Grantham, 1 April 1784, Bedford Archives Wrest Park (Lucas) Mss L30/15/54/205

[3] Georgiana Townshend to the Dowager Countess of Chatham, 20 April 1784, National Archives PRO 30/8/64 f 167

[4] Anne Robinson to Lord Grantham, 5 November 1784, Bedford Archives Wrest Park (Lucas) Mss L30/15/50/56

[5] Lord Grantham to Frederick Robinson, 3 January 1785, Bedford Archives Wrest Park (Lucas) Mss L30/15/54/238; Lord Grantham to Frederick Robinson, 14 January 1785, Bedford Archives Wrest Park (Lucas) Mss L30/15/54/246; Lord Grantham to Frederick Robinson, 17 January 1785, Bedford Archives Wrest Park (Lucas) Mss L30/15/54/249

[6] Georgiana Townshend to Lady Chatham, PRO 30/8/64 f 170

[7] Edward Wilson to the Dowager Countess of Chatham, 12 March 1785, PRO 30/8/67 f 103

[8] Edward Wilson to the Dowager Countess of Chatham, 7 October 1785, PRO 30/8/67 f 113

[9] Anne Robinson to Frederick Robinson, 28 August 1785, Bedford Archives Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS L30/15/50/65

[10] Lord Grantham to Frederick Robinson, 19 December 1785, Bedford Archives Wrest Park (Lucas) Mss L30/15/54/296

[11] Lord Sydney to John Thomas Townshend, August 1786, Nottingham University Archives Hildyard MSS THF/X/3/5 f 2

[12] Edward Wilson to the Dowager Countess of Chatham, 5 November 1786, PRO 30/8/67 f 134

[13] The Dowager Countess of Chatham to William Pitt, 14 October 1795, PRO 30/8/10 f 31

[14] Lord Bathurst to Lord Camden, 27 February 1796, Kent RO CKS-U840/C95/2

“A most precious Jewel”

Another super quick blog post, since I’ve finally received the last piece of a little puzzle that has been needling at me since I got hold of a batch of photocopied correspondence between Lord Grantham and his brother Frederick Robinson from Bedford & Luton Archives. I am still ever so slightly mystified, although I think I know what it means. If anyone else can help shed some light on the mystery, though, I’d be grateful.

The Robinson brothers were prominent movers in Whig political circles, and their letters are full of references to the big names of political life. One of the families they were close to was the Townshend family, including Thomas Townshend, the future Lord Sydney, his wife Elizabeth Powys, and their growing family. Frederick and Anne Robinson, Lord Grantham’s siblings, frequently dined and socialised with the Townshends. On 4 May 1778 Frederick Robinson wrote to Lord Grantham: “I was at the Opera at night & supped at Mrs Townshends[.] Georgiana [Thomas Townshend’s eldest daughter, born April 1761] is much grown though little alter’d[.] The second daughter [Mary Elizabeth, later Countess of Chatham, then fifteen] will be pretty”.[1]

Mary, Countess of Chatham

Mary, Countess of Chatham

Almost exactly a year later, Mary’s future husband John, Earl of Chatham paid the visit to Grantham in Spain that I blogged about in a previous post. After John had left Madrid, Grantham wrote to Frederick Robinson with further thoughts about the three “English” who had been his guests for over a fortnight: “I believe he [Captain Colt] & Conway found out new Acquaintances at Madrid, but Lord Chatham never went with them, & I would not swear that he is not in possession of a most precious Jewel”.[2]

One thing is for sure about this curious turn of phrase: it was not meant literally. This “precious Jewel” was a euphemism for something, and something that made Chatham forego the pleasure of sharing Conway and Colt’s “new Acquaintances”. What was the nature of this jewel? Frederick Robinson’s response gives a clue:

I believe L[or]d Chatham is not in town, Nanny [Anne Robinson] met him at Tommy Townshend’s who gave him a dinner [upon Chatham’s return from abroad], I think it very probable that his Father recommended T[homas] T[ownshend] to him; if he has a mind to set that Jewel which you suppose him possess’d of very beautifully, he might consult Miss Mary Townshend.[3]

From which I gather that Lord Grantham guessed Chatham’s reluctance to visit Colt and Conway’s “Acquaintances” derived from some sort of attachment, and Robinson connected that attachment to Miss Mary Townshend, Tommy Townshend’s “pretty” second daughter. He certainly wasn’t wide of the mark, for four years later John and Mary were indeed married.

Could it be that John already had a thing for Mary in May 1779, when he was 22 and she was 16? Could it be that he had had a crush on her even before he left for Gibraltar, since Lord Grantham seems to have picked up on it even before John’s return to England? And if so, isn’t that kind of sweet?

Do you agree, or do you think Grantham was talking about something else?


References

[1] Frederick Robinson to Lord Grantham, 4 May 1778, Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS, Bedford and Luton Archives, L30/14/333/91

[2] Lord Grantham to Frederick Robinson, 2 May 1779, Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS, Bedford and Luton Archives, L30/15/54/139

[3] Frederick Robinson to Lord Grantham, 25 May 1779, Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS, Bedford and Luton Archives, L30/14/333/211

Lord Chatham’s seal

It’s rare to find any John-related artefacts out there, perhaps because people didn’t think his things worth keeping (the “wrong Lord Chatham”, as it were). A few months ago, however, I discovered something on the web that actually belonged to him.

johnseal

Amazingly, the above was John’s seal. I found it on the finds.org.uk site for the public to register finds of archaeological/historical interest. The website notes:

Part of a late eighteenth century gold fob seal set with a cornelian intaglio. The struts and suspension loop are missing. The fob seal is oval in shape and measures 33.81mm by 28.08mm by 5.24mm. It weighs 11.25g. The arms engraved on the intaglio are those of John Pitt, 2nd earl of Chatham (1756-1835), impalling those of his wife, Mary Elizabeth Townshend (1762-1821), daughter of Thomas Townshend, 1st Viscount Sydney. It encorporates the coronet, supporters and motto, BENIGNO NUMINE (‘by favour of the heavens’) of the earls of Chatham. The seal must date from between the marriage of John Pitt in 1783, and 1805, when the Pitt family sold their estate at Curry Rivel. (From here)

It was found on 1 February 2006, somewhere “in the Curry Rivel area” in Somerset, presumably on the Burton Pynsent estate, where the Pitt family had a house.

What remains of Burton Pynsent (from http://www.panoramio.com/photo/10263323)

What remains of Burton Pynsent (from http://www.panoramio.com/photo/10263323)

I’d guess John was out walking or riding around his estate and lost part of his seal. It’s just one of those reminders that the people I read and write about were actually human beings, who were liable to lose things (and probably quite annoyed about it afterwards).

I have not seen any manuscripts sealed with this particular design, although to be fair most MSS do not include the envelopes along with the letters (some do, particularly if the inside of the envelope formed part of the letter). I do wonder if it is a pre-1790 seal, since John was invested with the Garter in December of 1790 and was so proud of it he put his star/garter symbol on absolutely EVERYTHING. Without knowing more about heraldry, however, I could not say for sure.

As the find.org.uk website notes, the crest on the seal is composed of Chatham’s arms impaled with those of his wife, Mary Elizabeth Townshend. The Chatham arms are below:

pittcrest

And this is the crest of Lord Sydney, Mary’s father:

townshendcrest

I would very much like to see a colour version of the Pitt/Townshend crest. I may have to make one myself!

Short story: From Day to Day

This is a bit of a departure for me in this blog, but I recently wrote a short story for the Historical Novel Society conference competition. I didn’t make the shortlist, but I’m quite proud of it, so wanted to share it here.

It’s called From Day to Day, and takes place over the disastrous weekend in September 1819 when the Bishop of Lincoln and his wife Eliza Tomline came to visit Lord and Lady Chatham at Abington Hall. If the title seems familiar, it’s because I wrote a post about the historical background to this story back in April.

Without further ado…


From Day to Day

I stand outside Abington Hall and watch for his return from the hunt. He is late and my anxiety rises when John is not beside me. I feel for the locket he gave me on our wedding day with a lock of his black hair inside. My fingers trace the filigree pattern, smoothed by daily wear and warm from the heat of my skin. I know he wants to send me to my family until I am better. I must show him I already am, for if I lose him I never will get well.

John comes home at dusk. Relief courses through me at the sight of his tall, straight form in the saddle, but the moment he sees me his expression changes. Once his heavy-lidded eyes rarely looked upon me with anything but affection. Now they are full of a suspicion I never saw there before I became ill.

‘What are you doing here?’ His voice is low but firm. He turns me away from the sight of the stable-hands. ‘You should be resting.’

I bite back tears of shame, for I know he does not mean to hurt me. Ever since he commanded that infernal expedition to Antwerp he has suffered humiliation upon humiliation: the “late Lord Chatham”, Mr Pitt’s useless elder brother. Even his valet damns him as “the hero of Walcheren” behind his back. If word spreads that Lady Chatham is insane, he will lose his last shreds of dignity. I love him too much to wish for that.

Once I am safely in my room John relaxes. He rings for Sally to undress me, then holds my hand while I take my laudanum. If I close my eyes I can pretend all is as it was before madness came between us.

‘What time do you expect the Bishop tomorrow?’ I ask.

His hand tightens round mine. He knows I hate the self-serving Bishop of Lincoln and his vapid wife. John tolerates them only because of his poor brother, for the Bishop was Mr Pitt’s intimate friend. ‘Are you certain you are equal to their visit?’

As much as I dislike the Tomlines, I want them to come. Receiving them will be a trial, but it will prove to John that I am well again. I will not let him send me away. ‘I will be happy to receive them. I feel better, my love. I am better.’

He smiles and kisses my forehead. The warmth of his love floods through me. For over a year we have lived from day to day, but now we can look forward to the future again. I know it.

***

I open my eyes. Slowly, the fog of misery descends. My husband is not beside me, and today the Tomlines will come.

A stranger stares at me from the mirror. I was beautiful once, but this disease ravages the face as much as the mind. Sally brushes out my hair. She snags at a stubborn knot and I raise my hand. In the mirror I see her shrink back. With effort I quash the instinct to strike her. If I can get through the Bishop’s visit I will show John that I truly am better, and perhaps then he will keep me by his side, where I belong.

The Tomlines arrive in the afternoon. I receive them in the Jacobean drawing room and try to ignore the openness with which they peer about in contempt. Abington must seem a small house for the son of the great Chatham and brother of Mr Pitt.

‘Our thanks for your hospitality, my lady,’ the Bishop says. ‘I am glad to find you so well.’ He is nearly seventy, fat and balding, with a broad face and tiny eyes like black pebbles. His wife is thin and shrivelled.

I want to recoil from them, but I smile politely. ‘Thank you. My health is much improved.’

I raise my eyes to my husband. He watches me anxiously, but his lips curve in response to my smile. In his relief he looks almost young again.

***

Sunday comes. We cross the bridge and walk to church. Rain falls in the long grass with a sound like a sustained sigh.

The villagers gawp at me and I want to sob into my Book of Common Prayer, but John holds my hand and his touch gives me confidence. He is my strength. With him I might conquer anything.

John takes the Bishop riding towards Cambridge. Mrs Tomline and I are alone. The thought of her revolts me, but the old Mary Chatham would not snub a guest.

Sally fetches my workbox. Mrs Tomline brings out her tambour frame. Rain drums against the window like nails.

‘The men will be soaked through,’ Mrs Tomline observes.

‘Lord Chatham is accustomed to riding in all weather.’ I wonder if he prefers being away from his sick wife, but such doubts belong to my malady and not to me.

‘You must speak more of your illness,’ Mrs Tomline says. I straighten. I do not wish to talk about what is past to anyone, least of all a woman for whom I have no regard. She frowns. ‘Keeping it shut up inside will make you worse. I am a friend. Your confidence will go no further.’

I burst into a bitter laugh. I am sure Mrs Tomline would be all too delighted to linger over every last detail. ‘It is of no interest to anyone but Lord Chatham and myself.’

Mrs Tomline purses her lips. ‘You cannot burden Lord Chatham with your ill health. Has he not suffered enough?’

The needle lies idle in my hand. She is more right than she knows. I am the reason we sit in Abington Hall’s tiny parlour in a Cambridgeshire exile. Had it not been for me and my wretched mind John might still be in government. He need not have accepted the commission to take Antwerp; his disastrous retreat before Walcheren would never have occurred. He would never have been mortified before army, Parliament and nation. A wave of isolation takes me unawares. ‘I know I must not give Lord Chatham a moment’s pain.’

‘I am glad you recognise his goodness towards you, but you do not fully comprehend the difficulty under which you put Lord Chatham when you are in this state. You must control yourself.’ I stare at her. Does she not see how hard I am trying? Does she not realise this is the best I can do? She leans forward and takes my hand. Her skin is as scaly as a lizard’s. ‘I know you can be well if you choose to be so.’

‘You know nothing of it,’ I snap, and whip my hand back.

‘Of course not, but it is not enough to control yourself for us. You must control yourself for the whole world, for Lord Chatham’s sake. Should your state become general knowledge–’

Does she think she is helping? Perhaps she wishes I would act more like a lunatic. Then she might fill her letters with accounts of a Countess raving and foaming at the mouth. Her gaze moves down and I become aware I am scratching at my hands, drawing blood.

‘Oh my dear Lady Chatham,’ she says, and I know if I remain a moment longer I will scream. My sewing falls to the floor and I flee.

I slam the door to the parlour. I clutch my head to stop it spinning.

‘Mary?’ It is my husband. Rain drips from his coat. He leaves the Bishop in the pillared hallway and rushes to my side, spurs clattering across the stone floor. He takes my hand. His fingers rub the bloodied scratchmarks and I see his dismay. No! I whip my hands out of his and bury them in my skirts.

I must not allow Mrs Tomline to discompose me. I must not let John see that she does, for I might lose him and his proximity is all that sustains me.

***

Dinner is served at six. The strain of pretence is beginning to tell. When I make my appearance I see the concern on my husband’s face. I make an effort so strong I can almost feel the earth shift beneath my feet and give him my arm. He looks doubtful but says nothing.

We dine in the largest room of the house, overlooking the lawn. The footmen lay the dishes on the table: roast beef, Cambridgeshire mutton, a venison pie. The Bishop and John talk about the reform meeting in St Peter’s Field and its terrible aftermath. ‘Mr Pitt would not have allowed matters to reach such an extremity,’ the Bishop says and my husband nods. I pick at my food and try not to listen. The Tomlines leave in the morning, and then I can concentrate on getting better.

I hear the Bishop say my name. ‘I fear we are tiring Lady Chatham with our talk.’

John stops chewing. I see wariness on his face, as though I am a loaded fowling piece on full cock.

The Bishop smiles at me. ‘My wife and I understand if you have not the strength to remain at table.’

‘I am quite equal to company,’ I say, but it is as if I have not spoken. Mrs Tomline looks across at her husband.

‘To tell the truth, my love, I wonder if we have imposed upon Lady Chatham by our visit and set back her convalescence.’

I glance desperately at my husband, willing him to leap to my defence. He still watches me with that strange expression.

The Bishop looks uncomfortable. ‘We are of course fully sensible of the honour you have done us in inviting us to Abington, but my wife is right. A little more rest will set you up, Lady Chatham.’

‘I am well now!’ I insist.

‘With God’s grace your ladyship will be so very soon,’ Mrs Tomline says.
John has not taken his eyes off me for a moment. I scratch at my hands. The pain is distracting and strangely comforting.

Mrs Tomline sees what I am doing. She whispers loudly, ‘Remember what I told you, my dear. You must control yourself.’

She reaches out and holds my arm. I do not know what angers me more, her familiarity or the implication that, once again, I have fallen short of expectations. I will not be scolded like a child. I am not an animal to be manhandled. She thinks I am not in control? Well then, I shall show her what happens when I give full rein to my madness.

I feel as though I am watching myself from a distance. I stand, grasp the gravy bowl in both hands, and throw its contents over Mrs Tomline.

She screams. I want to laugh at her for being so foolish– the gravy isn’t even hot. The Bishop leaps to his feet. The footmen stare.

Someone is shouting. ‘Bitch! You cannot understand! I despise you!’ Suddenly I realise the person shouting is me. I shut my mouth so sharply I feel the impact in the pit of my stomach, but it is too late.

My husband’s face is as hard and grey as stone, his mouth thin with dismay. He looks me in the eye and pushes his chair back. He pins my arms to my side and hurries me past the servants gathering outside the dining room, attracted by Mrs Tomline’s cry.

He enters the bedroom, rips back the hangings and throws me onto the bed. My head bounces off the bolster. When I open my eyes I see him leaning heavily against the bedpost. I can see every line on his face, scored deeply into his skin by strain, humiliation and disappointment.

Tears fill my eyes. ‘I am sorry. So sorry.’ I have failed him and I have failed myself. My limbs feel heavy, as though my self-hatred has turned them to lead.

‘Our guests,’ he says. He is too distraught to form a sentence. ‘Our guests. In front of the servants.’

‘I am trying,’ I manage. ‘I am trying so very hard to be well.’

‘I am beginning to doubt you will ever be well again,’ he says. I stare at him over my bent knees. His mouth curves downward and his hand against the bedpost tightens into a fist. ‘I will write to your brother next week. You must go to him at Frognal.’

‘No!’ I leap off the bed. He jumps back and I see, clearly, the fear in his eyes. Like Sally, he thinks I will strike him. I wonder how he can believe he is in the slightest danger from me, then I look down at my clenched fist and realise I am not fully in control of my own body. I want to laugh. How could I ever think I could conquer this malady? It knows me better than I know myself.

‘The change of air will make you better,’ he says.

I throw myself to the floor. He flinches. I grasp his knees and press my face against his fine cotton stockings. ‘Do you not understand, John? I can only get better if I am with you.’

He disengages himself and steps back. There is no response in his face to my plea. He knows he will be better off without me. He will send me away for his sake, not mine.

All my attempts to keep him by me have been useless. I might as well go to Frognal, for I see now that I lost my husband years ago.

The door closes behind him. For a moment I sit on the floor in uncomprehending silence, then panic spreads through me like a poison. My breath chokes in my throat. I claw at my neck and my fingers catch the chain of my locket. It flies through the air and bounces under the bed.

I pick it up with trembling fingers. It falls open in my hands. I see his black hair and our initials written in his hand. JC MEC. The locket slips through my fingers to the floor.

I fall back, put my hands to my face, and weep.

Guest post for Madame Guilflurt on Mary, Countess of Chatham

A few days ago I guest blogged again for Madame Gilflurt. The subject of my post was Mary, Countess of Chatham, and the post went up on the 193rd anniversary of her death:

http://www.madamegilflurt.com/2014/05/a-salon-guest-mary-elizabeth-countess.html

Image

As regular readers know, I am very fond of Mary, the more so given my recent discoveries about her later life. She is a totally underrated and ignored historical figure: you will not find this much about her anywhere else, I guarantee it.

 

“From Day to Day”

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Contents of HA 119/562/688: letters from Lord Chatham to George Pretyman-Tomline, 1816-25 (Ipswich Record Office)

On 17 March 1818 John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham folded a sheet of foolscap, dipped his pen in ink, and began to write a difficult letter. His correspondent was George Pretyman-Tomline, Bishop of Lincoln. Tomline was an old family friend: he and John had been joint executors of John’s brother’s will and had become close over the years. Since 1816 John had been renting Abington Hall near Cambridge, which was very close to Tomline’s palace as Bishop of Lincoln in Buckden.

 

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Abington Hall, Cambridge

In writing his letter John was breaking a long silence. This was not unusual for John, who was not a particularly efficient correspondent at the best of times. As his letter made clear, however, this was not the best of times.

 

“I have been meditating a letter to you, for the purpose of saying, that whenever you move towards London, Abington is but a few miles out of ye road … But unfortunately I have from day to day been obliged to put off writing to you, from a cause, which I know you will be concerned to hear. Lady Chatham has now been for above three weeks extremely unwell, and still continues so. She had at first a severe bilious attack, attended with a good deal of fever, and which is not yet entirely removed, tho she is better, but it has so much reduced her, as to leave her in a very uncomfortably low and nervous state.”[1]

 

Six weeks later he wrote to Tomline to report the “low and nervous state” had not improved: “I had deferred writing to you … in the hope from day to day, that I shou’d have been able to have sent you a more favourable account of Lady Chatham … But I am sorry to say, that … Lady Chatham has … continued without gaining any ground”.[2]

 

John had no way of knowing, but he would continue to live “from day to day”, waiting for his wife to recover and return to normal, for more than two years. Mental illness is treated much more sympathetically today than it was in the eighteenth century, when it was labelled as “insanity” and treated horrifically. Rank was not proof against this: witness the treatment of George III– bled, purged, gagged, straitjacketed– in the desperate attempts to restore him to health. Ironically John’s own father, Pitt the Elder, was almost certainly bipolar, and John must have watched his wife sink into depression with a cataclysmic sense of deja vu.

 

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Mary, Countess of Chatham, in earlier years

John was a taciturn and deeply private correspondent; he generally kept his letters brief, factual and to the point, with perhaps a short discussion of the weather towards the end but little of a personal nature. After half a year, however, he could not keep his distress from showing, and words like “harassed” and “distressed” began to appear in his letters.[3]

 

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Sir Henry Halford

In September 1818 John persuaded Mary to see Sir Henry Halford, the King’s personal physician. Halford was optimistic: a change of air was required, so John took Mary to the fashionable spa at Leamington in Warwickshire. Unable to make any plans whatsoever– still drifting “from day to day”– this was the first time John had left Abington since spring. Understandably he needed a break, but Mary was having none of it. When John suggested she stay with her brother Lord Sydney at Frognall in Kent, she insisted she was getting better. In February, nearly a year after Mary first fell ill, John finally managed to get her to Frognall. Mary’s state can best be gauged from the tone of the letter John sent to Tomline, which he only placed in the post after leaving in case the plans fell through at the last minute: “I have remained here [at Abington] in one continual state of suspense, having fixed generally one or two days every week for removing to Frognall, and having been as constantly disappointed. We now intend going tomorrow … Lady Chatham, is I am sorry to say not the least better, and my situation has been most distressing”.[5]

 

John was finally able to have a rest: “after the confinement I have had, I trust [exercise] will be of use to me”.[6] He certainly needed it, for apart from Mary’s family he had nobody–no children, no remaining siblings– to assist him. Over the next few months he managed to get away from Mary’s sickbed long enough to go on a few hunting parties with friends, where presumably he took out his frustration on anything that had fur or feathers. But always he returned to Mary after a week or two, and the strain of living “from day to day” was taking its toll.

 

By now John was beginning to guess Mary’s illness might never improve. “I fear she is losing ground,” he reported in June. In August, though, there was a glimmer of hope, and John thought she seemed a little more open to the idea of company. He wrote to the Tomlines hesitantly suggesting that “should it be convenient to you to give us the pleasure of your company … we shou’d be most happy to see you”.[7]

 

The Tomlines arrived on Friday 3 September. “Lady C[hatham] received us … in her usual manner,” Mrs Tomline later recorded for Mary’s physician Sir Henry Halford. All, however, was far from well, and Mary was unable to keep up the pretence of normality very long. “On Friday Evening, when Lord C[hatham] rose to ring the bell to remove the Tea tray supposing her [Mary] to have finished her tea, her eyes became frightfully wild”. As soon as she saw she was observed, however, Mary “recovered her composure– gradually became calm”.

 

This ability to impose self-control impressed Mrs Tomline, who noted that, “though rather Agitated, there was nothing in her manner to excite remark … We shoud have left [Abington] on Monday satisfied with this appearance of tranquillity had we judged only from seeing Lady C[hatham] in company.” But “the sad reverse, when alone” was “painful to describe”, and Mrs Tomline particularly dwelled on a disturbing conversation:

 

“She talked to me for some time about her illness in a way that affected me more than I chose to show. …. She was told exertion was necessary, but that she could not control herself when— and after a sudden stop, added in a wild way, ‘I must not talk of myself– but I often think it must end in madness’ – looking with eager eyes for my opinion.”

 

Tragically for Mary, Mrs Tomline did not recognise this as a cry for help from a desperately depressed woman. Her response was, essentially, that Mary should pull herself together:

 

“Of course I placed her feelings to the account of nerves & urged the absolute necessity of controuling her agitation when ever it occurred … and expressed perfect confidence that she would again recover, provided she kept herself calm, for controul in some way or other was absolutely necessary”.

 

Surrounded by unsympathetic listeners, Mary’s self-esteem was low and her frustration was extremely high. “She spoke with great concern of the trouble she gave Lord C[hatham] ‘to whom I am sure (she said) I ought not to give a moment’s pain’”. Having forbidden herself from confiding in her own husband, Mary found an outlet in self-harm. Mrs Tomline reported “her screams are often heard over the whole house” and how her maid had “to prevent the poor Sufferer from striking herself with a dangerous force … she is indeed covered with bruises she has given herself in various ways and with various things often with clenched hands and shut teeth”. Sleep was an issue: Mrs Tomline seemed to think it was not, but John reported her staying in bed most of the day– no doubt seeing her bedroom as a refuge from the need to put on a pretence of normality. She was certainly suicidal: “her threats respecting her own life are most alarming”.[8]

 

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John, Lord Chatham, in 1821, from Sir George Hayter’s “The Trial of Queen Caroline”

Something had to be done. John had never been robust, and his health was poor. “He cannot much longer support such a score of suffering,” in Mrs Tomline’s words. Halford’s response was not encouraging. “The matter appears to me to be coming to a Crisis,” he wrote, “and I can scarcely suppose that many weeks more will pass before the poor Creature is put under restraint.” His recommendation was to straitjacket the patient to save her husband’s health, for “it will be well if ever we see him Himself again”.[9]

 

John was horrified. He had spent eighteen months nursing his wife, and was amazed at Halford’s diagnosis: “I am at a loss to understand to what he coud allude … when he spoke of any Crisis to be expected in a few weeks”. He dreaded the idea of “any change of System, unless it were deemed indispensable”, and naturally feared the effect of such “severity and cruelty” on his wife, particularly, as he saw it, to little purpose. To his credit he never referred to his wife as anything other than just that– no subhuman “poor Creature” such as is found in Halford and Mrs Tomline’s letters– and invariably passed her best compliments to Tomline at the end of his letters. Even when Mary’s state was clearly poor, he always wrote of “we” rather than “I”. But however much he disapproved of Halford’s recommendations, John was desperate. Under pressure from Halford and the Tomlines, and half-staggered under the burden of Mary’s illness, he agreed to appoint a “companion” who had experience with insanity.[10]

 

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27 April 1818, HA 119/562/688

This “companion” was intended to impose “a restraint which the presence of Lord C[hatham] no longer produces”,[11] but it may not have worked. In the new year Mary was “very unwell, so much so, as to render her state, a very anxious one for a couple of days”, and John morosely reported to Tomline that “her state of irritation seems rather encreased”. Had Mary attempted suicide? John’s letter is ambiguous, but perhaps it is significant that they were immediately visited by their niece, Harriot Hester, Lady Pringle, who had lived with them for three years prior to her marriage in 1806. At any rate he managed to get up to Belvoir to hunt with his former ward the Duke of Rutland in February, “for I stand much in need of some recruiting having passed a sad time here”.[12]

 

After that the correspondence breaks off until July 1821, when John reports, on black-edged paper, that he cannot attend George IV’s levee as “there is an Order for no Person, to appear in mourning, which precludes me”.[13] John was in mourning because Mary died on 21 May, aged 58. Her obituary in the paper simply states that she died at five o’clock in the evening “after an indisoposition of nearly two years”.[14]

 

Mary’s physical health had never been good, so it is possible she died of natural causes, but given her history and her age I cannot help wondering if she helped herself along a little. This is obviously speculation, and John never refers to her in his letters again. I’m not sure I will ever find out the answer for certain, but whatever the truth Mary’s last years were neither happy nor healthy.

 

So ends the tragic tale, at least for Mary. John was destined to outlive her fourteen years; his adventures can be read about in a previous blog post of mine in two parts, found here and here. He never complained of loneliness but there is more than an echo of it in his last letters to the Tomlines before leaving England to take up the governorship of Gibraltar in October 1821: “I have been but indifferent, indeed I cou’d not well expect otherwise”. “I can not say much for myself,” he wrote the following year. “I am tolerably well in health, but I do not gain much ground, otherwise … There is a great deal of constant business [as Governor], which occupies my mind, and from this, I think I have found most relief”.[15]

 

Poor Mary, and poor John. It’s no secret that I feel a strong bond with these two; they are, after all, the main characters of my work in progress. But until yesterday I had no idea their story ended so tragically. I cannot tell you how much I wish it had been otherwise.

 

References

 

All manuscripts are from the Pretyman-Tomline MSS, held at Suffolk Record Office (Ipswich).

[1] Chatham to Tomline, 17 March 1818, HA 119/T108/24/7

[2] Chatham to Tomline, 24 April 1818, HA 119/562/688

[3] Chatham to Tomline, 14 October 1818, HA 119/562/688

[4] Chatham to Tomline, 18 December 1818, HA 119/562/688

[5] Chatham to Tomline, 1 February 1819, HA 119/562/688

[6] Chatham to Tomline, 19 February 1919, HA 119/T108/24/8; same to same, same date, HA 119/562/688

[7] Chatham to Tomline, 2 June, 17 August 1819, HA 119/562/688

[8] Mrs Tomline’s letter to Sir Henry Halford is at HA 119/562/716. John’s observations on Mary’s lying later in bed are from HA 119/562/688, 22 and 27 September 1819

[9] Sir Henry Halford to Mrs Pretyman, 10 September 1819, HA 119/562/716

[10] Chatham to Tomline, 22 September 1819, HA 119/562/688; 27 September 1819

[11] Mrs Tomline to Sir Henry Halford, HA 119/562/716

[12] Chatham to Tomline, 19 January 1820, 5 February 1820, HA 119/562/688

[13] Chatham to Tomline, 25 July 1821, HA 119/562/688

[14] The European Magazine and London Review 1821, vols 79-80, 561; The Ezxaminer 1821, 335.

[15] Chatham to Tomline, 6 October 1821, 27 February 1822, HA 119/562/688

 

Picture of Abington Hall from here.

Picture of Sir Henry Halford from here.