On Un-Cruella-DeVilling Frances Twysden Villiers
"Vanquished — his history written by the victors — Robespierre has left a memory accursed " (Hon. George Sidney Smythe, M.P., Historical Fancies, 1844)
Robespierre, you will recall, is the person we picture cheering loudly at the executions of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and then architecting the "Reign of Terror" immediately after these executions, in which thousands died all over France. But should he personally be held culpable for all of it? It's the kind of question that people love to think about, even hundreds of years later. Here, for example, is a 2017 Quora thread on the topic of: Was Maximilien Robespierre a villain?
The jury is still out, when it comes to Robespierre. And this makes me feel an urgent need to talk about Tim Clarke's 2016 book, The Countess: The Scandalous Life of Frances Villiers, Countess of Jersey.
I have been researching Frances Twysden Villiers on and off since 2011, and it has been rough going, because so little written information is available about her, except for salacious and scurrilous press coverage of her alleged love affair with the Prince of Wales in 1794-1796 or so. History has been virtually silent about her since Robert Huish's 1831 biography of George IV, in which she plays an intriguing but short cameo role. This is the same "Prinny" who would later become the Prince Regent after whom the whole "Regency Period" is named. Lady Jersey participated in an actual scandal with an actual British heir, which took place in Georgette Heyer's world, in the world of yes, Bridgerton, and yet hard facts have been remarkably thin on the ground.
Imagine my delight when Clarke published his book -- over 300 pages with tens of pages of footnotes. I was finally going to get some real information I could use.
But sadly, no, I was not going to get that, not at all. Clarke was not writing about a life that had scandal in it -- he was writing a thoroughly researched polemic to prove that scandal was what defined her life. Clarke rescued Lady Jersey from obscurity, only to cast her as someone only slightly more three dimensional than a cartoon villain. Fair enough, but I have three bones to pick with Clarke.
First: overstating the Villiers villany
Clarke has my sympathy, he really does. He has researched a woman who lived in the late eighteenth century, and he is hoping to make this debut writing effort of his a major event. Amanda Foreman's life of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire had just in 2008 been made into a movie starring Kiera Knightly, and in the wake of the film, the book was marketed under the title, "The Duchess." So when Clarke writes "The Countess," perhaps he is thinking about the movie his book will make.
And for the movie, the Countess needs to have been a serious historical heavy. Clarke more than delivers here. In his final chapter, entitled ponderously, "The Verdict of History," Clarke elevates Lady Jersey into a figure who personally, and with only a very small amount of assistance from the principals, managed to threaten the British monarchy. Clark gives Lady Jersey quite a lot of credit for George IV's marriage to Caroline of Brunswick in 1794, and indirect credit for all of the bad things that happened after that.
Indeed, twice on account of this marriage and the treatment of Princess Caroline by the Prince and Frances Jersey the Monarchy itself had seemed under threat and its survival uncertain, so violent was the public reaction to their deeds. (p. 299)
So King George IV went to his grave disgraced by, and to be remembered in the light of, his many misdeeds, not least his marriage to and treatment of Princess Caroline. And in that Frances Jersey played no mean part. That is her legacy and for that and for what flowed from it she must take the blame. In the space of a handful of years Frances Jersey destroyed an already doubtful reputation and helped blacken that of a future King. (p. 299)
The logic which takes us back from the toppling of the monarchy to all of George IV's missteps, to his marriage with Caroline of Brunswick as the harbinger if not the actual cause of all those missteps, to that marriage itself being unquestionably a huge misstep in itself, and then to Lady Jersey herself as playing "no mean part" is quite tortured, even if one simply stops to ask the question "did George IV have any agency in his life?" Keep in mind that this is a man who stabbed himself to prove to Maria Fitzherbert that he would literally die if she didn't agree to marry him (illegally). He managed that dramatic scene completely without help from Lady Jersey. By 1794, he was seriously in need of the funds Parliament would give him in return for completing a legal marriage with an eligible person (someone both Protestant and of royal blood), and there were only two for him to choose from at that desperate moment. Neither his choice of fiance nor his treatment of her once he married that lady can reasonably be blamed on his mistress of the moment, which is what Lady Jersey was, at that moment. In fact, one has to dig deep to think of a way this makes sense. He should have had a different, nicer, mistress, who encouraged him not to be repelled by his wife? What?
If we return to Robespierre for just a moment, we will observe that on his watch, monarchs were actually beheaded. Holding Lady Jersey responsible for almost toppling the British monarchy through the second-hand effects of her influence on George IV's treatment of his wife would be, if considered sympathetically, the equivalent of blaming the French revolution and its aftermath on Robespierre's reputed mistress, Éléonore Duplay. Except Clarke's chain of causation has about six more questionable steps, and his story ends with Queen Victoria for six decades.
Second: pretending the overstated villainy is a set of exaggerations he is actually trying to rectify
Despite Clarke's unequivocal stance that Villiers must take some serious responsibility for nearly toppling the throne, he also tries to claim that on balance, the Countess wasn't actually that bad. In fact immediately after he implies she should have held off on some of the besmirching, he says:
That apart, her conduct was neither exceptional for her time or unconscionable in any other. For 200 years she has been treated as the personification of malevolence, often on the back of falsehoods. She was a remarkable woman. She was not all bad, let alone that bad. History has been harsh to Frances, Countess of Jersey. (p. 300)
This is where we need to come back to the issue of "history is written by the victor." With a deft slight of hand, Clarke attempts to clarify that it isn't he, Tim Clarke, who is blaming Villiers for the tragic under performance of George IV on the British Throne. No no--he is correcting 200 years of history. With his unenthusiastic realization that Villiers was "not all bad," he is apparently redeeming what he can of a pretty poor specimen. Natalie Hanley-Smith, who reviewed the book positively in the Royal Studies Journal, calling it"a good and interesting read," jumps on this bandwagon as well, marveling that Clarke's ambition is to "rescue [Villiers'] character after two hundred years of vilification."
But hang on a second. What vilification? Who exactly in "history" has been "harsh" to Frances, Countess of Jersey? As previously mentioned, I have been searching hard for any sign of information about Villiers, and as far as I can tell, nothing has been written about her since Robert Huish trashed her in his creatively trashy biography of George IV in 1831, and all of Villiers's papers were burnt upon her death. Clarke quotes a descendent of Lady Jersey who dishes in a letter that nobody wanted to be buried next to her in the family vault, but this is not enough to fill 200 years.
This whole 200 years of vilification thing exists solely in Clarke's imagination, and I think we need to ask whether Hanley-Smith stands in for many of us as she enthusiastically embraces his assertion that silence means condemnation. Hanley-Smith props up Clarke's position that his book is about more than a weak protest against assumptions we all bring to the story of George IV about weak men and the strong, sexy women that control them, especially if those men are important and make notoriously bad decisions. If Clarke is writing to rectify a (non-existant) two-hundred year torrent of vilification, then he is an absolute hero if he points out that she was a good mother, and after all, lots of aristocrats cheated. The barriers to victory against this excessively limp straw man are completely negligible. It's as though Clarke has reversed the logic: he is the VICTOR, so what he is writing must be HISTORY.
Returning again to Robespierre, the many historians who have debated the many different perspectives on his role, his agency, the morality of the revolution, the inevitability of the violence, and so on, have had each other to argue with. Clarke, on the other hand, sets up a completely imaginary phalanx of opponents, spewing vilification, and it is pretty amazing to imagine that could have said anything worse than what Clarke himself has to offer, because Clarke doesn't hesitate to make ad hominem attacks on Lady Jersey throughout the book.
Third: so what?
Here are some things I am trying to figure out about Frances Twysden Villiers which I would have liked to be able to find out in her one existent 300-page biography:
What was her childhood like? Clarke devotes the first three (3) pages of the book to her life before marriage to the Earl of Jersey. This information would be interesting under any circumstances, in any biography, but add to that:
Where did she stand on issues of Irish nationalism? What impact did it have on her that on her mother's side, she was the grand-daughter of Thomas Carter, founder of a notorious Irish patriot family? Her father died before she was born. Was she raised in Ireland with her mother's family?
What was her relationship with her mother, this daughter of Thomas Carter? We don't find out in the biography even basic facts like when her mother died.
What was going on with Maria Cosway painting her, the Duchess of Devonshire, and other Haut Ton women as enchantresses in the 1780s? What happened to those Cosway paintings of her?
What was her relationship with Queen Charlotte?
What does it mean that she was friends with Edward Jerningham, the sole Protestant member of a seriously recusant traditionally Roman Catholic family from northern England?
What was her relationship to the Dashwoods, near neighbors to the Jersey country house at Middleton Stony.
In what musical circles did she move? She was apparently a dedicated harp player. Who taught her?
What exactly was she doing while she was hanging out in Cheltenham at the end of her life? Why Cheltenham? What was it like at that time, at minimum, and why might she have stayed there?
What does it mean that the Jerseys owned land in Wales?
All of these are potentially interesting angles to pursue, that Clarke didn't pursue, and that's fine, because I hope there will be another biography that is more interested in these other aspects of Lady Jersey's life. But the fact that these questions remain uninvestigated suggests there might be a particular axe being ground here, and I think it's important for us to ask what that axe might be.
Evidence about the agenda might be apparent in two intimate points about Lady Jersey which Clarke seems to be amazingly wrong about.
First, the child that Lady Jersey bore in 1795 who died in June of 1796. I will say that Clarke provides a lot of good information about the bizarre situation of Princess Charlotte and Lady Jersey both apparently pregnant with the Prince of Wales's child at the same time, all rattling around at the Brighton Pavillion together in the summer of 1795. What a situation!
But Clarke falls short when he states that we have no idea what that child's name was. He himself quotes from one of the rare surviving letters written by Lady Jersey about a moment when she is very bored in London, in 1796, serving as Caroline of Brunswick's chief of staff (Head Lady of the Bedchamber). She complains that all she gets to do is hang around and look at the nursery the Prince of Wales and Caroline are providing for Charlotte, the baby who survived. Half brother to her own son:
My life at present is, as you know, intolerable to endure and more than insipid to describe. The P. stayed in town till Friday noon, and returned on Saturday. The time has been passed either in seeing Charlotte's nursery, which brings afresh to my mind my angel Augustus, or in cheating myself into fancied amusement by going to the shops for things I do not want, and cannot afford to buy... (quoted on Clark, p. 191)
Is it a fantastic leap of the imagination to think that her "angel Augustus" might have been the child she had lost in June? I've looked into the burial records and the child's name is not recorded at Middleton Stoney, where he seems to have been buried there. The Earls of Jersey do not seem to have recorded the child's existence in Debrett's or the like, but I would have loved to see whether there was more to find here, from one who had access to so much of the correspondence of the Earl of Jersey and others.
But this brings me to the most aggravating thing about Clarke's biography. In this final "Verdict of History" chapter in his book, Clarke says:
...the little Parish Church of Middleton Stoney, the Church of All Saints...sits within the park of Middleton itself. On one side of the church is a memorial chapel to the Jersey family, built in 1805. In it can be found separate plaques in memory of various members of the family. There is a plaque for the 4th Earl as well one for each of his father and his son, the 5th Earl. There is one, too, in memory of Augustus, who is recorded as being buried in 'Picton', Nova Scotia, and also one for Sally Jersey. There is none for Frances Jersey. Such was her reputation. (p. 296)
New paragraphs for each of those last portentous short sentences. Great. Except that there is a plaque. I have been to that chapel, and I took a picture.
Note that the tombstone accurately shows that Lady Jersey had eight daughters and three sons--not just the two that show up on Wikipedia. I do not understand how Villiers' biographer could have gotten this basic piece of information wrong. If he thought her child remained nameless and that her family didn't even provide her a tombstone, and he was wrong about those details of her life, what else might he have missed?
The phrase "history is written by the victor" is excellent at pointing out that what we hear will inevitably be colored by who wrote it down, and what that person's world view is. The saying implies a certain amount of pity for the poor undocumented underdogs, and I have seen commentary online concluding things like a sarcastic: "oh boo hoo, someone will come along with those stories." And indeed although the Hon. George Sidney Smythe, M.P. concluded that Robespierre was going to end up as a villain until the end of time, sure enough slews of Marxists emerged to defend him in the early twentieth century, and the debate will certainly continue to rage, maybe because it is fun, among other things.
In fact, the continuing debate illustrates a point that all good historians eventually make: history is always going to be written by the victors--of arguments about what the right evidence is to consider, and what the right context is for placing a particular set of events into words. And those conversations will change with time, and with the availability or loss of different kinds of evidence.
So when it comes to Lady Jersey, I have a strong suspicion that she (like Robespierre) was not a very nice person, and that I wouldn't like her at all if I had met her, and that she probably would have preferred not to topple the monarchy, but mainly because she would have liked to keep sponging off of the Prince of Wales. But I want to see beyond this sketch. I'm not just opposed to the simplicity of Tim Clarke's conclusions -- I feel strongly that we need to admit that what has happened in the last 200 years was that the lady's actual agency in history was ignored, and now it has only been rescued by Clarke in the highly recognizable form of "femme fatale drags down the monarch."
By all means, let us consider possible villainy, but let's cast a wider net when we look at all of the different things Lady Jersey might have been up to.