It seems a pity in some ways that the main claim to fame of William Craven, 1st Earl of Craven of the 2nd Creation, is that he was the first lover of the famous courtesan Harriette Wilson. (That is she in the picture on the left, taken from the frontispiece to her Memoirs). He was 31 and unmarried at the time. Harriette was much younger and does not give William a good press. Her memoirs start with the line "I shall not say why and how I became, at the age of fifteen, the mistress of the Earl of Craven..." but she leaves the reader in no doubt that she finds the Earl boring and old-fashioned, with his night caps and his endless talk of his cocoa trees on his estates in the Indies. What Harriette must have made of Ashdown House when William took her to the country in 1801, is anyone's guess. It is hard to imagine that Ashdown's rural isolation could appeal to this precocious and materialistic urbanite in any way.
A bad enough start for William, in all truth. And as if it wasn't a disaster to be denounced as boring by mischievous Harriette, Craven then incurred the disapproval of Jane Austen. In a letter to Cassandra in January 1801, Austen reports that Eliza Fowle "found [Lord Craven's] manners very pleasing indeed.—The little flaw of having a Mistress now living with him at Ashdown Park, seems to be the only unpleasing circumstance about him." More on the Austen/Craven connection anon.
So what do we actually know of William Craven other than these two literary references? William Craven was, in my opinion, far more interesting a man than Harriette implies. The son of the 6th Baron Craven and his beautiful, scandalous wife Lady Elizabeth Berkeley, he was a man whose family background was what would be referred to today as dysfunctional; both parents took lovers and in 1783 they finally separated after 13 stormy years of marriage, with his mother taking her seventh and youngest child and travelling abroad. After the 6th Baron died in 1791 and Lady Elizabeth, now the Margravine of Brandenburg-Ansbach-Bayreuth, returned to England, her daughters refused to receive her. William, the new Lord Craven, was also for a time not on speaking terms with her. As an interesting footnote, his elder sister Maria married William Philip Molyneaux 2nd Earl of Sefton in 1792 and became one of the patronesses of Almacks, one of thr bastions of respectability in high society.
William and his brother Henry Augustus Berkeley Craven were educated at Eton and William followed this with a distinguished army career. A brief summary of this follows: In 1793 he became an ensign in the 43rd Foot and was promoted to a lieutenancy the same year. In 1794 he became a Major of the 84th and from there to Lieutenant Colonel. He served in the 1794 campaign in Flanders and was present at the siege of Nimeguen. He subsequently served in the West Indies and was present at the capture of Trinidad. On 1st January 1798 he was appointed ADC to the King and made a Colonel. In 1799 he served at the Helder and subsequently in the Mediterranean. In 1803 he was appointed Colonel of the Reserves and was made a Major General in 1805 and served on the Staff from the commencement of war until 1809. He was appointed Lieutenant General in 1811. The Earldom of Craven was recreated for him in 1801 as recognition from the King for his services to his monarch and to his country.
Significantly for a man with the reputation of having kept a notorious mistress - and indeed having married an actress, Louisa Brunton - he was a great favourite of George III's very proper wife Queen Charlotte so must have come across as a gentleman of some moral probity as well as charm!
As Noel Chanan comments in his excellent book about the Earl's son William, Earl of Craven and the Art of Photography: "The marriage raised some eyebrows within the aristocracy but Louisa was accepted in society. The Earl was in many respects a typical Regency gentleman, profligate with his money and also somewhat careless of his personal safety." In 1809, despite the presence of French privateers, he resumed pleasure sailing in the waters of the English Channel in his own lightly armed sloop, the Grafton. Sailing was one of his great passions. He was a founder member of the Royal Yacht Squadron and celebrated the fact by purchasing a three-masted, full-rigged ship of 325 tons, which he called the Louisa for his wife. In the year of his death he bought a third ship, the Mayfly, which cannot but have added to the massive debt that encumbered the estate on his death. It seems appropriate, even inevitable, that he died at Cowes in 1825.
The Earl of Craven's family connections to Jane Austen are well recorded. Jane knew of William Craven through Tom Fowle, her sister Cassandra's fiancé, who was cousin to William Craven and served as his chaplain on the military expedition to the West Indies in 1796. Other connections are explained in the fascinating article by Lanfersieck and Looser, Austen's Sense and Sensibility and Lord Craven. This article also posits that William Craven may have been the model for John Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility, suggesting that Sense and Sensibility contains several parallels to Craven's life, including place names, a difficult mother figure and the resonances with a "ruined" young woman, in Craven's case Harriette Wilson.It is entirely plausible that Jane Austen may have been inspired to draw on Craven for some elements of Willoughby's character. I confess that I don't like the idea because I have always considered Willoughby to be a morally bankrupt character in the original book and I don't for a moment believe William Craven to have been so and feel that this comparison does him no favours. Craven was a man of considerable depth, with a distinguished service record. There is more to him than the Regency wastrel even if he did possess some of the characteristics of the stereotypical Regency nobleman. In addition, I have always seen Harriette Wilson as being in control of her own destiny unlike Eliza is in Sense and Sensibility. As another aside, I'm also sceptical that William's brother Berkeley Craven was ever Harriette's lover. Poor Berkeley has already been maligned in Venetia Murray's book An Elegant Madness when she suggested that he was besotted with Harriette's sister Amy, confusing him with another Berkeley entirely.
William Craven managed to come to terms with his difficult mother Elizabeth, Margravine of Anspach, at some point after her return to England. He even sold her second husband his estate at Benham Valence, where the Margravine built a villa, close to the Earl's own estate at Hamstead Marshall. William Craven and Louisa Brunton remained happily - and faithfully -married until his death. Perhaps this was a case of real life being happier than fiction?