Monday, December 07, 2009

Regency Connections

I know I'm not alone in loving the research aspect of writing (see Melinda's post below!) and I enjoy it all the more when my reading turns up something totally unexpected. Last week I was thrilled to discover that one of the Craven family whom I am researching for my National Trust book about Ashdown House was none other than a founding patroness of Almack's Assembly Rooms, "the 7th heaven of the fashionable world."

The Hon. Maria Craven, daughter of the 6th Baron Craven became Lady Sefton when she married William Philip Molyneaux, 2nd Earl of Sefton, in 1792. The Earl and Countess were prominent members of the Ton, but unlike some of the other patronesses such as Lady Jersey or Lady Cowper, very little is recorded about Maria Sefton other than the fact that she was considered to be amiable and kind. To add to her mystery, there appear to be no contemporary portraits of her. References to her role as patroness of Almack's are often illustrated with a picture of her mother instead! I imagine that this might amuse - or possibly annoy - Maria Sefton if she knew; her mother, Elizabeth Craven, had been a scandalous member of Georgian society, indulging in several love affairs and leaving her husband in 1783. She travelled widely abroad and set up as mistress to the Margrave of Anspach in Germany. They later married but when Elizabeth returned to England in 1791 her daughters, including Maria, refused to visit or even to acknowledge her. In taking her father's part Maria conveniently ignored the fact that he had behaved every bit as disreputably as his wife!

This idea of Maria being a very respectable member of society who disapproved of the more racy and scandalous set fits well with the image of the patronesses of Almack's as the arbiters of manners as well as fashion, banning people whom they thought would lower the tone. I suspect, however, that none of them were particularly kind people, no matter what Captain Grunow thought! Wielding that sort of power to make or break a young lady's social career seems pretty cruel to me. One also wonders what Maria made of the less than respectable shenanigans in her own generaton of the Craven family. Her younger brother William, who became the 1st Earl of Craven of the 2nd Creation, was a lover of the notorious courtesan Harriette Wilson and later went on to marry the celebrated actress, Louisa Brunton. Described as a very charming gentleman by Jane Austen, who nevertheless disapproved of his private life, he was the archetypal Regency nobleman, a distinguished soldier, a bon viveur and a man who had his yacht armed with small cannon in case he met the French when sailing in the Channel!

During most of the eighteenth century the Craven family lived very quietly as country gentlemen (and ladies). It is quite a relief to find that at the end of that period they burst onto the social scene and remained prominent members of society into the twentieth century. At least there is more research for me to get my teeth into! However, I would like to discover more about Maria, Lady Sefton. If anyone knows of any references to her and especially if there is a portrait that is really her and not her mother, I'd love to hear about it!


Beth Elliott said...

Enjoyed that, Nicola, it's so fascinating to discover the real person behind a character in novels. Georgette Heyer made much use of 'kind' Lady Sefton. She was supposed to do impeccable research and maybe her working library [if it still exists] contains useful information.

Nicola Cornick said...

That's a very interesting thought, Beth. Thank you! I'll look into that.

It is interesting to dig more into the background of the patronesses. Until recently I hadn't realised that Lady Jersey owned a bank and that she was very "hands on" and kept a desk in the office! Apparently she upset the men in her family by refusing to allow them to run the business for her!

Jan Jones said...

I didn't realise Lady Sefton was one of your Cravens, Nicola. What fun.

I did, otoh, know about Lady Jersey. I researched her in great detail for one of my books and then ended up mentioning it in a throw-away sentence. Probably as it should be.

Melinda Hammond/Sarah Mallory said...

So fascinating, Nicola. Good luck with your book on the Craven family, and I have no doubt that your research is giving you all sorts of ideas for new novels!

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