James Boswell by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1785


James Boswell is best known as the biographer of Dr. Samuel Johnson, but he was also 9th Laird of Auchinleck, in Scotland, with the family seat being Auchinleck House, in Ayershire, below, since it was built circa 1760. Boswell visited often and he and Dr. Johnson stayed here together in 1773 during their return from the Hebrides. As it turns out, a small group of lucky travelers will be staying here and we’ll have the entire estate to ourselves during Number One London’s 2018 Scottish Writer’s Retreat in September. Can there be a more perfect location for a writer’s retreat than the home of the author commonly said to have written the greatest biography in the English language – or the man who spent nine years working on The Dictionary of the English Language?

In light of my upcoming stay, I thought it would only be fitting for me to brush up on my Boswell/Johnson knowledge by re-reading Boswell’s Journals and Christopher Hibbert’s excellent biography, The Personal History of Samuel Johnson.

Samuel Johnson by Sir Joshua Reynolds, circa 1772

Also on my reading list is Adam Sisman’s book, Bowell’s Presumptuous Task, which garnered this review by Bibliomane01 on Amazon:

“In this magnificent work Mr Sisman describes the making of that greatest of all biographies, Boswell’s Life of Dr Johnson. To his contemporaries the task that Boswell had taken on was presumptuous indeed – to record the life of the greatest literary man of his age, while being dismissed himself as a frivolous and reprobate dilettante incapable of any serious activity. Well, the world knows that Bozzy succeeded in confounding his critics, but the tragic irony of his predicament was that he succeeded too well. While hailing the book as a masterpiece, the current and future literary establishment dismissed Boswell’s own role as little more than that of a stenographer. Macaulay’s damning essay on Boswell formed the opinion held by too many people for far too long. The true story of Boswell’s genius became well known to scholars in the 20th century; with this book, Mr. Sisman brings the story to a wider audience. It is a remarkable portrait of Boswell’s love for Johnson and the great struggles he endured to bring his hero to life in the pages of his biography. Battling drink, debauchery, depression and his own self-destructive nature, Boswell managed to pull off the one great sustained piece of effort of his life. In his book Johnson was brought to life once again, an image so convincing that it took over 150 years for people to discern the art behind the apparent ingenuousness of Boswell’s technique. Sisman does a good job of showing how the Johnson of the Life was as much a product of Boswell’s gift as the historical record (although I think readers would have benefited from a few examples of textual analysis to illustrate this). His final chapter on the gradual unearthing of the Boswell papers provides an exciting ending and his writing is clear and compelling. “Boswell’s Presumptuous Task” is nothing short of a triumph.”

The “gradual unearthing of the Boswell papers” mentioned above refers to a cache of Boswell’s private papers and journals found at Malahide Castle just outside of Dublin in the 1920’s. Boswell’s great-great-grandson, Lord Talbot de Malahide sold the papers to American collector Ralph Isham and they now form part of the collection at Yale University. Having only just visited Malahide Castle in September, I’m looking forward to reading Sisman’s book soon.

If you’d like to join us on The Scottish Writer’s Retreat, you will find complete details herethere are only two places remaining!


Admiral Lord Nelson
(29 September 1758 – 21 October 1805)

Marianne Spencer-Stanhope to John Spencer-Stanhope.

November 20th., 1805. Farnely.
We begin to be impatient for more news. Think of poor Lady Collingwood—she was in a shop in Newcastle when the Mail arrived covered with ribbands, but the coachman with a black hat-band. He immediately declared the great victory, but that Lord Nelson and all the Admirals* were killed. She immediately fainted. When she heard from Lord Collingwood first he wrote in the greatest -grief for his friend, and said the fleet was in a miserable state. Perhaps that may bring him home.
Are you not pleased with his being created a Peer in so handsome a manner. Why has not Lady Nelson some honour conferred upon her? Surely the Widow of our Hero ought not to be so neglected.
Yesterday we drank to the immortal memory of our Hero. Mr Fawkes has got a very fine print of him.
* Lord Collingwood was a Vice Admiral in Nelson’s fleet.
Vice Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood

A Letter from Mrs. Fitzherbert to Mrs. Creevey.

“Nov. 6, 1805.
“Dr. Madam,
“The Prince has this moment recd, an account from the Admiralty of the death of poor Lord Nelson, which has affected him most extremely. I think you may wish to know the news, which, upon any other occasion might be called a glorious victory—twenty out of three and thirty of the enemy’s fleet being entirely destroyed—no English ship being taken or sunk—Capts. Duff and Cook both kill’d, and the French Adl. Villeneuve taken prisoner. Poor Lord Nelson recd, his death by a shot of a musket from the enemy’s ship upon his shoulder, and expir’d two hours after, but not till the ship struck and afterwards sunk, which he had the consolation of hearing, as well as his compleat victory, before he died. Excuse this hurried scrawl: I am so nervous I scarce can hold my pen. God bless you.
The Prince of Wales, afterwards King George IV

Correspondence from Mrs. Creevey to Mr. Creevey.

“Nov. 7, 1805.
“. . . [The Prince’s] sorrow [for Nelson’s death] might help to prevent his coming to dinner at the Pavillion or to Johnstone’s ball. He did neither, but stayed with Mrs. Fitz; and you may imagine the disappointment of the Johnstones. The girl grin’d it off with the captain, but Johnstone had a face of perfect horror all night, and I think he was very near insane. I once lamented Lord Nelson to him, and he said:— ‘Oh shocking: and to come at such an unlucky time!’ . . .”
Emma, Lady Hamilton
“8th Nov.
“. . . The first of my visits this morning was to ‘my Mistress’ (Mrs. Fitzherbert) … I found her alone, and she was excellent—gave me an account of the Prince’s grief about Lord N., and then entered into the domestic failings of the latter in a way infinitely creditable to her, and skilful too. She was all for Lady Nelson and against Lady Hamilton, who, she said (hero as he was) overpower’d him and took possession of him quite by force. But she ended in a natural, good way, by saying:—’ Poor creature! I am sorry for her now, for I suppose she is in grief.'”
“Dec. 5,1805.
“. . . It was a large party at the Pavillion last night, and the Prince was not well . . . and went off to bed. . . . Lord Hutchinson was my chief flirt for the evening, but before Prinny went off he took a seat by me to tell me all this bad news had made him bilious and that he was further overset yesterday by seeing the ship with Lord Nelson’s body on board. . . .”
From an undated letter written by Vice Admiral Collingwood to Edward Collingwood –
My dear friend received his mortal wound about the middle of the fight, and sent an officer to tell me that he should see me no more. His loss was the greatest grief to me. There is nothing like him for gallantry and conduct in battle. It was not a foolish passion for fighting, for he was the most gentle of human creatures, and often lamented the cruel necessity of it; but it was a principle of duty, which all men owed their country in defence of their laws and liberty. He valued his life only as it enabled him to do good, and would not preserve it by any act he thought unworthy. He wore four stars upon his breast and could not be prevailed to put on a plain coat, scorning what he thought a shabby precaution: but that perhaps cost him his life, for his dress made him the general mark.
He is gone, and I shall lament him as long as I live.

Originally published October 21, 2011


The town of Leatherhead, two miles south of Ashsted, was an ancient market town in Surrey, the market having long been discontinued by the early nineteenth century. The town still held a fair on Lady’s Day, three weeks before Michaelmas, during the Regency period, “but otherwise the town possessed no trade or privilege than what its being a great thoroughfare produces.” The only “remarkables” were the fourteenth-century church and the bridge, which was a very neat structure over the River Mole, built of brick and consisting of fourteen arches.

At this quite and idyllic a spot, however, there occurred a Regency tragedy in 1806 – a coaching accident involving the Princess of Wales. Dr. Hughson described the incident thusly in his Description of London:

“A most dreadful accident occurred in this town in the year 1806. Her royal highness the Princess of Wales, on the afternoon of October 2, was on her way in a barouche, attended by Lady Sheffield and Miss Harriet Mary Cholmondeley, to pay a visit to Mrs. Lock, at Norbury Park (right), and was driven by the princess’s own servants as far as Sutton. At this place post-horses were put to the carriage, driven by the post-boys belonging to the Cock Inn; her highnesses horses remained at Sutton till she returned. On her arrival at Leatherhead, the carriage, which was drawn by four horses, whilst turning around an acute angle of the road, was overturned. It appears that the drivers, through extreme caution, had taken too great a sweep in turning the corner, which brought the barouche on a rising ground, by which it was overset; but before its fall it swung about a great tree.

“The dreadful consequence was, that Miss Cholmondeley was killed on the spot; providentially the princess received no other injury, except a cut on her nose, and a bruise on her arm. Lady Sheffield did not receive the slightest hurt, besides that which overwhelmed the royal party, by the shocking accident. Her royal highness returned to Blackheath the next day.”

The Annual Register expands on the incident:

It is with great concern we have to state the following melancholy accident. Her royal highness the Princess of Wales was this afternoon on her way to the seat of Mr. Locke, at Norbury Park, near Leatherhead, Surrey, in a barouche, attended by Lady Sheffield and Miss Harriet Mary Cholmondeley, and was driven by her royal highness’s own servants. They took post horses, and were driven by the post-boys belonging to the Cock Inn. Her royal highnesses horses and servants were left to refresh in order to take her home that evening. Her royal highness proceeded to Leatherhead, when on turning a sharp corner to get into the road which leads to Norbury Park, the carriage was overturned, opposite to a large tree, against which Miss Cholmondeley was thrown with such violence, as to be killed on the spot. She was sitting on the front seat of the barouche alone. Her royal highness and Lady Sheffield occupied the back seat, and were thrown out together. They went into the Swan Inn, at Leatherhead. Sir Lucas Pepys, who lives in that neighbourhood, and had not left Leatherhead (where he had been to visit a patient) more than a quarter of an hour, was immediately followed, and brought back; and a servant was sent to Mr. Locke’s, with an account of the accident. Mrs. L. arrived in her carriage with all expedition, and conducted the princess to Norbury Park, where Sir Lucas Pepys attended her royal highness and, as no surgeon was at hand, bled her himself. On the following day the princess returned to Blackheath. Her royal highness received no other injury than a slight cut on her nose, and a bruise on one of her arms. Lady Sheffield (wife of Lord Sheffield, who was with her, did not receive the slightest injury. — An inquest was held on the 4th, before C. Jemmet, esq. coroner for Surrey, on the body of Miss Cholmondeley, at the Swan Inn, Leatherhead. It appeared, by the evidence of a Mr. Jarrat at Leatherhead, and of an hostler belonging to the inn, that the princess’s carriage, drawn by four horses, with two postillions, while turning round a very acute angle of the road, was overturned. The drivers, through extreme caution, had taken too great a sweep in turning) the corner, which brought the carriage on the rising ground, and occasioned its being upset. The carriage swung round a great tree before it fell. When the surgeon saw the Princess of Wales, she most benevolently desired him to go up stairs, as there was a lady who stood more in need of his assistance. The surgeon (Mr. Lawden, of Great Bookham) then went to Miss Cholmondeley, and found her totally deprived of life. There was a violent contusion on her left temple; and her death appeared to have been occasioned by the rupture of a blood vessel. The jury returned a verdict of Accidental Death. Miss Cholmondeley was born in 1753, and was the daughter of the late lion, and Rev. Robert Cholmondeluy, rector of Hartingford-Bury, and St. Andrews, Hertford, who was son of the third earl of Cholmondeley, and uncle to the present earl. Her mother is living, and resides in Jermyn-street. On the 8th, at 12 o’clock, the remains of this unfortunate lady were interred in Leatherhead church, close to the spot where lady Thompson, wife of sir John Thompson, some years since lord mayor of London, is buried. The body was, on the evening of the sixth, removed from the Swan Inn to an undertaker’s near the church-yard, and was followed to the grave by her brother, George Cholmondcley, esq. one of the Commissioners of excise; the hon. Augustus Phipps ; William Locke, esq ; S. Gray, esq. and several other gentlemen. The fatal spot where this amiable lady met her sudden death is still visited by crowds.

It may be noted that the Locke’s were also close friends of famed diarist and novelist Frances Burney, Mme  d’Arblay who mentions the family often in her journal, as seen by the entries here for 1784. At this period the health of Mrs. Phillips (Fanny’s sister Susan) failed so much that, after some deliberation, she and Captain Phillips decided on removing to Boulogne for change of air. The anxiety evidenced in the letter below was due to Burney’s waiting to here of her sister’s safe arrival in France.

Friday, Oct. 8th.—I set off with my dear father for Chesington, where we passed five days very comfortably; my father was all good humour, all himself,— such as you and I mean by that word. The next day we had the blessing of your D
over letter, and on Thursday, Oct. 14, I arrived at dear Norbury Park at about seven o’clock, after a pleasant ride in the dark. Mr. Lock most kindly and cordially welcomed me; he came out upon the steps to receive me, and his beloved Fredy waited for me in the vestibule. Oh, with what tenderness did she take me to her bosom! I felt melted with her kindness, but I could not express a joy like hers, for my heart was very full—full of my dearest Susan, whose image seemed before me upon the spot where we had so lately been together. They told me that Madame de la Fite, her daughter, and Mr. Hinde, were in the house; but as I am now, I hope, come for a long time, I did not vex at hearing this. Their first inquiries were if I had not heard from Boulogne.

Saturday.—I fully expected a letter, but none came; but Sunday I depended upon one. The post, however, did not arrive before we went to church. Madame de la Fite, seeing my sorrowful looks, good naturedly asked Mrs. Lock what could be set about to divert a little la pauvre Mademoiselle Burney ? and proposed reading a drama of Madame de Genlis. I approved it much, preferring it greatly to conversation; and, accordingly, she and her daughter, each taking characters to themselves, read “La Rosiere de Salency.” It is a very interesting and touchingly simple little drama. . . . Next morning I went up stairs as usual, to treat myself with a solo of impatience for the post, and at about twelve o’clock I heard Mrs. Locke stepping along the passage. I was sure of good news, for I knew, if there was bad, poor Mr. Locke would have brought it. She came in, with three letters in her hand, and three thousand dimples in her cheeks and chin! Oh, my dear Susy, what a sight to me was your hand! I hardly cared for the letter; I hardly desired to open it; the direction alone almost satisfied me sufficiently. How did Mrs. Locke embrace me! I half kissed her to death. Then came dear Mr. Locke, his eyes brighter than ever— “Well, how does she do?”

This question forced me to open my letter; all was just as I could wish, except that I regretted the having written the day before such a lamentation. I was so congratulated! I shook hands with Mr. Locke; the two dear little girls came jumping to wish me joy; and Mrs. Locke ordered a fiddler, that they might have a dance in the evening, which had been promised them from the time of Mademoiselle de la Fite’s arrival, but postponed from day to day, by general desire, on account of my uneasiness.


This post was originally published here on June 19, 2011

Wellington comforts Paget after his surgery at Waterloo

I am so glad, for so many reasons, that my very good friends are Jo Manning and Victoria Hinshaw, not least because we share the same historic interests and the same mania for researching, and visiting, little remembered facts and places in British history. Recently, Victoria kept Jo and I in thrall with the minutae of her research itinerary whilst in England via a series of rapid fire emails – where she was going, what she was researching, the research matrix she’d prepared, who her contacts were at various archives, what the train timetable was and where she’d be eating lunch. And Jo and I swooned at the prospects. In addition to shared interests, all three of us have our own, unique historic quests and we support each other fully in these, no matter how crazy they seem. Last year, my particular quest was something the three of us termed “The Search for Paget’s Leg.” 
Being an avowed Wellington afficianado, you wouldn’t think that I’d spare much energy worrying about either Henry Paget, Lord Uxbridge (created Marquis of Anglesey by Geo. IV five days after the Battle of Waterloo) or his leg, as Paget had earlier run off with Wellington’s sister-in-law, his brother Henry’s wife, Lady Charlotte. At the time, Paget was also married – to Lady Jersey’s daughter, Lady Caroline Elizabeth Villiers, by whom he’d sired eight children. (Yes, eight – the bounder! He went on to have TEN more with Charlotte). Wellington felt the impact of this desertion as well, as it threw Henry into a decline from which he was slow to recover and, in the meantime, Wellington and his wife, Kitty, had to take care of Henry’s two young children, as Henry was incapable of doing so himself.
You’ll recall that last year Victoria and I embarked on a whirlwind London/Waterloo tour, during which I was most looking forward to seeing the spot in Waterloo where Paget’s leg was buried. Yeah, yeah – totally nuts. But you have to bear in mind that Victoria, Jo and I are the Lucy Ricardos of historical research.
I realize that I’m writing this blog as if you already know the story behind Paget’s leg. If for some odd reason you’re not familiar with it, click here for the condensed version of the story. So . . . all along the route of our tour, from London to Waterloo, I’d sigh at intervals and tell Victoria, “I can’t wait to see Paget’s leg.” After the re-enactment of the Battle of Waterloo itself, Paget’s leg was to be the highlight of the tour for me. I’ve already admitted that this notion of mine was strange, but it becomes stranger still when you realize that Paget’s leg isn’t even at Wellington’s headquarters in Waterloo any longer. It was disinterred and shipped back to England when Paget (Anglesey) died in 1854 and was  buried along with the rest of him in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Yes, Paget and Wellington are buried in the same place. Poor Artie couldn’t shake this guy loose, even in death.
So . . . . the very last stop on the Waterloo portion of our tour was the Wellington Museum (formerly Wellington’s headquarters), where, out in the back garden, stands the spot where Paget’s leg (once) was. Even though the Heavens didn’t direct rays of sunight onto the grave whilst I was there, nor did a choir of angels sing whilst I gazed upon it, I was in alt.

The (rather smallish) back garden

The (once) final resting place of Paget’s leg

The sign by the (former) grave
Of course, the grave itself was not the Holy Grail, rather it had become to me the symbol of all that was the Battle of Waterloo – the tragedy, the drama, the irony, the heartbreak and the heroics. I could have as easily fixated upon the site of the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball, which would have been just as fitting, as that no longer exists, either.
So . . . what’s next on my 19th century bucket list? The decoupage screen Beau Brummell was toiling away on and which was meant to be a present to his great good friend Frederica, Duchess of York.  Brummell stopped working on it when news of her death reached him in France. Trouble is, I have no idea where to begin looking for it. If you’re an aged aristocrat living in the back of beyond who happens to have the screen in your attic, email me. Heck, email me even if the screen only used to be in your attic.  Victoria, Jo and I will then embark on what we shall no doubt call “The Quest for Brummell’s Screen.”

Dickens: Bicentenary of his birth

Charles Dickens (1812-1870), painted by Daniel Maclise (1806-1870)

Victoria here, reporting on my latest encounters with a favorite author of mine, Charles Dickens.  My local PBS station is rerunning the presentation of Oliver Twist and Great Expectations they first showed last winter.  I hope you have a chance to see them too.

Oliver Twist, played by William Miller

The PBS website, here, has lots of details about the BBC-Masterpiece production of Oliver Twist, including a synopsis, cast information and a Dickens timeline.

You can buy this DVD, as well as many other classics here.

I have to admit I remember the story from several of the dozens of films and television series rather than from the book, which I probably read in high school.  There have been many stage versions as well, including the very popular London production of Oliver, the Musical in 1960.

The musical also ran on Broadway for a long time, and has been successfully revived in Britain and the U.S. several times.  The film version won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1969.

I think the reason for the enduring popularity of the story is mainly attributable to the wonderful characters, the innocent young Oliver, the unforgettable Fagin, Artful Dodger, Nancy, and Bill Sikes — and the family that ultimately rescues Oliver and brings a happy ending.  As in all of Dickens, the details of the London scene are unmatched.

Personally, I prefer Oliver Twist to Great Expectations, probably because Miss Havisham meets such a tragic ending in the latter.  But nevertheless I will watch it. Again and again.  Like Oliver Twist’s, Pip’s story has been filmed many times, from silent movies to current miniseries, and has been adapted for stage as well.

One of the book groups I participate in is reading A Tale of Two Cities, another Dickens novel that has been often adapted. “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times” has to be one of the most famous opening lines in English literature. 

A Tale of Two Cities, published 1859
And to top off my Year of Dickens, I am reading Claire Tomalin’s biography Charles Dickens, published in 2011.  Like her previous biographies of Jane Austen, Samuel Pepys and others, this account is eminently readable.  She deals with complex personalities in a realistic and engaging way.

I hope you are having your own Dickens Year in 2012…if not, you still have time!