I have a great friend in Beth Elliot. Those of you who follow this blog and my posts on Facebook will know that Beth and I try to get together whenever I’m in England. And you may recall that Beth was my saviour when my phone was stolen in London, taking me to buy a new one and following that up with a fabulous day out in Greenwich. This time over, Victoria Hinshaw and I spent a few days doing research on the Duke of Wellington at the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL), located in Reading.
As it turns out, Beth lives just outside of Reading, in the very same town in which our hotel was located. Needless to say, we had the opportunity to see each other often. What does need to be said is that Beth went out of her way to accommodate Vicky and myself, picking us up at the train station, driving us where we needed to go, joining us for dinner nightly and taking us to hidden villages and places of interest on our days off. She was even kind enough to bring us back to her home on several occasions, giving us lunch, wine, laughs and the opportunity to see her fabulous garden and to unwind in her incredibly comfy front room.
Since Beth, Vicky and I first met in 2010, during Number One London’s Duke of Wellington Tour, she and I have shared personal histories and family stories, and I was most enchanted with her stories of her beloved Uncle Frank, who was Financial Editor for the Times. Frank Wright was born in 1900 and graduated from Manchester University before joining the staff of the Manchester Guardian, moving in 1924 to it’s London office as Assistant Chief Editor, going on afterwards to join the Times of London.
What I knew about Uncle Frank was that he and his wife, Auntie Marie, had never had children of their own and so looked upon Beth as a most favourite niece. Beth spent many hours with Uncle Frank and Auntie Marie, but what sticks in my mind most are Beth’s stories of going with Uncle Frank to his London office. Once the day’s business was done, Uncle Frank would ask Beth what she most wanted to do, and would then grant her wishes, regardless of the fact that most of the places she chose were at opposite ends of London. Off they’d go, Uncle Frank indulging the wishes of his favourite little girl and Beth enjoying his undivided attention.
So, when Beth mentioned during our last visit that she had some things of Uncle Frank’s she was set to take to the charity shop, I had to ask –
“Wait. What? What sort of things?”
“Oh, just some old clothes. I’ve got a Chinese robe he bought in the 30’s at Harrods.”
“Wait. You’re giving Uncle Frank’s 1930’s Chinese robe from Harrod’s to the charity shop?!”
“Do you want to see it?”
Off she went, up the stairs and back down. “I have this, too,” she said, laying a treasure on the table before me.
“It’s Uncle Frank’s cigarette case,” she said.
“And it’s leather. And embossed with his initials.” Upon opening it, I saw the Harrod’s stamp. I picked it up and inhaled the smell of leather and tobacco.
“Would you like it?” Beth asked.
“What? Don’t you want it?”
“I don’t smoke. And besides, what am I ever going to do with it. If you think you can use it, please take it.”
I stared at her. Stunned. “I don’t smoke, either. But I’d love to have it. Are you sure?”
“Yes. I’ve got to have a clear out. And here’s the robe I told you about.”
“Try it on,” Beth urged.
Silently I prayed, please, Uncle Frank, be the same size as me. Please. I slipped the robe on and . . . it fit. Like a glove.
“I love it,” said I, looking at myself in the mirror and running a hand over the black silk lapel. “How does it look?”
“It looks fabulous on you,” offered Vicky.
“Do take it if you want it,” said Beth. “It’s only going to be given away otherwise.”
“I can’t believe you’re giving this away.”
“I can’t believe you want it,” said Beth. “Hang on, I’ve got some other bits if you want to see them. Come with me out to the garden, they’re in the shed.”
In the shed?!
After a quick rummage, Beth came out with a rather large box, which held a morning suit – tailed jacket, waistcoat and striped pants. Even a pair of spats.
Holding out the jacket, Beth said, “Here, give it a try.” I took it from her and attempted to get into it. Dash it all, it didn’t fit.
“It’s too small!” I lamented.
“It isn’t,” Beth said.
“There’s no way I can get it on,” I wailed.
“Here, give it to me,” Beth said, in her no nonsense way. “Now, you stand there and I’m going to slip it on you. You don’t think Brummell got into his coats without help, do you? Gentlemen needed a valet to don their coats. Turn your back to me and put your arms down at your sides and I’ll slip this on you.”
I complied, doubtfully. Beth slid the coat sleeves up over my arms, gave it a yank and settled it upon my shoulders. “There. I told you it would fit. Go look in the mirror.”
I obeyed. Reader, it fit. As though it had been tailor made for me.
“Wow,” said Vicky.
“How does it look?”
“Wow,” repeated Vicky. “Do you like it?”
“Like it?! I love it.”
“Here, take the waistcoat, too,” offered Beth. It, too, fit like a dream. Once I’d removed the coat, Beth directed my attention to the construction details inside, gorgeous attention to detail and quilting that had gone out of fashion many decades ago.
“Try the pants on,” suggested Beth. I did, but while Uncle Frank and I seemed to be the same size from the waist up, we varied widely from the waist down. Or it was the style of the striped trousers that defeated me – I looked like a clown in the baggy trousers.
“No,” said Beth, “those won’t do. But there are a few final things you must see.”
I didn’t care about anything else. The robe and coat were each beyond my wildest dreams. But who was I to say no?
This time, she came through with a hat box. Opening the lid, we found a leather collar box and, upon opening that, we discovered that it still held a number of collars, as well as collar and cuff studs. Beneath that was a gentleman’s white silk dress scarf. And under that were the hats. Three hats. And what hats they are!
“Try them on,” Beth prompted. After a stunned moment, I lifted the first hat, a derby, and put it on. Again, it fit as though it had been made to fit my head alone. Then there were two top hats, one a traditional beaver hat, the other a silk, collapsible opera hat. Each one fit. And looked deuced fine atop my head, if I do say so myself.
“Do you think you can fit this all into your suitcase?” Beth asked, once I’d left off admiring myself in the mirror.
“Never. We’ll have to ship it. Are you absolutely certain that you want me take it all?” I asked. “I mean, I know what Uncle Frank meant to you.”
“Uncle Frank would be thrilled that they were being given to someone who can enjoy them. Believe me, you’re doing me the favour by allowing me to clear all this out of my attic and shed. I just can’t believe that you actually want it all. I’ll go and fetch a box and we can pack these up.”
While Beth was gone, Vicky asked, “What in the world are you going to do with all that suff?”
“I’m going to wear it. At writer’s conventions and seminars. And maybe on Sundays. All my costuming needs have been taken care of in one fell swoop!”
My costuming needs had been take care of, and not only by Uncle Frank. I had found the beauty below in a charity shop in Bath for twenty quid before meeting up with Vicky and Beth.
Next day, Beth boxed up my treasures – and tied up the boxes with string. I’ll let you digest that for a bit. String. A lost art. I could wax lyrical and write an entire post about the string, but I’ll spare you. Shortly thereafter, Beth and I walked down to her local Post Office and shipped the boxes off to my address in America. And they both arrived long before I made it home.
I’m thrilled to report that all of Uncle Frank’s clothing has now been dry cleaned and they are hanging in my closet, just waiting for their first airing at the upcoming Romance Writers of America (RWA) Conference in Denver. Now all I need is a valet.
The Post Office owns no horses; it does its work by contract, and McNamara’s have `horsed the mails’ ever since 1837, when so many good things began. They have now 600 horses at their central quarters in Finsbury and the local branches from which the outer ring of postal districts is worked, besides a few hundred others for trade traffic. And out of London there are forty-two horses on the Brighton road working the Parcels Coach, and the twenty-six Tunbridge Wells Coach horses, and the other coach horses; but these cannot fairly come into our census, except as regards those for the first stage out and last stage home —the stages being the ten-mile ones of’ the glorious old coaching-days,’ concerning which we may have something to say presently.
By guest blogger Julia Gaspar
In her own time, Elizabeth, Lady Craven was famed for two things – for the private theatricals that she loved to put on in her own home, and for the series of scandalous love affairs that filled the gossip columns and often provided material for salacious satire. Younger daughter of the Earl of Berkeley, she was married at the age of sixteen to the boorish but immensely wealthy Lord Craven. In 1774, when the French ambassador, the Comte de Guînes, paid her rather too much attention, her jealous husband made his fury very public and whisked her off to his Berkshire estate, Benham Park, to keep her out of mischief. By 1783 their marriage broke down altogether and Elizabeth had to leave England in a storm of scandal and disgrace.
Nothing daunted her as she braved social disapproval and ostracism, and after a couple of years living in France set out on a protracted tour of the whole of Europe. She visited Italy, Austria, Poland, Russia, Turkey, Greece, Romania and Hungary, writing about everything she saw. She then spent several years in Germany as the mistress of the Margrave of Ansbach, before marrying him and returning to England in 1792. She went on writing and producing plays for a lively and artistic social circle, while the prim and proper never quite got over their disapproval. After her second husband’s death, in 1815, she retired to Naples where she had a little villa built for herself overlooking the bay with views of Vesuvius and Capri.
I have never enjoyed writing any book more than the biography of Elizabeth Craven. I first heard of her when reading a book about theatre in German courts, which said that this remarkable Englishwoman, the mistress of the Margrave of Ansbach, had taken over the theatricals and entertainments in his little German court and was putting on plays of all sorts, including some she had written herself. I was intrigued, and simply had to know more about her, so I read her travelogue, A Journey Through the Crimea to Constantinople, and started to discover an amazing woman, bold, adventurous and outspoken. The more I read about her – and the more of her own writings I discovered – the more enthusiastic I became. This was a woman who was not only beautiful but brainy too, an author of poems, plays, stories and letters, witty observant and full of passion for life. She faced down a lot of social disapproval for her love affairs and she had some advanced feminist opinions.
Lady Craven actually wrote her own Memoirs in her old age, but while they included a lot of detail about all the famous people she had known – the writers, artists, actors, musicians, statesmen and royalty – and the places she had visited, they are not very candid about her love affairs. I had to track those down via her poems and her surviving letters, some of which are in manuscript collections. What a passionate person she was! She loved and scandalized, and lived to love and scandalize again.
One of her lovers was the young William Beckford, a prodigiously talented writer who shared Elizabeth’s love of music. In 1782 the pair of them collaborated on an Arcadian Pastoral, a musical entertainment, which was performed in London in front of an audience of high society that included the Duchess of Devonshire and her mother, Lady Spencer. Elizabeth Craven was the first person to read Beckford’s novel Vathek, which he sent to her in manuscript.
But Elizabeth was living dangerously. Her marriage fell apart. Her husband had a mistress and decided to prosecute her for divorce. London resounded with the scandal and gossip and she had to leave for France with her youngest son, Keppel, leaving her six other children behind in the care of their father. Georgian divorce laws were very cruel to the woman.
She did not accept this injustice silently. In France she wrote one of her most interesting books, Letters to Her Son, in which she denounces all the unfair laws of marriage and divorce. Why should a woman have to obey her husband? Why should he be allowed to beat her, lock her up, give her no money, or be unfaithful while she had no legal redress? Why should the father get the children after a marital separation, even if he was impudently living with a mistress? All this was tyranny. Craven set out for her son a plan for a happy and successful marriage, in which the partners treat each other as affectionate equals. Without a doubt she was way ahead of her time.
While she was a feminist, she was no man-hater. In 1785, she set off on her travels with an English lover, Henry Vernon, who had gone into the Spanish navy for fun and come out a hero. They started by touring Genoa, Pisa, Florence and Venice. Then they went on to Vienna, which she loved, and then Warsaw, where they met King Stanislaus Augustus, and St. Petersburg, where they were received in a friendly way by Catherine the Great. Elizabeth drove over frozen wastes in a sledge, and rode with Cossack horsemen to see remote beauty spots. She dined with Tartar chieftains in the Crimea, and explored all the sights of Istanbul, including the great mosques and the old city.
The prospect of seeing Greece excited her so much she wrote a poem about it. On the Greek island of Antiparos she boldly descended into an underground grotto, filled with extraordinary stalactites, which she drew, and in Athens she marvelled at the sculptures on the Parthenon. Finally they started to wend their way back slowly through Transylvania and Hungary, wary of bandits and sometimes sleeping in the wagon or on the floor of a bare cottage.
From 1787 until 1791, Elizabeth lived in Germany as the guest then the mistress of the Margrave of Ansbach, a genial and cultured man whose previous mistress had been the celebrated French actress Mme Clairon. Elizabeth could not only act, she loved to write plays and produce them and she took over the court entertainments as a full-time job. One of her most entertaining plays, The Modern Philosopher, was written for production at Triesdorf. Her son Keppel went with her and took part in many of the productions. After the death of the Margrave’s wife, and of Lord Craven in 1792, the Margrave married Elizabeth, in defiance of convention. She refused to accept the status of a “fallen woman” excluded from society, and when they came to live in England they attracted a crowd of artistic, Bohemian, and unconventional friends around them. While she was never received at court, she hosted a lot of lively and creative people, and took in many refugees from the French Revolution, (among them the notorious adventurer and womanizer the Comte de Tilly, who became her last secret love). Her beloved youngest son Keppel brought his own friends to stay and fill the house with the laughter of young people.
When the Margrave died, Elizabeth was not left rich. I am still finding out more about her financial affairs, now, after publishing the book, and it appears that she had to be resourceful in coping with unpaid debts and pensions that did not turn up. So she retired to Naples where she could live inexpensively, basking in the warm climate of the South, and creating a wonderful garden – another one of her passions. She died at the age of 78, with Keppel at her side.
I will never get tired of learning more about Elizabeth Craven. Since publishing her biolgraphy, I have discovered another lost work of hers, a full-length novel called The Witch and the Maid of Honour, which can be added to the considerable list of her works. Every new discovery just seems to make her more fascinating.
Julia Gaspar’s book, Elizabeth Craven: Writer, Feminist and European (Vernon Press 2017), contains the full story of Elizabeth Craven and her circle – Now out in paperback.
You can learn more about The Modern Philosopher, by Elizabeth Craven, translated and edited by Julia Gasper, published by Cambridge Scholars Press October 2017 here.
Last time across the Pond, my flight landed at 6:30 a.m. at Gatwick. Taking the Gatwick Express to Victoria, I jumped into a cab and headed to meet Sandra Mettler at our hotel in Sloane Square. We were stealing a few days for ourselves before the Georgian Tour began.
Pulling into the Square, I spied a sight for sore eyes – Sandra, seated at a sidewalk table outside of our hotel, drinking a latte. We waved frantically and once I’d paid off the cab, we embraced like a pair of six year-olds meeting on the playground –
I should explain here that Sandra and I are huge fans of the Mitford sisters and we regularly refer to each other by Mitford nicknames – I’m Honks (Diana). Sandra is Henderson, aka Henny, aka Hen (Debo).
The weather in London was glorious, a balmy Spring day that was perfect for people watching as we caught up over lattes, with Hen telling me about the performance of Hamilton she’d seen the night before.
After a while, Hen asked, “So, what do you want to do today? We have ten hours before we have to meet Adam Holloway at Parliament.”
“I don’t know. I’d be fine sitting here all day. But we’ve got to do something that will keep me from falling asleep between now and then.”
“Oh, look! They’ve brought our car round,” exclaimed Hen. Such a kidder.
“Listen,” she went on, “I know this is going to sound really cheesy, but what do you say to our getting the Hop On, Hop Off bus and riding around all day? If we want to get off anywhere, we can. Or we can just sit and sight-see all day.”
“What do I say? Perfect, Hen! That’s exactly all I feel like doing today. You’re brilliant.”
And, as it turned out, the day was brilliant, as well. The weather held and our bus was never full. Here are a few photos taken that day that will give you the flavour of our tour.