To the Manor Born
and Daughters: Women
Reviewed by Marsha Huff.
The Strangways family owned extensive property in Dorset before and during the Georgian era. After the last male died in 1726, the family’s landholdings and name survived through the maneuverings of Susannah Strangways, sole heir to the family’s West Country estates, including the manor house Melbury.
Joanna Martin, author of Wives and Daughters: Women and Children in the Georgian Country House, is a direct descendent of Susannah Strangways. Martin’s history covers one hundred years, 1730-1830, and four generations in the extended Strangways family. In each generation the daughters (who outnumbered sons) were prolific writers of letters and journals, which form the basis of this examination of country life from the accession of George II to the death of George IV.
The history centers on four women and the great houses of which they were mistresses. The first, Susannah, was a strongwilled heiress, who spent several years abroad with her only child, Elizabeth, leaving her husband in England. While on the Continent she had an affair with Henry Fox, who would later elope with Lady Caroline Lennox and, as a wealthy government minister, become Lord Holland.
To assure continuity of the Strangways estates and thwart her husband’s plans, Susannah arranged a secret marriage between Elizabeth, then thirteen years old, and Henry Fox’s elder brother, Stephen. (A girl could be married at the age of twelve with a parent’s consent.) Stephen, himself the owner of a large estate in Somerset, added Strangways to his name when he inherited Melbury. He was later created Earl of Ilchester, elevating the Fox Strangways family from the landed gentry to the aristocracy. Thomas Hardy, whose maternal ancestors had been tenants and employees of Melbury, fictionalized the story of the Earl and Countess of Ilchester in A Group of Noble Dames (1891).
Elizabeth remained with her mother until she was sixteen years old. While Stephen’s motives in marrying her may have been primarily financial, Elizabeth was a loving wife, though sadly uneducated, and their marriage prospered. The eldest of their nine children, Susan Fox Strangways, is Martin’s third generation portrait. Readers of Stella Tillyard’s Aristocrats will recall Lady Susan as the intimate friend of Lady Sarah Lennox, younger sister of Lady Caroline. Lady Susan eloped with the actor William O’Brien and, after several years of estrangement from her family, settled with her husband in one of the Fox Strangways’s smaller Dorset houses. Although the O’Briens had no children and were always short of money, they were happily married for more than fifty years.
Susan O’Brien’s niece, Mary Fox Strangways, is the focus of the fourth generation. Lady Mary married Thomas Talbot, a wealthy, untitled landowner thirty years her senior whose primary estate, Penrice Castle in South Wales, was a long journey from her Dorset home. She declined proposals from two younger suitors in London, choosing instead a quiet country life devoted to her children, houses, and gardens and isolated from the grand society she had known as a daughter of the second Lord Ilchester.
Wives and Daughters covers a wide range of domestic subjects, quoting the women’s correspondence and journals and the account books of each estate. In addition to describing the houses and their furnishings, Martin discusses in depth country life, servants, household management, health, education, science, and literature, gardens, travel, and patronage. The details provide a gloss on life at Pemberley, Mansfield Park, and Kellynch, as well as Godmersham, the home of Jane Austen’s brother Edward Knight.
Martin’s writing is strongest in her narratives about the Fox Strangways women, drawing on their own words. She tells the story, for example, of Susan O’Brien’s successful breast surgery, without anesthetic, a decade before Frances Burney’s famous mastectomy. Portions of the book, however, descend into lists of trivial facts that would be better relegated to footnotes. To appreciate Christmas celebrations, it is not necessary to know the shillings and pence given to each group of carolers; the subject of cooking and dining is not illuminated by a lengthy recital of the quantity and price of food and drink.
For readers wishing to explore further the role of women in the English country house, Wives and Daughters can be read in conjunction with two books covering the same era but different classes. The Gentleman’s Daughter: Women’s Lives in Georgian England, by Amanda Vickery (1998), is based on the letters and diaries of numerous Yorkshire women from commercial and professional families, as well as the landed gentry. Rosemary Baird’s Mistress of the House: Great Ladies and Grand Houses 1670-1830 (2003), focuses exclusively on highranking aristocrats, including Caroline Lennox Fox, Baroness Holland.
Another view is provided in Joanna Martin’s earlier study, A Governess in the Age of Jane Austen: The Journals and Letters of Agnes Porter (1998). Porter, who served two generations of the Fox Strangways family, expressed great affection for her mistresses and their children, belying the general notion of the mistreated governess. Her account of Melbury and Penrice is consistent with the portrait that emerges in Wives and Daughters of strong, intelligent Fox Strangways women whose well-ordered houses formed the center of family life and country society.
Marsha Huff will become President of JASNA on December 16, 2006. She was co-coordinator, with Sara Bowen, of the 2005 Milwaukee AGM.
JASNA News v.22, no. 2, Summer 2006, p. 16
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