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Sunday, 17 August 2014

"Teaching marble to lie": remembering the dead in early modern monuments

"For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not anything, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten". Ecclesiastes 9:5
How will we be remembered we die? Will we be remembered at all? These are questions which occupied minds in early modern England just as much as now. Wealthy men and women in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries were very concerned about how they would go down to posterity. Although most of them probably believed in a Christian afterlife, they also hoped to prove the above Ecclesiastes verse wrong by ensuring that their memory lived on after death, thus ensuring an earthly quasi-immortality. This could be achieved most obviously through fame as a statesman, soldier or scholar, but one could also hope to secure remembrance via charitable endowments, building and portraiture, as well as through one's offspring.

During the Middle Ages, paying for the singing of masses had been used by wealthy people as a means of shortening a soul's stay in Purgatory, and also as a way of remembering and honouring their deceased kin. In post-Reformation England, however, paying for masses was no longer an option, so people had to venerate their family in more tangible ways. Robert Burton (author of The Anatomy of Melancholy) listed the things which well-off people did in the 16th and 17th centuries to commemorate their memory and the memory of their kin. They would dedicate "tombstones and monuments...epitaphs, elegies, inscriptions, pyramids, obelisks, statues, images, pictures, histories, poems, annals, feasts, anniversaries" and would "omit no good office that may tend to the preservation of their names, honours, and eternal memory".

Memorial to Charles Wolfran Cornwall,
a prominent 18th century politician
© Caecilia Dance
Late 16th century monument in York Minster
showing the deceased man at his prayers
© Allan Harris





















One notable development in post-Reformation England was the enormous proliferation of funerary monuments both inside and outside churches. Medieval kings and queens had, it is true, merited elaborate tombs, and some nobles and wealthy merchants had also built themselves funerary monuments, but it was really only in the 16th century that the building of monuments and memorial inscriptions great and small took off, cluttering up England's churches in the attempt to obtain a lasting remembrance on Earth. Building a memorial for oneself or a family member was, as well as a means of remembering the dead, a sign of piety and worldly status. Only the gentry and wealthy merchants had the money and the social standing necessary to go about erecting memorials in church. The antiquary John Weever wrote that "every man...desires a perpetuity after death, by these monuments", and a Jacobean antiquary remarked that a man could "perpetuate the reverend memory of his honourable parents, ancestors, and much beloved friends departed" by building them funerary monuments.

It has been estimated that between 1530 and 1600, around five thousand carved stone monuments were set up in churches across England; there were also innumerable cheaper panels of engraved stone, brass or wood for those who were not quite important or wealthy enough to merit the elaborate stone memorials. In the later 17th and 18th centuries, funerary sculpture grew ever more ambitious, featuring portrait medallions, pictorial reliefs and dramatic figural groupings.  One Jacobean antiquary described the "lively counterfeiting resemblance[s], effigies [and] pyramids" with which people decorated their memorials. A common "counterfeiting resemblance" seen on 16th and 17th century monuments is the depiction of the dead and their family, with children dutifully kneeling in a row at the bottom of the monument.

The Denny Monument at Waltham Abbey.
Sir and Lady Denny with their 10 children.
© Richard Croft
A memorial to John and Grissell St Barbe of
Romsey, also depicting their "fower sonns"
© Caecilia Dance
























Post-Reformation memorial inscriptions frequently contained a moral message, though it was less often a memento mori than a stern exhortation to lead a virtuous life. One 17th century Berkshire monument, after enumerating the qualities of the various members of the Yate family, ended with "Reader, depart, imitate". Reading about the supposed merits of the deceased was intended to edify the onlooker and encourage them to better behaviour. Archbishop Matthew Parker (1502-75) admitted that the eulogistic epitaph which he wrote for his own tomb had less to do with his actual merits than a desire to make readers aspire to the virtues attributed to him. Not everyone approved of this: Alexander Pope had no time for such ideas and condemned much of what was written didactically on funerary monuments as "sepulchral lies" (his own epitaph read "[Here] lies one who ne'er cared, and still cares not a pin/ What they said, or may say, of the mortal within"). The poet Matthew Prior wrote in 1714 of memorial inscriptions, "Yet credit but lightly what more may be said/ For we flatter ourselves and teach marble to lie".

"Sepulchral lies" or not, the past few centuries have bequeathed us a rich collection of funerary monuments in churches across the country, both large and small. On a recent trip to Winchester Cathedral and the nearby Romsey Abbey I was able to see many excellent examples of early modern memorial inscriptions, ranging from the dull to the witty, from the pompous to the pithy.

Some were poignant testimonies of the unpredictability of life in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. I found many memorials dedicated to women who died in childbirth, sometimes just a year after getting married, along with inscriptions which reveal a high rate of infant and child mortality.
Near this place are interred
the remains of Mrs Ann Moody:
She Died January 14th 1780,
Aged 19 Years;
Also her infant Son,
aged 9 Weeks.
Look on this Monument,
Ye Gay and Careless,
think of its date,
and boast no more of to-morrow.
                       *    *    *
In Memory of Mary the Wife of John May
who died the 29th November 1781.
Also in Memory of all her children
Mary died in her Infancy
Ann died the 1st of May 1787 aged 17 Years
Mary died in June the same Year aged 11 Years
and Elizabeth died the 20th August 1791 aged 18 Years.
"If e'er the offspring of thy virtuous love bloom'd to thy wish, or to thy soul was Dear, this plaintive Marble asks thee for a tear". 
Although one always expects to find a certain amount of eulogising on the larger memorials, I was surprised by the very secular character of several inscriptions. They seemed more fit for the description of a heroine in an 18th century sentimental novel than for the remembrance of a dead lady, however highborn she might have been. Take, for instance, the memorial inscriptions for Frances Viscount Palmerston and Elizabeth Montagu:
In Memory of Frances Palmerston:
Her Sense was Strong her Judgement accurate,
Her Wit engaging and her Taste refined,
While the Elegance of her Form,
The Graces of her Manners,
And the natural Propriety
That ever accompanied her Words and Actions,
Made her Virtues doubly attractive,
And taught her equally to command
Respect and Love.
                   *    *    *
Elizabeth Montagu
Daughter of Matthew Robinson Esquire
who possessing the united advantages
of Beauty, Wit, Judgement, Reputation and Riches
and employing her talents more uniformly
for the benefit of Mankind
might justly be deem'd an ornament
to her Sex, and Country.
Other epitaphs were simple yet touching; a welcome respite from the monuments which listed every last detail of a distinguished career, or eulogised the apparently endless Christian virtues of the deadRomsey Abbey had an unusual memorial inscription commissioned by someone for a deceased family servant, "Honest Caspar", and Winchester Cathedral featured a plaque dedicated to a charitable physician:
HONEST CASPAR,
Whose Remains are near
this Place deposited under a black Marble Slab.
His many good Qualities, and
long and faithful Service in the Family he lived,
during Sixty Years,
Justly claim this Act of grateful remembrance
from his surviving Master
as also hereby to commemorate
to the rising Generation,
in his Line of Life, to
imitate his worthy Example
He dyed the 26th May 1785
Aged 72 Years.
                 *    *    *
To the Memory of William Widmore,
He was (which is most rare)
A friend without guile,
An Apothecary without Ostentation.
His extensive Charity in his profession
Entitles him to be call'd
The Physician of the Poor.
Let other inscriptions boast
Honours, Pedigree, and Riches,
Here lies an honest Englishman.
Who died the 19th Day of June 1756
Although unusual in the early modern period, witty epitaphs and inscriptions were not unheard of. A famous example is the epitaph of the judge John Strange (1696-1754), which reads "Here lies an honest lawyer - that is Strange". I found a humorous inscription on a gravestone just outside Winchester Cathedral, erected in memory of Thomas Thetcher, a young soldier who died of a fever contracted by drinking small beer on a hot day:
Here sleeps in peace a Hampshire Grenadier
Who caught his death by drinking cold small Beer
Soldiers be wise from his untimely fall
And when ye're hot drink Strong or none at all.

Thomas Thetcher's gravestone in the grounds
of Winchester Cathedral.
© Supertechguy



---------------------
Further Reading
---------------------
Nigel Llewellyn, Funeral Monuments in Post-Reformation England (2009)
Nigel Saul, English Church Monuments in the Middle Ages: History and Representation (2011)
Peter Sherlock, Monuments and Memory in Early Modern England (2008)
Keith Thomas, The Ends of Life. Roads to Fulfilment in Early Modern England (2009)

~By Caecilia Dance

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Blood feud in early medieval Francia

Francia was the largest and most sophisticated kingdom in early medieval Europe, lasting from the 5th to 9th centuries. At it greatest extent, Francia was twice as large as modern France, stretching from the Pyrenees to Bavaria, from Rome to Saxony. It was huge and unwieldy. Given this, how was a Frankish king supposed to maintain law and order? It seems almost an impossible task. This was a time when horse and rider was the fastest method of communication, and local lords were not always willing to tolerate royal control. As the king could not possibly micro-manage everything, Frankish law and order depended upon complicated local systems of justice which interpreted and enacted the major bodies of centrally composed law codes, with more or less success.

Blood-feud - or the threat of it - was an integral part of maintaining law and order in early medieval Francia. Frankish law presents blood feud as a legitimate way of redressing wrongs; families were allowed to violently avenge insults and injuries perpetrated on a kin member. The mentality behind this sort of retribution is very much of the "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth" variety. Law codes make it clear that no-one was to interfere in blood vengeance; there is a clause in Lex Salica which forbade killing any man 'whom his enemies have left mutilated [at a crossroads]', and any violation of this law incurred the not inconsiderable fine of 100 solidi. Clearly, vengeance killing was seen as a potent form of justice and a means of recovering a family's honour, but the fact that it was codified in law seems rather an attempt to regulate killing than to encourage it at all costs. It may be that the threat of 'mutually assured destruction' was designed to act as a brake upon lethal crime. J.M. Wallace-Hadrill has argued that the kings of the "Barbarian West" sanctioned blood feud in their law codes as a means of preserving peace in their realms for want of anything better.

Frankish territories from 481 to 814

However, this is not exactly what we think of as 'blood feud' today. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a feud as "a state of prolonged mutual hostility, typically between two families or communities, characterised by murderous assaults in revenge for previous injuries". Blood-feud as defined in Frankish law, however, was a specific remedy used to avenge one deed. There is no indication that, after the vengeance had been carried out, the family and friends of the victim had any right to continue committing acts of violence against the offender. The historian David Halsall has attempted to pin down the exact nature of Frankish blood feud as opposed to 'true' blood feud, by differentiating between tactical violence and strategic violence. Tactical violence, he maintains, aims directly at the resolution of a dispute, whereas the latter aims not at terminating the dispute directly, but rather at drawing attention to it. Blood vengeance as defined in Frankish law would appear to fit the former definition, whereas the latter approach (strategic violence) seems better suited to the modern understanding of 'true feud'. I'm not sure how helpful the terms 'tactical' and 'strategic' are - they are linguistically interchangeable - but Halsall's differentiation is nonetheless quite useful.

In a further departure from the classic definition of blood feud, it is clear from Frankish law codes that killing the offender was not supposed to be a measure of first resort. The Lex Salica, a major body of Frankish law, clearly stipulated that the punishment for homicide should be compensation first and foremost; only after a lengthy process of ritual and court appearances should the murderer be killed as compensation, and that only if he could not pay the fine. In 6th century Francia, vengeance could not be exacted until the local count or judge had found in favour of the wronged party. For instance, in the famous feud of Sichar and Chramnesind (585-87), Chramnesind forfeited half of the compensation otherwise due to him, for attacking Sichar's household contrary to the findings of the tribunal. In a tight-knit community it may have been more sensible to settle for compensation, since although a dead body restored honour and justice for the victim's kin, it could not buy seed and livestock like monetary compensation (weregild) could. It would, however, be misleading to suggest that all families of the victim were more eager for money than vengeance. Stephen White, who studied violence in the Touraine around 1100, found that aggrieved parties delayed or rejected compromise and compensation for quite lengthy periods. This allowed them to make the most of their opponent's contrition, and capitalise upon the community's awareness that they had suffered a wrong and had the right to avenge it.

King Clovis dictates Salic Law (Lex Salica). 14th century depiction

The blood vengeance in early medieval Francia which most closely paralleled the modern definition of blood feud was waged by the Merovingian royal family. Since the king was above the law, and given that the Merovingians often feuded with dynasties in other countries where the same law codes did not apply, one cannot say that Merovingian vengeance attacks were part of a progression of penalties as outlined in the Frankish law codes. Rather, they fit the pattern of classic blood feud in that they often involved a lasting state of hostility between families or family members. Halsall's argument seems apt here: he observes that a 'true feud' is very difficult to terminate, and almost never ended through violence, because the feuding groups are perpetually in a state of  debtor and creditor; every time the debt of blood is paid off on one side, the roles and relationships are reversed, and it keeps on going.

The Merovingians were very into blood feud even by the standards of medieval royal dynasties. They tended to attack opponents in order to avenge insults to their kin. Such feuds could stretch out over generations. Gregory of Tours records Queen Chrotechildis, a Burgundian by birth, urging her sons to avenge the deaths of her parents on the murderer's sons (her nephews Sigismund and Godomar). It seems that in royal circles, not engaging in blood feud to avenge a kinsman's death was seen as positively shameful. The mid-9th century Gesta Dagoberti recounts how, supposedly, the sons of Sadregisil did not manage to obtain their heritage because they had not avenged their father's murder.

Sometimes avenging an injured family member was linked with ideological considerations. For instance, King Childebert invaded Spain in 531 after hearing from his sister Chrotilda that her husband, Amalric of the Visigoths, was grossly mistreating her due to her Catholic faith (Amalaric was an Arian). Childebert defeated the Visigoth army and Amalaric was assassinated after fleeing to Barcelona. Unfortunately, Chrotilda herself never made it back to Paris, dying of an unknown cause en route, but the victory presumably enhanced Childebert's reputation. Ideological concerns aside, the Merovingians also used blood feud for less exalted ends. One such case developed in the aftermath of a lurid royal scandal involving King Chilperic I (c.539-584). Chilperic murdered his wife, Galswintha, on the instigation of his mistress Fredegund, apparently strangling her in bed. Chilperic's brothers saw their chance and decided to 'avenge' Galswintha by killing Chilperic. This, of course, left the throne open to them, and had the added bonus of being able to steal Galswintha's dowry  in the process.

Chilperic strangles his wife, Galswintha.
14th century
A second depiction of the strangling of Galswintha

















We start to see an end to vengeance killing as an official form of justice under Charlemagne, who was crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor in 800. He opposed blood feud as part of his campaign against any violence not committed by royal consent. His Capitulare Missorum Generale attempted to ban all blood vengeance. Any attempt to settle a dispute had to be conducted through the medium of Charlemagne's own officers. A murderer had to agree to pay compensation and the victim's relatives had to accept it, once paid. Anyone taking vengeance of their own would be punished. It's impossible to know how strictly these laws were followed; Francia was a huge realm and royal powers to enforce such regulations were limited. At any rate, perhaps it is not too much to see Charlemagne's laws against blood feud as the beginning of the medieval expansion of more centralised royal justice. It was, however, not until the Holy Roman Empire's Reichstag in 1495 that the right of waging feuds was totally abolished, with the Imperial Reform proclaiming an "eternal public peace".

-------------
Sources
----------------
  • Fischer Drew, Katherine (ed.). Lex Salica, 1991, University of Pennsylvania Press
  • Halsall, Guy. 'Reflections of Early Medieval Violence: The Example of the "Blood-Feud" Memoria y Civilización 2 (1999), pp. 7-29

~ By Caecilia Dance

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Gals and bone-grubbers: more Victorian street traders

In 1851, the journalist Henry Mayhew published  London Labour and the London Poor, a groundbreaking and influential survey of London's working classes and criminal underbelly. What is particularly striking about the work are the lengthy quotations from the people themselves, describing their lives. The result is a poignant and sometimes humorous portrait of Victorian London's forgotten underclass. Here are some excerpts from Mayhew's interviews with street traders (more here). The illustrations are all drawn from actual daguerreotypes.


               The bone-grubber
The bone-grubber

"I don't go out before daylight to gather anything, because the police take my bag and throws all I've gathered about the street to see if I have anything stolen in it. I never stole anything in all my life, indeed I'd do anything before I'd steal. Many a night I've slept under an arch of the railway when I hadn't a penny to pay for my bed; but whenever the police find me that way, they make me and the rest get up, and drives us on. The Jews around here give a great deal of victuals away on Saturday. They sometimes calls one of us in to light a fire for them, or take off the kettle, as they must not do anything themselves on the Sabbath.  There's a great deal more than 100 bone-pickers about here, men, women, and children.The winter is the best time for us, for there is more meat used, and then there are more bones. I've lost my health since I took to bone-picking, through the wet and cold in the winter, for I've scarcely any clothes, and the wet gets to my feet through the old shoes; this caused me last winter to be nine weeks in the hospital of the Whitechapel workhouse.


                                                                      The groundsel man

The groundsel man
"I sell chickweed and grunsell, and turfs for larks. That's all I sell, unless it's a few nettles that's ordered. I believe they're for tea, sir. I gets the chickweed at Chalk Farm. I pay nothing for it. I gets it out of the public fields. Every morning about seven I goes for it. I've been at business for about eighteen years. I'm out till about five in the evening. I never stop to eat. I am walking ten hours every day - wet and dry. My leg and foot and all is quite dead. I goes with a stick".














                                                                         The blind boot-lace seller

The blind boot-lace seller
"At five years old, while my mother was still alive, I caught the small pox. I only wish vaccination had been in vogue then as it is now or I shouldn't have lost my eyes. I didn't lose both my eyeballs until about twenty years after that, though my sight was gone for all but the shadow of daylights and bright colours. I could never see a star. I got to think that a roving life was a fine pleasant one. I didn't think the country was half so big and you couldn't credit the pleasure I got in going about it. I grew pleaseder and pleaseder with life. You see, I never had no pleasure, and it seemed to me like a whole new world, to be able to get victuals without doing anything. On my way to Romford, I met a blind man who took me into partnership with him, and larnt me my business complete - and that's just about two or three and twenty year ago".






                            The London coffee stall

The London coffee stall

"I was a mason's labourer, a smith's labourer, a plasterer's labourer, or a bricklayer's labourer. I was for six months without any employment. I did not know which way to keep my wife and child. Many said they wouldn't do such a thing as keep a coffee stall, but I said I'd do anything to get a bit of bread honestly. I went to the tinman and paid him ten shillings and sixpence (the last of my savings, after I'd been four or five months out of work) for a can. I heard that an old man, who had been in the habit of standing at the entrance of one of the markets, had fell ill. So, what do I do, I goes and pops onto his pitch, and there I've done better than ever did I before".









            The coster-girl

The coster-girl
"My mother has been in the streets selling all her lifetime. Her uncle learnt her the markets and she learnt me. I suppose by sitting at the stall from nine in the morning till the shops shuts up at ten o'clock at night, I can earn about 1s. 6d. a day. If I'm unlucky, mother will say, "Well, I'll go out tomorrow and see what can do"; and if I've done well, she'll say "You're a good hand at it: you've done famous". Yes, mother's very fair that way. Ah! there's many a gal I knows whose back has to suffer if she don't sell enough.

"I dare say there ain't ten out of a hundred gals what's living with men, what's been married Church of England fashion. But it seems to me that the gals is fools to be 'ticed away. The lads is very insinuating, and will make a gal half tipsy, and then they makes their arrangements. Then perhaps a man will have a few words with his gal, and he'll say, "Oh! I ain't obliged to keep her!" and he'll turn her out: and then where's that poor gal to go?

"My parents often talks about religion. I've heerd Father talk about the first man and woman as was made and lived - it must be more than a hundred years ago. Father told us how our Saviour gave a great many poor people a penny loaf and a bit of fish each, which proves him to have been a very kind gentleman. We poor gals aren't very religious, but we are better than the men. We all of us thanks God for everything - even for a fine day; as for sprats, we always say they're God's blessing for the poor, and thinks it hard of the Lord Mayor not to let 'em come in afore the ninth of November, just because he wants to dine off them - which he always do. I know where heaven is; it's above the clouds, and it's placed there to prevent us seeing into it. That's where all the good people go, but I'm afeered there's very few costers among the angels - 'specially those as deceives poor gals."

~ By Caecilia Dance

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Cripples and baked potatoes: Victorian street traders

In 1851, the journalist Henry Mayhew published  London Labour and the London Poor, a groundbreaking and influential survey of London's working classes and criminal underbelly. What is particularly striking about the work are the lengthy quotations from the people themselves, describing their lives. The result is a poignant and sometimes humorous portrait of Victorian London's forgotten underclass. Here are some excerpts from Mayhew's interviews with street traders. The illustrations are all drawn from actual daguerreotypes.


                           The baked- potato man

The baked-potato man
"Such a day as this, sir, when the fog's like a cloud come down, people looks very shy at my taties. They've been more suspicious since the taty rot. I sell mostly to mechanics, I was a grocer's porter myself before I was a baked taty. Gentlemen does grumble though, and they've said, "Is that all for tuppence?" Some customers is very pleasant with me, and says I'm a blessing. They're women that's not reckoned the best in the world, but they pays me. I've trusted them sometimes, and I am paid mostly. Money goes one can't tell how, and 'specially if you drinks a drop as I do sometimes. Foggy weather drives me to it, I'm so worritted - that is, now and then, you'll mind, sir".








                                        The crippled street bird-seller

The crippled street bird-seller
"I couldn't walk at all until I was six years old, and I was between nine and ten before I could get up and down stairs by myself. When I could get about and went among other boys, I was in great distress, I was teased so. Life was a burthen to me, as I've read something about. I learned to read at a Sunday school, where I went a long time. I like reading. I read the Bible and tracts, nothing else; never a newspaper. It don't come in my way, and if it did I shouldn't look at it, for I can't read over well and it's nothing to me who's king or who's queen. It can never have anything to do with me. There'll be no change for me in this world. I've been bird-selling in the streets for six-and-twenty years and more. I liked the birds and still do. I used to think at first that they was like me; they was prisoners, and I was a cripple. And I think of the next world sometimes, and feel quite sure, quite, that I shan't be a cripple there. Yes, that's a comfort".




                                               The street rhubarb and spice seller

The street rhubarb and spice seller
"I am one native of Mogadore in Morocco. I am an Arab. I left my countree when I was sixteen or eighteen years of age, I forget, sir. Dere everything sheap, not what dey are here in England. Like good many, I was young and foolish - like all dee rest of young people, I like to see foreign countries. The people were Mahomedans in Mogadore, but we were Jews, just like here, you see. In my countree the governemen treat de Jews very badly, take all deir money. I get heer, I tink, in 1811 when de tree shilling pieces first come out. I go to de play house, I never see such tings as I see here before I come. When I was a little shild, I hear talk in Mogadore of de people of my country sell de rhubarb in de streets of London, and make plenty money by it. All de rhubarb sellers was Jews. Now dey all gone dead, and dere only four of us now in England.






                      The street comb seller

The street comb seller
"I used to mind my mother's stall. She sold sweet snuff. I never had a father. Mother's been dead these - well, I don't know how long but it's a long time. I've lived by myself ever since and kept myself and I have half a room with another young woman who lives by making little boxes. She's no better off nor me. I has very few amusements. I goes once or twice a month, or so, to the gallery at the Victoria Theatre, for I live near. It's beautiful there, O, it's really grand. I don't know what they call what's played because I can't read the bills. I'm a going to leave the streets. I have an aunt, a laundress, she taught me laundressing and I'm a good ironer. I'm not likely to get married and I don't want to".









                   The rubbish-carter

The rubbish-carter
"I was brought up on the land, sir, in the county Wexford. I lived with my mother and father, and shure we were badly off. Father and mother - the Heavens be their bed - died one soon after another, and some friends raised me the manes to come to this country. Two Londoners came to find men as they wanted for rubbish-carters One of 'em said, I was a b----- Irish fool, and words came on, and thin there was a fight, and the pelleece came. I was taken to the station, and had a month. I had two black eyes next morning, but was willin' to forget and forgive. No, I'm not fond of fighting. I'm a peaceable man, glory be to God. I sarved my month, and it ain't a bad place at all, the prison. I tould the gintleman that had charge of us that I was a Roman Catholic, God be praised, and couldn't go to his prayers. "O very well, Pat", says he. And next day the praste came, and very angry he was, and said our conduc' was a disgrace to religion, and to our counthry, and to him. Do I think he was right, sir? God knows he was, or he wouldn't have said so".

                                        
                                               The street seller of nutmeg-graters

The street seller of nutmeg-graters
"Persons looks at me a good bit when I go into a strange place. I do feel it very much, that I haven't the power to get my living or to do a thing for myself, but I never begged for nothing. I never though those whom God had given the power to help themselves ought to help me. My trade is to sell brooms and brushes, and all kinds of cutlery and tinware. I learnt it myself. I was never brought up to nothing, because I couldn't use my hands. Mother was a cook in a nobleman's family when I was born. They say I was a love child. My mother used to allow so much a year for my schooling, and I can read and write pretty well. With a couple of pounds, I'd get a stock, and go into the country with a barrow, and buy old metal, and exchange tinware for old clothes, and with that, I'm almost sure I could make a decent living".





~ By Caecilia Dance


Thursday, 19 June 2014

The Mitford sisters: the duchess, the novelist and the communist

This is one of two posts on the notorious Mitford sisters. I have written about the two fascists, Unity and Diana (Lady Mosley) here, and this post is about Jessica the communist, Nancy the novelist and Deborah the duchess.

Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica, Deborah and their brother Tom were born between 1904 and 1920 to the politician David Freeman-Mitford, the future Lord Redesdale, and his wife Sydney Bowles. The children grew up in a cold and reserved family atmosphere. Nancy would later describe her mother as "abnormally detached", and their father was a formidable man prone to raging at everyone. He once remarked that each child was sillier than the last, and one of his favourite pastimes was chasing his two youngest daughters with bloodhounds. Lord Redesdale was rude to all of Nancy's friends who came to stay, and would shout "don't these people have homes to go to?" at the dinner table.  According to Jessica, their father wouldn't receive any "outsiders" as guests; that meant that "Huns", "Frogs", Americans and Asians were definitely out. Another point of contention was that whilst he sent their brother Tom to Eton and Oxford, he refused to let the girls attend school, maintaining that they would develop thick calves from playing hockey. There was also strife between the siblings. Nancy would torment Deborah; the latter mused in a recent interview, "I should think the social services would be called in now".

The Mitford family in 1921

In the politically charged inter-war years, it was political beliefs as well as scandalous affairs and elopements (see Diana Mosley) which would tear the Mitford family apart. Jessica, or Decca, was the red sheep of the family. Eschewing the fascist sympathies of most of her family, Decca was an ardent Communist even as an adolescent. When forced to share a room with Unity, Decca plastered her side of the room with pictures of Lenin and the hammer and sickle, whereas Unity proudly displayed swastikas and photographs of Hitler. Decca despised the notion of entering the marriage market as a debutante, felt alienated from her family's upper class milieu and resented her mother for forbidding her to attend school and university.

It was in this state of mind that she met Esmond Romilly at a weekend house party when she was 19 years old. Esmond was Winston Churchill's nephew by marriage, and despite his young age had already published several books and been to Spain where he had fought with the International Brigade against Franco. He and Decca fell in love and eloped, hoping to go to Spain to continue work against Franco's fascist regime. Their families were deeply disapproving and begged the two to come back to England. However, Decca became pregnant, and their families were forced to allow the couple to marry in order to avoid an even greater scandal.

Decca and Esmond Romilly in 1939

Decca and Romilly moved back to England and lived for a while in the East End, but in 1939 they both moved to America where they travelled around working odd jobs, even running a bar in Florida at one point. Romilly, who had joined the Royal Canadian Air Force at the outset of World War II, went missing in action over the Atlantic on his way home from a bombing raid over Germany. Decca threw herself into war work and married Robert Treuhaft, a civil rights lawyer, in 1943. Both became active members of the Communist party and in 1953, at the height of McCarthyism and the 'Red Scare', they were hauled up in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, where they refused to testify about their participation in radical groups.

Decca spent the rest of her life working as an investigative journalist supporting the Civil Rights movement. She ended up quarrelling with most of her family on grounds of her elopement and opposing political views. Her father refused to see her ever again, even on his deathbed in 1958; he never got over the fact that her second husband was not only a Communist, but a Jew as well.

Several of the Mitford sisters were gifted with literary ability and were friends with authors such as Evelyn Waugh,  but it was Nancy who turned her talent for fiction into a career. The novels Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love, based on her own upbringing, established her literary reputation in the late 1940s. Although Nancy enjoyed professional success, she was persistently unlucky in love. She had a long on/off engagement with the Scottish aristocrat Hamish St Clair-Erskine, a homosexual Oxford undergraduate four years her junior, which ended in 1933 when he announced his intention to marry the daughter of a London banker. Nancy was distraught, and wrote to him saying, "I thought in your soul you loved me & that in the end we should have children & look back on life together when we are old".

Nancy in the inter-war years

Yet just a month after her final split with Erskine, Nancy went on to make a very respectable match with the Hon. Peter Rodd, the son of a diplomat. Nancy's friend Harold Acton described Rodd as "a young man of boundless promise", but the cracks in their marriage started to show within a short time. Biographers have since blamed the couple's unhappiness on money worries, along with Rodd's infidelity and fecklessness. They both joined a French relief organisation in 1939 which assisted Spanish refugees from Franco's regime in the last years of the civil war. The experience hardened Nancy against fascism to such an extent that she wrote, "I would join hands with the Devil himself to stop any further extension of the disease". Nancy herself adhered to a moderate socialism, but was not so dedicated that she could not laugh at herself; she observed that "left-wing people are always sad because they mind dreadfully about their causes, and the causes are always going so badly".

Rodd joined the Welsh Guards in 1940 and departed to fight for king and country. Nancy also contributed to the war effort by helping Jewish families in the East End during the Blitz. In 1942, Nancy met Colonel Gaston Palewski, Charles de Gaulle's Chief of Staff, and had a brief but passionate affair with him. In 1946 she moved to Paris in order to be near Palewski, and plunged into a hectic social life with other British expatriates. She told her mother how much she loved France: "I am so completely happy here...I feel a totally different person as if I had come out of a coal mine into daylight...oh my passion for the French!"

Nancy managed to get a divorce from Rodd in 1958, but never married Palewski. Although he was the love of her life, the affair was somewhat one-sided; he did not return her intense passion, and in an unfortunate repeat of the Hamish Erskine affair, left her in order to marry a wealthy divorcee. Nancy lived in Paris for the rest of her days, writing fiction and historical biographies. In 1972 the French government made her a Chevalier of the Légion d'Honneur, and later that year she was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. At the time she was suffering greatly from Hodgkin's lymphoma, though she tried to keep her spirits up, writing "it's very curious, dying, and would have many a drôle amusing & charming side were it not for the pain". She died in 1973.

Nancy Mitford in 1956

It certainly says something about this family that the second least famous daughter became the Duchess of Devonshire upon her marriage, an illustrious title dating back to the 17th century which had been held by Georgiana Cavendish, one of the celebrated personalities of the 18th century. Deborah, or 'Debo', ran Chatsworth House for decades, masterminding extensive restorations and developing various social and business activities based around the estate, such as the Chatsworth Farm Shop. She led an impeccably well-behaved aristocratic life and kept out of the fascist activities which made Diana and Unity so notorious. She did have tea with Hitler when visiting Munich with her mother and Unity in 1937; in an interview in 2007 she was asked who she would now like to have tea with, Elvis Presley or Hitler. Looking at the interviewer with astonishment, she answered, "Well, Elvis of course! What an extraordinary question". Debo is the last surviving Mitford sister; aged 94, she spends her time involved in charitable endeavours and writing books on topics ranging from chickens to Chatsworth, including The Duchess of Devonshire's Chatsworth Cookery Book which is the ultimate guide to aristocratic country house fare.

A young Debo in hunting gear

The Duchess of Devonshire in front of Chatsworth House

















~ By Caecilia Dance