The Art of the Resignation Letter

If you’re feeling like you’re ready for a career change, it might just be the perfect time to scout the job market. Perhaps you can see yourself as our next Prime Minister, or maybe even fancy a stint presenting Top Gear? There are certainly plenty of vacancies emerging as the steady stream of resignations gathers momentum. Just don’t be too hasty! Before you put pen to paper telling your boss that you’ve had enough, remember that there’s an art to writing a resignation letter.

We can all learn a thing or two from Frances Villiers, Countess of Jersey (1753-1821) about how not to handle a resignation. The mistress of the Prince of Wales (later George IV) was truly a master of the snide put-down. When she wrote to her lover’s wife to resign from her position as Lady of the Bedchamber (no pun intended) The Times reported that the letter was ‘one of the most disrespectful we ever recollect to have read.’* Curious? Well, the next day they printed the offending letter in full. Dated 29th June 1796 it reads:

‘I seLady J 2ize the earliest opportunity in my power to have the honour of informing your Royal Highness that I have this day obtained the permission of H.R.H the Prince of Wales to resign into his hands the situation of Lady of the Bedchamber in yr R.H.’s Family, a situation which I had the honour of being appointed to by him at the same time with the rest of those who compose  yr Royal Highness’s Household.

‘The same duty & attachment which I shall ever be proud to profess for H.R.H. & which induced me to accept of that appointment, urged me to obey his commands in retaining it long after the infamous & unjustifiable paragraphs in the public papers rendered it impossible for a person of the rank & situation which I hold in this country (indeed for anyone possessing the honest pride & spirit of an Englishwoman) to submit to hold a situation which was to make her the object of deep & designing calumny.

‘The Prince of Wales represented to me upon my mentioning my earnest request to H.R.H.  for my instant resignation that such a step would not only be regarded as a confirmation of every absurd & abominable falsehood that had been so industriously fabricated for the present purpose, but that it would be farther promoting the views of those who had been so wickedly labouring to injure H.R.H. in the public mind & and through him to degrade the rest of the Royal Family. But the moment is now come when I can with propriety withdraw myself from such persecution & injustice, with the conscious satisfaction of knowing that I have by my silence & forbearance on my part given the strongest proofs of my duty to the Royal Family, & of that respectful attachment & gratitude to H.R.H. the Prince of Wales which never can end but with my life.’*

This is not so much a resignation letter as a declaration of war. Lady Jersey insinuates that Caroline has been circulating reports to damage the reputation of the Royal Family, and puts her in her place by making it quite clear to her who’s boss. When it comes to the hiring and firing she sees the Princess as having absolutely no authority, and so informs her that she has offered her resignation to the Prince instead.

Lady Jersey could be the most charming woman in the world when she wanted to be, but she also had a fast wit and a sharp tongue which could make life decidedly uncomfortable for her rivals. When Caroline of Brunswick arrived in England to marry the Prince of Wales in 1795 she was met at Greenwich by Lady Jersey, who had been appointed as her Lady of the Bedchamber. It was an impossible situation from the off, with Caroline humiliated by being attended by the woman she knew to be her husband’s mistress – even if he denied the connection. Frances herself was not known for keeping quiet about her conquests and on one occasion took delight in flaunting her short-lived affair with the 5th Duke of Devonshire in front of his wife, Georgiana. Reports spread that Lady Jersey was cruel to Caroline, and the Prince of Wales was hardly discreet in his preference for Frances. He had even given his wife some pearl bracelets when they married, only to take them back and present to his mistress.

by James Gillray, published by Hannah Humphrey, hand-coloured etching, published 24 May 1796

The Jersey Smuggler Detected by James Gillray, published by Hannah Humphrey 24th May 1796

By April 1796 the injured princess had had enough and angrily petitioned her husband to remove Lady Jersey from her private household. However, the Prince’s stated that: ‘Her removal would confirm every slander which has been so industriously propagated to her conduct towards you as well as to the nature of her intimacy with me.’ Frances held on to her position, but eventually resignation became the most dignified option to put an end to the situation. Hanging on to her position whilst rumours circulated about both her relationship with the Prince and her disrespectful conduct towards the Princess had done little to help her reputation – and her resignation letter (presumably leaked to the press by the Princess herself) only fuelled the fire as regards to her supposedly cruel treatment of Caroline.

As the wronged wife the Princess of Wales had the support of her people, whilst the mistress was vilified. ‘No Lady Jersey’ was scrawled on walls across London, and amidst fear of mob attacks she fled to Brighton to pass the summer quietly (so she hoped) but no such luck for Lady Jersey! Public disapproval was displayed by parading an effigy of her through the town. Needless to say this was not Lady Jersey’s finest hour and she has gone down in history as the most notorious of the Prince’s many mistresses because of the negative reports circulated about her at this time. However, there are two sides to every story and the more research I do, the more fascinated I become by this beguiling woman. The fact that she is alternately described as a charming creature and an infernal Jezebel has drawn me into the complex web of her character and inspired me to write her biography, which is currently a work in progress.

*See A. Aspinall, The Correspondence of George, Prince of Wales 1770-112, Vol. III: 1795-1798 (London: Cassell, 1965), p. 246.

Emma at 200

chawtonAt Chawton House Library they are marking the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s Emma (1816) with an exhibition charting how this very English novel went on to attain global appeal. Following the self-guided tour around the house which was once home to Austen’s brother Edward, visitors can see the first American edition (1816) alongside the first French translation (1816) as well as works which either inspired Austen or are mentioned in Emma, including one of my personal favourites – Ann Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest (1791).

One of the highlights of the exhibition is a letter Charlotte Brontë wrote to her publisher, W.S. Williams after reading Emma, which is on loan from the Huntington Library in California until September. During my time working at Chawton House Library this summer I have particularly enjoyed showing visitors this original manuscript and  hearing the various discussions regarding the relative merits of Brontë and Austen it invariably elicited. Brontë was not overly impressed with what she had read – but then an outpouring of emotion is not the response she thinks Austen would want from her readers.

Charlotte Brontë to W.S. Williams, 12th April 1850:

charlotte_bronteI have likewise read one of Miss Austen’s works Emma – read it with interest and with just the right degree of admiration which the Miss Austen herself would have thought sensible and suitable – anything like warmth or enthusiasm; anything energetic, poignant, heartfelt, is utterly out of place in commending these works: all such demonstration the authoress would have met with a well-bred sneer, would have calmly scorned as outre and extravagant. She does her business of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well; there is a Chinese fidelity, a miniature delicacy in the painting: she ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound: the Passions are perfectly unknown to her; she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy Sisterhood; even to the Feelings she vouchsafes no more than an occasional graceful but distant recognition; too frequent converse with them would ruffle the smooth elegance of her progress. Her business is not half so much with the human heart as with the human eyes, mouth, hands and feet; what sees keenly, speaks aptly, moves flexibly, it suits her to study, but what throbs fast and full, though hidden, what the blood rushes through, what is the unseen seat of Life and the sentient target of death – this Miss Austen ignores; she no more, with her mind’s eye, beholds the heart of her race than each man, with bodily vision sees the heart in hid heaving breast. Jane Austen was a complete and most sensible lady, but a very incomplete, and rather insensible (not senseless) woman, if this is heresy – I cannot help it. If I said it to some people (Lewes for example) they would accuse me of advocating exaggerated heroics, but I am not afraid of your falling into any such vulgar error.’

It may sound derogatory, but Brontë is a very different kind of writer to Austen. This letter sees Brontë engaging with Emma whilst trying to negotiate her own place in relation to that of her predecessor, who was held in such high esteem by critics like George Henry Lewes. Lewes had suggested that Brontë could learn a thing or two about control from Austen and recommended that she read Pride and Prejudice (1813) – to which she wrote the following reply: ‘I got the book and studied it. And what did I find? An accurate daguerreotyped portrait of a common-place face; a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers—but no glance of a bright vivid physiognomy—no open country—no fresh air—no blue hill—no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen in their elegant but confined houses. These observations will probably irritate you, but I shall run the risk.’ It is interesting to note that in both this letter and the one to W.S. Williams above Brontë uses the metaphor of painting to describe Austen’s writing style. Brontë’s reference to Austen’s ‘miniature delicacy in painting’ particularly recalls Austen’s own description of her craft as ‘the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush.’ Whilst Brontë sees the skill in this, she does not want to emulate Austen; she wants to delve beneath the surface detail.

Exhibition-postcard-image-300x225The ‘Emma at 200’ exhibition runs through until 25th September 2016 – plus there will be special events throughout the summer, including Emma-inspired strawberry picnics in the beautiful grounds. Chawton really is the perfect place for this given that the house is supposed to have provided Austen with the model for Donwell Abbey – and is doesn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to see how the home of Mr. Knight became that of Mr. Knightley!

You can read all about my summer internship at Chawton House Library here.

Jane Austen’s Lost Hero

2016 marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s Emma – but no sooner had Austen unleashed her young heroine to match-make her way around Highbury than thoughts turned to what she should write next…

Rev. James Stanier Clarke (1766-1834), the Prince Regent’s librarian from 1799, was never short of a suggestion should his ‘dear Madam’ need a gentle shove in the right direction. It was he who had orchestrated the dedication of Emma to the Prince during Austen’s visit to Carlton House by casually mentioning that the Regent enjoyed her novels and would look favourably upon a dedication should one be bestowed. A correspondence ensued in which he would propose various unsuitable ideas for her next novel – including a Romance about the royal family. You would think he’d never actually read one of her books, and on 1st April 1816 Austen politely replied to tell him so:

thFQBA63FZ‘You are very , very kind in your hints as to the sort of Composition which might recommend me at present, & I am fully sensible that an Historical Romance, founded on the House of Saxe Cobourg might be much more to the purpose of Profit or Popularity, than such pictures of domestic Life in Country Villages as I deal in – but I could no more write a Romance than an Epic Poem, – I could not sit seriously down to write a serious Romance under any motive than to save my Life, & if it were indispensable for me to keep it up & never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first Chapter. – No – I must keep to my own style & go on in my own Way; And though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other.’

Austen’s letters to James Stanier Clarke are some of my favourites, and never fail to raise a wry smile. She knows exactly how to shoot down a stupid suggestion with a combination of false modesty, politeness and self-assured determination. You can just imagine Jane laughing at the librarian’s ideas as she wrote back! This was not the first time Austen had to write a polite but firm ‘no’ in response to Stanier Clarke’s literary advice. Prior to hinting that an Historical Romance centred on the Cobourg’s ‘would just now be very interesting’ (that is following the marriage of Princess Charlotte to Prince Leopold of Cobourg), he had hoped that Jane would ‘delineate in some future Work the Habits of Life and Character and enthusiasm of a Clergyman – who should pass his time between the metropolis & the country.’ No prizes for guessing that he is talking about himself! On 11th December 1815 Austen had penned the following reply:

‘I am quite honoured by your thinking me capable of drawing such a Clergyman as you gave the sketch of  in your note of Nov: 16. But I assure you I am not. The comic part of the Character I might be equal to, but not the Good, the Enthusiastic, the Literary. Such a Man’s Conversation must at times be on subjects of Science & Philosophy of which I know nothing – or at least be occasionally abundant in quotations & allusions which a Woman, who like me, knows only her own Mother-tongue & has read very little in that, would be totally without the power of giving. – A Classical Education, or at any rate, a very extensive acquaintance with English Literature, Ancient & Modern, appears to me quite Indispensable for the person who would do any justice to your Clergyman – And I think I may boast myself to be, with all possible Vanity, the most unlearned, & uninformed Female who ever dared to be an Authoress.’

Stanier Clarke wouldn’t take the hint. He continued to champion the cause for his clergyman hero with the aim of getting himself immortalised in print – even going so far as to provide some of the plot from his personal experience to get her started:

220px-James_Stanier_Clarke‘Do let us have an English Clergyman after your fancy – much novelty may be introduced – shew dear Madam what good would be done if Tythes were taken away entirely, and describe him burying his own mother – as I did – because the High Priest of the Parish in which she died – did not pay her remains the respect he ought to do. I have never recovered the Shock. Carry your Clergyman to Sea as the Friend of some distinguished Naval Character about a Court – you can then bring foreward like Le Sage many interesting Scenes of Character & Interest.’*

Alas, this lady was not for turning so there is no broodingly handsome and highly-educated librarian to be found in Persuasion. The irony lies in the fact that a clergyman just like Stanier Clarke already existed in Austen’s oeuvre – you only have to turn open the pages of Pride & Prejudice to find him… Mr Collins! Austen had done her duty in dedicating Emma to the Prince Regent even though she thoroughly disliked him, so in Persuasion she could get her own back. Here we find the aristocracy represented by the spendthrift Sir Walter Elliot who is selfish, impractical and extraordinarily vain – wonder who could have inspired him?

*Deirdre Le Faye (ed.), Jane Austen’s Letters, (Oxford, OUP: 1995)

Debo’s Diamonds

be7cc6b9ae5e4f170cb422c278790d80If you’ve ever wanted to own a little piece of history today sees Sotheby’s auction over 400 lots belonging to Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire (1920-2014). Unsurprisingly, the sale features some truly dazzling diamond jewellery, including some highly personal pieces commissioned for Debo by her husband Andrew, 11th Duke of Devonshire (1920-2004). There’s even a bracelet with ‘Chatsworth’ spelt out in diamonds (est. £2000-£3000), whilst another reads ‘Teapot Row’ (est. £200-£300) – the name of the couple’s prized racehorse and a row of houses in the estate village of Edensor.

Many of the pieces feature animal motifs, and there are butterflies, beetles and bees as well as the obligatory Cavendish serpent rendered in precious stones. Personally, I love the late eighteenth-century emerald ring, enamelled to read ‘Ta Lumiere Est Ma Vie’ (est. £400-£600). Other items for sale range from a rare edition of Brideshead Revisted, only circulated amongst Evelyn Waugh’s circle of friends for comment prior to the novel’s publication (est. £15,000 – £20,000), through to the rather kitsch collection of Elvis memorabilia. And, of course, there are plenty of poultry-related lots. The Duchess’s beloved chickens feature heavily in everything from paintings to pottery and silverware.

20150502_120605The sale promises to feature something for every budget, but if the 2010 attic sale is anything to go by the items will far exceed their estimates as bidders vie for a memento of Debo. If I could bid on anything it would have to be for Her Grace’s desk – just imagine sitting down to write at a desk with that kind of provenance! Whilst such luxuries are beyond the means of a poor PhD student I’ve always got my signed copy of The House: A Portrait of Chatsworth, which is one of my prized possessions.

In her lifetime the Duchess worked tirelessly to ensure the survival of the Chatsworth estate in the wake of perilous death duties. She opened the farmyard and the farm shop, and in revolutionising the way in which country houses are managed she ensured that Chatsworth would remain a family home and an important source of local employment, as well as a place of immense historical importance which can be enjoyed by all. From 19th March 2016- 3rd January 2017, Chatsworth will have a selection of Cecil Beaton’s photographs of Debo and her social set on display in an exhibition entitled ‘Never a Bore’.

The Gothic Revival, 1700-1850

thNRF5L5KVWhat is the Gothic? It’s a question that comes up again and again. In fact, every time the Sheffield Gothic Reading Group meet you can guarantee that someone will throw ‘but is it actually Gothic?’ into the discussion. The term can be notoriously tricky to pin down – especially given that it can cover everything from the architectural style of the Middle Ages to the music and fashion of modern day Goth sub-culture. That’s where the University of Stirling’s new MOOC comes in…

The Gothic Revival, 1700-1850: Interdisciplinary Perspectives is a free online course which aims to provide an introduction to the Gothic by reconciling its art, architecture and literature. Due to commence on Monday 29th February 2016, the course will address the different meanings of the term ‘Gothic’ and how the Gothic aesthetic came to exert such a powerful influence on British culture of the long eighteenth century. No prior knowledge of the Gothic is required to take part – the mini lectures, quizzes and online discussions have all been designed to develop your understanding over the course of the six week run.

Find out more in the video below and sign up to take part here.

A Guest Post for Madame Gilflurt

QueenCaroline1820Caroline of Brunswick often gets a raw deal, what with all those accounts about her poor personal hygiene and uncouth outbursts, but if there’s one thing which endears her to me it’s her love of Gothic novels. Caroline couldn’t get her hands on enough  sensationalised stories of victimised heroines, who are invariably tricked out of their inheritance, threatened with rape, or forced into marriage, and locked away in the highest tower or dankest dungeon of a supposedly haunted castle. Gothic Romances were often mocked for their far-fetched plots, but the truth is that the novels of the time have nothing on Caroline’s real-life family dramas.

Read the full post over at www.madamegilfurt.com

Clandon Park: Ruination or Restoration?

Following last year’s devastating fire, the National Trust have announced that they’ll be rebuilding Clandon.

The National Trust’s plans will see the ground floor rooms, including the Marble Hall and Speakers’ Parlour, fully restored to their former 18th Century grandeur, with the 400 ‘star items’ rescued by volunteers and the fire service back where they belong.

However, with 90% of the total contents estimated to have been lost to the flames, the Earl of Onslow has spoken out against the decision to rebuild what was his ancestral home:

‘Clandon is lost. It’s a ruin now. It decayed instantly. This sad site should be left in peace and tranquillity. The last thing we want now is a replica. If the National Trust wants a replica, let them build it somewhere else.’

He believes that the £65 million insurance pay out would be better used to save Wentworth Woodhouse in South Yorkshire.

Wentworth-Woodhouse-1

Located near Rotherham, Wentworth Woodhouse is the largest private residence in Europe, with the sprawling Palladian country house boasting 300 rooms and 5 miles of corridors. In fact it’s so large that house guests would leave confetti paper trails to navigate their way back to their rooms. It’s even difficult to fit all 180m of the east front into a photograph! The property hit the news in 2014 when it was revealed that Wentworth had been put on the market for the bargain price of £7 million – but any potential buyer would need to invest around £42 million to tackle the years of neglect, not to mention the spectre of subsidence. Open cast mining close to the house in the 1940s and ’50s has taken its toll and the building is in danger of falling down. It is thought that it was the unsound structure that led to the collapse of a sale to a Hong Kong-based investor, and a trust is now working hard to raise the funds needed to save the house for the nation.

Whilst it would not be possible for the National Trust to divert the insurance money from Clandon to another property, the Earl’s comments raise important questions regarding restoration and ruination. With our urge to preserve sites of architectural importance for future generations are we really just delaying the inevitable and creating poor imitations of historic works in the name of restoration?

When pictures recently came to light of Berkyn Manor in a crumbling state of repair (see images below), my first thought was that the piles of books need cataloguing before the roof caves in! The abandoned property is like a time capsule, having lain undisturbed since the last inhabitant died in 1987, but there is an undeniable beauty to the place, which is perhaps owing to this state of decay, rather than in spite of it. If this, the former home of John Milton, is ‘saved’ by being converted into flats and offices, it will lose its very soul.

article-3284238-2DA8A91B00000578-296_964x381

Calke Abbey in Derbyshire is an example of how properties can be preserved in a state of decay and disarray and still be presented to the public. After completing whatever essential structural repairs were needed, the National Trust were careful to replace everything as it was found – right down to the peeling wallpaper. The effect is haunting stasis of a kind Miss Havisham would be proud of, and shows an alternative route for the restoration of country houses.

th5IKN7M16Since writing the above, the controversial restoration of a Spanish castle has reignited the restoration vs ruination debate once more. Believe it or not, El Castillo de Matrera is a 9th Century fortress, but now looks more like a Brutalist concrete cube following restoration. The original stone walls are lost amongst the mass of modern materials, and one has to ask ‘what was the point?’ Why not just have let it fall down and bear testament to the ravages of war and time? Have we lost our enthusiasm for the picturesque fragility of ruins? An article in Apollo by Gavin Stamp entitled ‘Better off Ruined?’ highlights the ‘pleasing decay’ of abandoned architecture and is well worth a read. Of course I would hate to see a building like Wentworth Woodhouse in ruins, but it is clear that there is a line between what constitutes restoration and what ends up a mere re-creation. In the case of Clandon, the National Trust have reached a pragmatic decision in only fully restoring the ground floor, making the most of what they can salvage from this once great house.