Untold lives blog

03 January 2020

Cache of hidden letters in the Granville Archive

The Granville Archive recently acquired by the British Library includes a collection of supplementary material previously hidden from public view.  When Castalia Leveson-Gower prepared her edition of the private correspondence of diplomat and statesman Granville Leveson-Gower (1773-1846), her father-in-law – the bulk of them are letters from his lover, Harriet Ponsonby, Lady Bessborough (1761-1821) – she carefully omitted any letters referring to the couple’s passionate affair, the secret births of their two children, and the delicate discussions between them and Lord Granville’s eventual wife, Harriet’s niece.  Even letters that were chosen for inclusion in the published edition had to be carefully filleted to cut out any tender endearment or reference to their illegitimate daughter and son.  The entire collection of original letters, including those published, was retained in private hands.  Its whereabouts was unknown to researchers until its acquisition by the British Library (along with Castalia Leveson-Gower’s research papers and her own private correspondence with her husband, the second Earl Granville).  The collection arrived at the Library, bundled in boxes and trunks, at the same time as the main, larger, Granville Archive (Add MS 89317).  Now the supplementary collection has been catalogued (Add MS 89382), and it provides a fascinating complement to the main family archive.

Trunk of papers from the Granville Archive Trunk of papers from the Granville Archive Noc

The new cache of letters will be a rich new source for researchers into late 18th and early 19th century politics and upper class society.  They shed particular light on the personal and political lives of aristocratic women of the period.  Besides the intimate letters between Lady Bessborough and Lord Granville relating to their clandestine affair and children, there are letters from other members of their circle of friends and relations, including Lord Granville’s mother, Susanna Leveson-Gower, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (Lady Bessborough’s sister), and Caroline Lamb (her daughter).

Letter from Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire to her daughter Harriet, written before leaving for France, 1789 'I leave you and give you the only valuable gift in my power, wrote in my blood, my blessing.'  Letter from Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire to her daughter Harriet, written before leaving for France, 1789 (Add MS 89382/3/4) Noc

Alongside discussion of the latest books and politics, perennial concerns about reputation, scandal and money run throughout this correspondence.  Huge gambling debts were a worry for many in their circle: in a bundle of letters to Lord Granville, the Duchess of Devonshire pleads urgently for funds to stave off creditors.  When the Duke of Devonshire died in 1811, a litigious dispute arose between his heir, the sixth Duke, and his widow, former mistress Lady Elizabeth Foster, over the family diamonds.  Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum there are smaller sums, such as the itemised accounts for housing and educating their illegitimate children which feature in Lady Bessborough’s letters to Lord Granville.

Expenditure on the two children 1805-1807.  Letter from Lady Bessborough to Lord Granville, June 1807. 'I have just given 30 guineas for a piano forte for tho it is a lump down it is cheaper in the end than hiring.'  Expenditure on the two children 1805-1807.  Letter from Lady Bessborough to Lord Granville, June 1807 (Add MS 89382/2/27) Noc

The letters from Lady Bessborough to Lord Granville tell a vivid story of their long relationship.  Frequent, often daily, letters passed between them, from their first meeting in Naples in 1794, when she was a married woman of 32 and he a 20 year old ‘Adonis’, until her death in Florence in 1821.  They describe the course of their affair through flirtation, intimacy, subterfuge, and passion, and the enduring friendship that survived it, cemented by the birth of their two children and his eventual marriage into her family in 1809.

Tabitha Driver
Cataloguer Modern Archives & Manuscripts
 
Further reading:
Lord Granville Leveson Gower: Private Correspondence, ed. Castalia Granville (London, 1916)
Amanda Foreman, Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire (London, 1998)
Janet Gleeson, An Aristocratic Affair: the Life of Georgiana's Sister, Harriet Spencer, Countess of Bessborough (London, 2006)

Image from The Life of the Buddha

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