Sunday, August 19, 2012

Rachel’s Garden ‘Masques’; A C17 Countess of Bath and Tawstock.

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Rachel Fane, Countess of Bath's memorial at Tawstcok Church
 
Map picture

If you zoom south-westwards on a map of south-west England deep in north Devon territories west of the river Taw, just south of Barnstaple, you’ll will find Tawstock. It’s a mile or so drive left off the A377 following the river for a while and there’s the occasional gap in the hedge where across the river you can glimpse Codden hill to the north-east. … 
Road to Tawstock with river Taw & Coddon hill in background
     On the day I visit Tawstock it seems for a few moments or so that I’m retreating from the C21. 
     The past calls. 
     The Tudor gatehouse of the old Tawstock estate is still intact and it’s as though I’m approaching the village through a framing device taking me to an/Other lost world … That delusion all too soon gives way to the very much in the here and now real view of a C19 mansion set on the summit of the grassy slope and background sound ambiance firmly set in the C21 – thrum of a mower, traffic buzz below in the Taw valley on the old Barnstaple road, chu-chu-chu of a train going along the valley back towards Eggesford and Crediton, a plane’s hum high up in this oh so clear sky. But cows and rooks may well have frequented this site for over three hundred years …
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Cows grazing near Tawstock Church
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Tawstock Court
 
… Perhaps the oldest and most historically prominent estate in the northern part of Devon, Tawstock Court reputedly had a wonderful garden during the C17/18. For several years it was the married home of a woman who is now recognised as a significant writer of dramatic texts, which included masques and pastoral entertainments. Just as with many women writers her name and writings were for all those years hidden from history; but perhaps in the case of this woman the main reason for this is that her texts were written whilst she was still a girl.
       Rachel Fane’s masques, all written whilst she was still a teenager, suggest that C17 women from their earliest childhood years may have enjoyed their family gardens, for her Masque at Apethorpe was performed by female children in her family within the outdoor garden setting supplied by their family estate. Rachel, Countess of Bath, born Rachel Fane – see a picture of her at National Trust Collections [ii] - spent her childhood at the family estate at Apethorpe in Northamptonshire – where as a 5 year old she went with the family to live with Lady, Grace Mildmay, her grandmother, who was an important progenitor for her granddaughter’s writing interests – and began to write there, at the early age of thirteen. Presumably, as a child and young woman Rachel Fane herself made use of her own family garden, but after her own marriage her married life took her to Devon, to Tawstock. Rachel married Sir Henry Bourchier, 5th Earl of Bath, on 18 Dec 1638, at St Bartholomew the Great, London, when he was 45 and she was almost 26. Henry had succeeded to the title of 5th Earl of Bath on the death of his cousin Edward Bourchier in 1637 and Rachel, now Countess of Bath, moved into her married Devon home at the Bourchier manor in July 1639. Bells were rung on that day to announce the arrival of such a prominent lady …

Tawstock Church

     … Inside the resplendent church, on my visit, as I stand in the nave there’s another epiphanic moment, a morsel of the old, and lost.  Light streams through stained glass onto the red carpet. As though a stream of blood it memorialises the lives of those once encapsulated in the various effigies and memorials, whose stories were so often grim; tragic; traumatic. I'd like to stay here and absorb their varied lives, detail by precious detail, but the C21 calls me back; its trivialities harness me - as do its foibles, a low-camera battery,  my little dog burning outside in the brief, but burning sun, a commitment elsewhere. I have to leave and may not in my life return, for I hear the ticking behind me and know the miles get longer, the days shorter ...

Inside Tawstock Church

       ... We know a little about Rachel Fane’s impact on the local community. One writer’s pen portrait of the Countess assumes her powerfully intimidating influence on those in her circle:
‘a great lady and a busybody ... her cloud of kinsfolk held her in fear as their patroness and suzerain, ... a masterful woman, she lived feared and respected by her numerous kindred whom she advanced by her interest at court.'
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Countess of Bath's memorial at Tawstock
Other writers have however considered Rachel as a woman of great benevolence, who bestowed charity on those about her.
The inscription on her impressive Italian style memorial at Tawstock church could not be any clearer in its confirmation of her kind disposition:

Rachel
Comitissa Henrico digna, vix border="1" altera e sexu
vel animo, vel virtute aequipollens
Rebus demisticis civilibus sacris, ingenio
pluaquam virili, at materno
(quo suo tempore vix maius dabatur in terris)
Ecclesiae Anglicanae Filia humilis, et devota,
et iniquis temporibus eiectorum Patrum mater
et hie pene unica fautrix
Unicum Lugendum quod in se perjisset nobile
Bourchieri nomen, ni sat illa habuit virtutum
vel illu immortale reddere
Er liset improlis plus mille liberorum Parens,
quos liberalissime educavit, doravit,
sacravit, et nobilitavir
Adhuc vivit et nunquam moritura dum his
Regionibus supersunt grata pectora.
‘... had scarce an equal, either in spirit or virtue ... she had a genius exceeding that of a man, and such a motherly disposition that scarce a greater existed in the world ... in times of persecution a mother to distressed pastors, and in these parts, almost their only proctectress ... And though she was childless, yet she was parent to more than a thousand children, whom in a very genteel manner she brough up, gave them portions ... She still lives, and never will die, while any spark of gratitude remains in this country.’ 
      One can’t help but wonder what the young woman whose upbringing had been from a large aristocratic household in a distant part of the country thought and felt when she moved south-west to an equally – if not more – grand estate, on the occasion of her marriage. How did she react to her new surroundings as the carriage drove her through Tawstock’s new gatehouse? And, given the preoccupations of her dramatic masques, which suggest Rachel Fane’s keen interest in the interfaces between exterior and interior spaces, was the countess spurred on by her new environment to begin writing again? Archives illustrate that during the period that Rachel, Countess of Bath lived at the estate Tawstock had ‘large formal gardens in front of the house’. One very early writer described the old house as being the ‘largest and best finished in the county’. It fronted the river, there were ancient oak trees and it had a esplanade covered with turf of 400 x 60 feet, with a terrace which was even longer. There was both a deer-park and a bowling-green and in 1644 a ‘new orchard was planted’ with two acres of ‘268 apple, pear, quince and damson trees’ all ‘set in perfect order’, whilst the following year ’73 apricots, cherries, peach, nectarines were placed against the wall’.
           A cluster of family letters addressed to her imply that Rachel may well have been very interested in gardening as well as writing, so possibly she was pro-active in the development of the new orchard; after all, it was begun only a few years after her marriage. One letter is suggestive of such; Edward Wyot communicated with the Countess on the subject of pear, cherry, plum and apple-trees; he told her ‘how their blossoms grow’ and six years later he informed her that there was a ‘good crop of cherries, nectarines and peaches.’ Another letter from Rachel’s sister Dorothy mentions the ‘Mekas ... when they would be ripe’ (it is implied in the letter that ‘mekas’ may be a melon or gourd’).
          The texts which Rachel wrote some ten years before her marriage, when she was between the ages of thirteen and sixteen, suggest that from an early age the countess took an interest in the rural landscape. Alison Findlay’s exploration of Fane’s work illustrates that her masques teem with pastoral motifs and mythological figures. These include: birds; garlands of flowers; nymphs and shepherds, Cupid; Robin Goodfellow; a maypole “from woods wher may doe fluresh to day”; morris dance; a ‘garlanded jester’ bearing a book, ‘birds, beasts flowers’, whose emblematic gifts signify a ‘green spirit of renewal’; a cowslip, a marigold; fairies in a bower.
        Exploring the gender divide and reciprocity between interior and exterior landscapes, Findlay notes that Fane’s masques explore ‘the ideology governing the country estate’ and reveal acutely ‘developed spatial awareness’. She notes that Fane must have been an adolescent of ‘considerable intellectual ambition and some literary ability’. As many critics have pointed out, although written by a young girl, and performed by her contemporaries, Fane’s work is essentially an adult exposition of its themes and preoccupations. Considering that Fane’s ‘pastoral entertainments can be read as a ‘virtual point’, through which she [Rachel] learns to grow within and beyond the cultural borders set on women’s behaviour’, Findlay explains how, during this early modern period, amongst the aristocracy, there was a popular craze to open out the indoor space of the house, so as to allow a metaphorical breath of fresh air, as the inside space was reinvigorated with natural growth from the garden outside.’ The resulting imported ‘indoor garden’, or ‘garden within doors’ could be filled with greenery, windows outside frilled with trailing vines and fruits such as apricots and plums. Alternatively, inner decorative features such as tapestries and embroideries could be covered with emblems and motifs derived from external nature. Such green-centred indoor spaces were regenerative and restorative as they enabled the landed family to partake of the healthy benefits bestowed by the ‘wider cosmological order’.
        As Findlay remarks, Fane’s theatrical setting ‘constitutes a dramatic equivalent’ to the indoor-garden. Probably designed to be performed in the Long Gallery at Apethorpe, the stage-scene, as threshold or liminal entrance, which hovers between inside and outside spaces, allowed the writer to explore issues concerning the divisions and dynamics of spatial use pertinent to the indoor-outdoor continuum, as well as gendered differences in appropriation of their respective spaces. Apethorpe’s Long Gallery’s nine windows let in ‘extensive light’, providing an ‘almost external dimension to the house’, for it led to the outer gardens, where there was a gravel garden, a loggia and roof walk; the gardens in turn were threshold to the external rural landscape, which lay outside the boundaries of the estate. The theatrical set of Fane’s masque, with its outdoor setting, relocated, reflectively and figuratively, the familial sanctum of the interior house. Her ‘garden-within-doors’ led to a doubled mirror-effect. Through her theatrical entertainments the young writer could explore the gendered oppositions apropos in and out door space - between the cultural conventions, which associated ‘ masculine’ with ‘house and heredity’ and ‘feminine’ with ‘nature’ and ‘growth’. She could visualise the potential of her future adult role/s within interior and external space in a protected and familiar environment, as well as confirm the conventions of the mores of the landed class of her childhood home. For Findlay, Fane promotes a ‘woman-centred agenda’; her ‘classical pastoral is an alternative space where a feminised narrative of renewal can be foregrounded.’ This matriarchal aesthetic is summed up in the closing speeches of the masque when nymphs are bid to approach the house:

“Leave yr streams for to come hether
make haste I say, have noo delay
Here that’s above the weather
A flower of May is prung today
That like the flower of sun
Tis clought today in lively array
And in at night is done.
For she descends to ascend back again
From highest place whence she came.”
….
         … Given that Rachel Fane was such a precociously talented writer, I can’t help wondering whether she continued to write as an adult. Did she write more dramatic entertainments whilst she lived at Tawstock? If not, then why? Unfortunately, it seems unlikely, for as far as I can find out there are no extant texts – except that is for a manuscript containing recipes, including one for a syllabub, as explained by Ivan Day on his Food History Blog:
‘… [her] dish called ‘pets’, [was] an early form of meringue … The recipe is attributed by Digby to Rachel Fane, Countess of Middlesex, who “makes syllabubs for little glasses with spouts.” Lady Middlesex [Countess of Bath] instructs us “to put into each glass a sprig of Rosemary a little bruised.’
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                    Rachel Fane’s syllabub recipe; see Food History Jottings

         It seems that in her new role or persona as ‘Countess of Bath’, Rachel may have been enjoying and preoccupied with the day to day practicalities of garden and household management. Serious writing may well have had to take a background place in the hierarchies of estate householding. Analysing the estate finances Finlay notes that the countess was closely engaged and preoccupied with Tawstock’s accounts, which would suggest that such was the case. Findlay also observes that Fane’s earlier texts were ‘proleptic of those later concerns’, which emphasises that she may, from an early age, have been preoccupied by her interest and involvement with garden/ estate concerns and concurrently, her talent for actively mirroring these in dramatic texts. Perhaps indeed, after her marriage and move to Tawstock in Devon the pleasures she had once received in her pursuit of writing for itself gave way to an equally passionate creative engagement with the planning and development of Tawstock’s flourishing new gardens.
        But Rachel’s new life as Countess of Bath may have been somewhat more complicated and traumatic. The situation in which she found herself at the beginning of the Civil War, when she was only thirty years old, may have contributed to her casting aside her writerly skills and talents because from 1642 she had to contend instead with a turbulent situation in which her husband’s very life was at threat. The trials and
tribulations for the couple lasted until Henry’s death some twelve years later. This period must have been grim and full of difficulty for the young countess. The records say that
'On the outbreak of the civil war he took the royal side, and by order of the Parliament was arrested in September, 1642, in his house in Devon. He was committed to the Tower but was liberated some time before 27th January, 1644, as on that date he signed with others a letter from the members of both Houses assembled at Oxford, declaring a treaty of peace. Later on, in 1649, his estates were ordered to be sequestrated, but apparently the sequestration was suspended, and in 1654 on his claiming the benefit of the articles of Dublin it was certified that he had not forfeited it by any new hostility. On 15th August in that year he died' (British History online).
     Perhaps, eventually, to continue my own musings on Fane, Tawstock’s garden became for the Countess, a kind of memory ‘trace’, a place where she could retrieve in her mind the outdoor spaces of her beloved childhood outdoor spaces. As ‘cultural document’ the garden where she spent the years of her first marriage in north Devon may have become for her a repository of interior texts, a space upon which she could re-construct the now virtual texts of her adolescence.
        And, even if she didn’t continue to write whilst she lived in Devon, the Countess’ interest in books and literature seems to have continued. After her first husband’s death, not only did she expend £200 in the purchase of books for the Bath Library, at Trinity College, Dublin, as a memorial to him, but also she showed keen interest in the particularities of the books. A letter written by one of the recipients at the library shows her commitment to the commemorative purpose of the collection and illustrates the countess’ assertive, opinionated personality:
‘She hath been divers time to View the book contained in your Catalogue out of which she hath cast all the [Quartos] resolving to send none such but are in Folio and some of then she hath refused ... instead of which she hath chosen the Citty’s of the World in 8 volume: a gaudy Book with whose beauty her ladyship was so well pleas’d that she wish’d all the rest like them, and would have had them soe ... she would have Antiquit Italiae 2 vol and Flandria Illustrata in 2 vols: both with beguilt and bound as well as may be of the rest of the books ... she desires a speedy answer.’

The Countess also demanded that each work be ‘embellished with her coat of arms and an inscription specifically naming her as donor’.
      It is interesting to note that whilst she lived in Devon Countess Rachel Fane appears to have surrounded herself with other like-minded highly literate women, which may add another dimension to her own interests. At Tawstock church there is a memorial to her lady in waiting, Sarah Pollard. This Sara was daughter to Monsieur Voysin, a Syndique of Geneva, who honourably lost his life in defence of that free city. Her grandfather Henricus Stephanus was a known classical scholar and Isaac Causabon, known as the most learned scholar in Europe, was her uncle. Interestingly, a Lady Voison appears in Fane’s early masque, where as guest of the house, she is recipient of one of the emblematic gifts from the Jester: a bird, ‘that you might pattern take, to fly from France to England, for ye Maker’s sake’. At the time Rachel Fane wrote her masque Lady Voison must have been a visitor at the Fane’s home, but her kinswoman’s plea that she should stay in the country, embedded within her play must have been granted, suggesting that the two women had a long standing affection and friendship.
       Archival sources leave the impression that although the couples’ situation was precarious during the turbulent years of the Civil War the Countess thrived in her first marriage. It was a totally different situation for her after she married the Earl of Middlesex, Lionel Cranfield, a year or so after her first husband’s death. Her new husband was less than half her age. Ironically it was due to her second husband that her early writings survived. As Marion O’Connor explains:
‘some of the dramatic texts she wrote as an adolescent appear to owe their survival to the domestic violence which she weathered as a middle-aged woman' … within two years … she obtained a legal separation on grounds of his cruelty and desertion, in 1661 … [later] he had sold all her plate … [and] most of the Lord Bath’s library’.
      However, Cranfield retained the Countess’ own papers, probably because he thought that one day a document of some financial advantage to him might be found within them. After his death his title became extinct and his sister’s husband’s family the Sackvilles took over his estate. Rachel Fane’s papers were kept with them and are currently held at Kent Archives Office.
       Even after her second marriage Rachel was able to retain her title Countess of Bath until the end of her life and when she died she was buried back at Tawstock. Perhaps this indicates that Tawstock and its Devon surroundings had become her preferred home and garden – the place where, for a while at least, she was at her happiest.



Although I have not attributed the sources for this piece in detail I have for the most part explained where my information comes from and most of the comments contained within quotes are taken from the following invaluable sources:
* Todd Gray, Devon Household Accounts 1627-59 Part II, Devon and Cornwall Record Society, 1996.
* Alison Findlay, Playing Spaces in Early Women's Drama, Lancaster University, 2006.
* Rachel Fane's May Masque at Apethorpe, 1627 MARION O'CONNOR in English Literary Renaissance Volume 36, Issue 1, pages 90–113, December 2006.