Saturday, May 11, 2013

Gardening Women Who Wrote; The Parker Circle of Saltram

Strolling through Saltram's Gardens

Saltram was chosen to represent Norland Hall, on the set of the 1995 film version of Sense and Sensibility, on the basis of its prevailing rural tranquillity, although the estate is not near Exeter, as Jane Austen specified in her novel. Saltram, mise-en-scène, for Austen’s novels is not too dissonant though, for the writer was acquainted with Frances, Countess of Morley, who was one of the cluster of women from the Parker family who, over a couple of centuries, inhabited this place - Catherine, Theresa Parker, Anne Robinson, Frances herself, Theresa Villiers, and others. Though their presence once upon a time was all pervasive, in the here and now of history and National Trust infiltration, the Parker women have become quite elusive. Not erased; but I find as I am guided through the elaborately re-constructed rooms, that for the most part, past female presence at Saltram has to be found in gaps, spaces, tucked away in shadowy corners - between pieces of furniture, on faded wall-paper, within the frames of scenes in little pictures along dark corridors, on plaques in the garden. For, the house, like the library is predominantly masculine.

In the gardens at Saltram

     Women of the Parker family, from Saltram, appear to have been responsible for the creation of its still renowned gardens. Whether the evidential material in the archives corresponds to the actual lived lives of these individuals in their estates I do not know; perhaps it is just the fact of more archives having been preserved at Saltram than at other estates. But, it does appear to be women from the Parker circle who have left the richest legacy of written material in the Devonshire archives. The lives of the network of women from the Parker family of Saltram are deeply intertwined with the landscape and gardens at that estate. I have not yet come across any comparable archival collection relevant to female gardens and gardening in the county. The many of their letters now lying in archives indicate that their gardens and gardenings, their selves and writerly identities are intricately bound together. The Saltram women’s correspondence frequently materialises using the language of plants, and conversely, their actual gardens are often represented by and interpreted as intricately worked texts. The Saltram women’s importance to Devon’s lost literary history of women goes way beyond the parameters of gardening per se. the following is noted as introduction to the Parker archive at the Plymouth and West Devon Record Office:

‘whilst the letters contain much detail about the Parkers and their estate at Saltram, they also have a wider significance. The letter writers (particularly in the later letters) were often prominent politicians and literary figures. The letters describe national as well as local events, contain political and cultural comment. The letters are particularly valuable for the insight they give into social attitudes, attitudes to women, class and family life, they also contain much detail about lifestyles and such topics as travel, medicine and fashion ... ‘

       It is possible to begin to acknowledge these women’s presence at Saltram, retrieve them from its darkly conforming rooms. Though once at the heart and hub of local and national society, chock-full of vibrant wit and artistic and aesthetic sensibility; though once they sat at tables, away from glaring summer sun in their summer-houses to write letters, novels, poetry, they are now more or less condemned to the margins of their property. Their forgotten voices make occasional entrances when they are mentioned in a book. Women's Domain for instance, acknowledges the ‘remarkable women associated with Saltram in the course of the eighteenth century’. And, inside the house one or two ephemera, such as Catherine Lady Parker’s writing desk, remind the visitor that some of the house’s previous residents were women of culture.

      One of the voices you may be aware of whilst visiting Saltram and its garden is that of a woman who wasn’t from the Parker family. The diarist Fanny Burney, who visited Saltram in 1789, as part of the entourage of George III, has a vantage point, ‘Fanny's Bower’, named after her, which is labelled on a plaque outside. Burney, both garden lover and ardent diary compiler, loved the Saltram garden and voiced her response to it:

... I spent the time very serenely in my favourite wood ... The wood here is truly enchanting; the paths on the slant down to the water ... and it abounds in seats of all sorts. Today was devoted to general quiet; and I spent all I could of it in my sweet wood, reading the ‘Art of Contentment’, a delightful old treatise, by the author of ‘The Whole Duty of Man’, which I have found in the Saltram library.’ (See Diary and Letters of Madame D'Arblay)

      Burney was evidently head over heels and besotted with the accomplishment of her own literary activities, her reading and her journal-keeping and with the enjoyment of Saltram’s garden space as cultural document, to be interpreted as a central site/sight of meditative pleasure.Her pleasure within the deep recesses of Saltram’s garden was shared by, but could have been quite different from that of the women in the Parker family, who may have been split between developing their own literary skills and devoting their attentions to the construction and enhancement of the garden itself. For, several of them were evidently intensely participatory in both. Although all these women were from the upper echelon of society and likely to have been privileged in that that their time would have been spent largely in pursuit of their own favoured activities and hobbies, they may have experienced a conflict in their loyalties to the dual pursuits of writing and gardening.

       There are complex intra-relationships between the women, their involvement with Saltram’s garden and their writing activities, which as well as prolific letters, included fiction, biographies and poetry. Here's a cluster of little snippets from the Devon archives summarising Saltram letters amongst women of the Parker circle; they illustrate their exchange of information about their impact on the estate’s gardens:

Letter from Anne Robinson: News of visitors to Saltram and of the arrival by barge of trees for the garden; Letter from Anne Robinson: news of the orange trees in the greenhouse; Letter from Anne Robinson: how she passes her time and the changes she is making to the gardens: Theresa Robinson, daughter of Lord Grantham RE Frances CofM Theresa Villliers: letters to sister in law Frances CofM, 1841: Enquiries after the cost and productivity of Saltram's garden to compare with that of The Grove; Letter from Barbarina, Lady Dacre: Sends thanks for present of melon seeds.
And here, a sample from a batch of correspondence which demonstrate how closely engaged some of the Parker women were with literary endeavour:
Letter from Barbarina, Lady Dacre, desires copies of [Frances's] poem Irina;
Letter from Barbarina, Lady Dacre comments on Frances's love of theatricals; account of the Charades she organizes for her granddaughters, written by herself and performed before family; visitors and servants;
Letter from Frances, Lady Morley to Mary Berry. Her pleasure at Miss Berry's enjoyment of her writings; sends Miss Berry a collection of her work; Notebook of poetry belonging to [Frances, Lady Morley] including: a poem on the beauty of Longleat House, Wilts; a verse dedicated to herself and Lady Granville concerning the lives of Lord Morley and Lord Granville; story partly in verse called 'The honest Drover or the parson in jeopardy'; a poem on leaving Chatsworth House, Derbys; a poem 'An Expedition up the Tamar; Page of poems relating to the sea and insects [by Frances, Lady Morley] Verse concerning an unnamed lady's writing skill [probably that of Frances, Lady Morley], by Sydney, Lady Morgan Thoughts' short stories , incomplete.[ii] (See The National Archives)

       Saltram was built for John and Lady Catherine Parker in the 1740s. Catherine, the daughter of the 1st Earl of Paulet, is recognised as the person responsible for initiating the Parker family’s transfer from Boringdon Hall (now a hotel) to Saltram and for the establishment and development of the family’s new estate there. Not only did Catherine supervise and design the estate’s new building, ‘she also furnished the house ... and was ‘responsible for beginning the patronage of art that brought to Saltram its wealth of fine paintings, porcelain and furniture’. (See Women's Domain) Presumably, Catherine’s passion for her new home extended to the initial formation and planning of its gardens, although I have not found a record to confirm this, and in any case according to various records little is known of the original garden. Perhaps it was Catherine who was responsible for the ‘creation of the woodland walk behind the Orangery which is punctuated by stone pedestals with urns [and] probably dates from the 1740’s’. (See the Saltram Guide.)

       The passionate energy displayed by Catherine’s daughter in law, Theresa Robinson/Parker, (the 2nd wife of John Parker, 1st Baron) daughter of the Earl of Grantham and god daughter of the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria), who was typically considered as a woman of exceptional gifts, is everywhere evident in and outside Saltram. Correspondence exchanged between her and her brother Lord Grantham and sister Anne provides vivid detail about Theresa’s interaction with the garden, for in one she is noted as having taken  responsibility for landscaping the grounds and decorating them with features. In letters to other family members Anne also comments on her sister’s energetic activity. In 1769, the year in which Theresa married John, Anne told a correspondent that her sister had had ‘a planting fitt’ and had ‘planned a new greenhouse or orangery where the present one is as you go to the shrubbery.’( See Bourgeois and Aristocratic Cultural Encounters in Garden Art: 1550 - 1850After its completion between 1773 and 1775, Theresa’s letters express how thrilled she was with her Orangery. Next, she planned the new building's decoration:

‘I want to have Niche and Statues for the Summer, exposed as it is, to the Sea air, and the Dampness there must be in the Walls, set aside all thoughts of Paintings.’

     Within two years Theresa was planning a summer house, which would be placed in a site looking over both the estate and the sea, which she must have paused to view as she frequented her estate: ‘Pray do not forget the castle ... something must be done upon that spot’, she noted in a letter to her brother. The octagonal summer-house was constructed at the western edge of the garden. The castle was intended as an eating-room, a shelter on a perambulation of the garden and especially as a viewing point for the pastoral views of grazing cattle, which would then have been viewed as a vision of ‘arcadia’.

Inside the Summer-House at Saltram

        A year later, in 1772, Theresa was apparently getting impatient after an apparent delay in the completion of the planting of the 220 acre deer park, which at that time served to provide the estate with its external swirl of natural landscape. Her sister Anne told a correspondent that Theresa was ‘fully resolved not to let another year slip but [to plant] the whole top of the Hill immediately.’

     As well as keen garden designer and landscaper Theresa was also an avid plantswoman, and passionate letter-writer. Sadly though she only lived for 5-6 years after her marriage. After her death her unmarried sister Anne Robinson came to live at Saltram to supervise care of the two children. Anne’s important role in the development of the estate is suggested by the following archival note in the Devon archive:

‘Until 1793, the majority of letters come from Anne Robinson and the Parker children at Saltram. As such they give information about Saltram House, garden and estate and the lifestyles of those who lived there.’

       It was Anne who took over the supervision of her sister's children, but also management of the estate, both inside and out. She seems to have taken up projects that her sister had begun and completed them. In September 1785, evidently feeling that she was at least partially influential in ongoing work, Anne wrote on the subject of the hill on the Hardwick Plantation that ‘we are going again to repair the plantation on top of the Hill, which has suffered much by the severe winter and dry summer ... about one in three have died.’ By November, she was reporting that ‘We have almost finished planting the hill’, and by the following February noted that ‘The new approach to the Plantation goes on, but not as fast as it did in the late fine weather ... luckily all the planting was over the day before the first frost began'. (See The Setting of Saltram Park)

      The active and influential responsibilities taken on by both Robinson sisters in the organisation and control of the wider Saltram estate seems to counter the typically well-differentiated and gendered roles displayed in household management by C18 aristocracy. One writer explains:

‘There was separation of management within the landscape garden that reflects the divide between male and female spheres of activity; the flower garden and pleasure ground being closely tied to the domestic rituals of the house – the daily round of sewing, painting, strolling, chatting and gardening – as well as the domestic economy of the household. These jejeune and edifying activities were largely separated from the world of the hunt and estate management.’(See Bourgeois and Aristocratic Cultural Encounters in Garden Art, 1550–1850)

      On the other hand maybe it was not unusual for C18 and C19 aristocratic women to be actively involved within their home surroundings, as well as skilled and cultured initiators of manuscripts. Perhaps the problem is that documentation of their interactions with garden and texts is not there. Or, more likely, they are there, lying waiting, still to be found, amongst the letters and correspondence foraged away in archives.

      The Parker women’s involvement at Saltram did not stop, but continued down through the family line. Theresa Parker (Villiers), 1775-1856, sister of John Parker, 2nd Lord Boringdon, 1st Earl of Morley, spent most of her early life with her aunt Anne Robinson at Saltram, following the death of both her parents whilst she was still a child. She married George Villiers in 1798. Theresa, seemingly the most active writer of letters in the family, was said to be an excellent translator, and aware of this the painter Reynolds presented her with a copy of Armand Berquin’s L’Ami des Enfants, when she was ten. Theresa’s letters indicate a lively intelligence and humour and give glimpses of her childhood. Correspondence dated after soon after her marriage mentions the garden of her new home suggesting that she shared her mother’s, aunt’s and grandmother’s interest in gardens and gardening:

‘1799: News of the carriage and planting of trees and other alterations to the [Slyes Hill] gardens; plants trees in the gardens [at Slyes Hill]; 1800 news of her gardening 1800 the improvement of the gardens;1802 account of a visit to Ranelagh Gardens.’[Parker of Saltram, Correspondence]

        Theresa Villiers’ sister in law Frances Talbot, Countess of Morley/Lady Borington, 1782-1857, daughter of a Norfolk surgeon, became John 2nd and 1st Earl of Morley/ Lord Borington’s 2nd wife. The dual gardening/writing occupations of the Parker women were especially notable during the period in which Frances was at Saltram, for she participated in a thriving circle of literary people. Frances was acclaimed in her own right for her literary endeavour and at one time was even rumoured to have written some of Jane Austen's novels. Her niece Maria’s husband Thomas Lister also pastiched Austen’s work. The Gentleman’s magazine described Frances as ‘a woman of strong mind and considerable literary and artistic abilities’, whilst the Atheneum noted that she had ‘sufficiency of grace and talent to have given their writer a fair place among the authoresses had she taken pains and time to try for it.’ (British Women Poets of the Romantic Era) and several of her poems have recently been published.

        Frances Talbot was keenly involved within networks and circles that included other contemporary women also known for their writing. Several of them were close family members. Her niece (through marriage), Maria Theresa Lewis, published biographies of Lord Clarendon and edited the journals of Mary Berry and at least one textual project appears to have been a co-written enterprise. There is some dispute as to the authorship of the C19 novel, Dacre, published in 1834, which was said to have been written by Maria Theresa and edited by her aunt Frances Talbot, the Countess. However, when the novel was reviewed in the Edinburgh Review, it was praised as Frances’ work. A recent view suggests that disguising the author with ‘such subterfuge was common in the period and the book was widely known to be her [Countess of Morley] work’.[xiv] The Edinburgh Review remarked that her novel[s] introduced ‘graphic’ and ‘picturesque’ ... ‘sketches of natural scenery’. Another recent critic notes that the Countess’ novels ‘attained considerable popularity both in England and America’.(See more information about Frances Talbot/Countess of Morley  in  British Women Poets of the Romantic Era) The Countess of Morley’s contribution to the lost canon of C19 Devon women’s literature seems apparent as indeed does that of the wider circle of women of the Parker family of Saltram. There is much still to be rescued from archives so as to restore their literary reputation within the context of the county's cultural history.

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