Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Mistress of Charlecote

Mistress of Charlecote, The Memoirs of Mary Elizabeth Lucy, Alice Fairfax-Lucy, ed.

I came across this the other night at Half Price Books  (I am constantly and happily surprised at the variety of books that turn up there).  The cover blurb sold me on this book:
"Mary Elizabeth Williams, an heiress from North Wales, was only twenty when in 1823 she reluctantly married George Lucy and became mistress of Charlecote Old Hall in Warwickshire.  Sixty years later she wrote this engaging account of her life for her grandchildren . . . [which] provides an authentic view of life in fashionable 19th-century society."
I had never heard of the Lucy family before, or of their home at Charlecote.  They came to England with William the Conqueror and acquired the Charlecote property, which is listed in the Domesday Book, in the early 1200s.  The great house was built in 1558, just in time to host Queen Elizabeth.  Now a National Trust property, it has a literary claim to fame in a legend that a boy from near-by Stratford, William Shakespeare, was caught poaching a deer in the Charlecote grounds.  Rather than face the local magistrate, Sir Thomas Lucy, he fled to London.  He later took his revenge on Sir Thomas by writing him into The Merry Wives of Windsor as "Justice Shallow."

Many years a widow, Mary Elizabeth Lucy began writing her memoirs while recovering from bronchitis, with the "fancy it will amuse me to write, and perhaps one day it will amuse my grandchildren to read, my reminiscences of when I was young."   In addition to her memories, she also includes entries from diaries she apparently kept at the time, and the last part of the book consists mostly of journal entries.  The memoirs were edited by  Alice Fairfax-Lucy, who married Mary Elizabeth Lucy's great-grandson and lived at Charlecote herself for many years.  Alice frequently interrupts the narrative with commentary or explanation, or worst of all foreshadowing, which I found distracting and sometimes annoying.  Yet there is no explanation of how the memoirs were edited.  I would like to know what if any cuts were made, and also what happened to the earlier diaries.  They may have been lost when Mary Elizabeth's daughter-in-law ordered the burning of the family archives, "inventories, letters, medieval charters, and title deeds spanning four hundred years."  The archival treasures that were lost!  Luckily the memoirs escaped the fire because they lay forgotten in Mary Elizabeth's old sitting room.

Despite the looming presence of the editor, Mary Elizabeth's personality comes through so clearly in this account of her life.  Reading it, I was reminded of Memoirs of a Highland Lady, by Elizabeth Grant, and also of The Autobiography of Margret Oliphant.  Born in 1803, Mary Elizabeth might have been a Jane Austen heroine.  She spent an idyllic childhood in Flintshire, in North Wales, with Hester Thrale Piozzi and the Ladies of Llangollen as neighbors.  Growing into the beauty of the family, she received offers of marriage before she was officially out, twice from men her older sisters had hoped to marry.  She herself fell in love with a younger son, whose father forbid the marriage.  Her own father forced her to accept an offer of marriage from George Lucy, fourteen years her senior, despite her tearful pleadings.  Overwhelmed by it all, she fainted at the altar after the exchange of vows.  But she came to love her husband, and their marriage was happy, despite the loss of two of their children in infancy.  Three more children would die as young adults, each loss devastating their mother.  Like Margaret Oliphant, she writes with great feeling about a mother's grief over her child's death. Perhaps because of her strong faith and trust in God, her grief feels less searing than Oliphant's, which almost takes your breath away even 150 years later.

Mixed in with the sadness in this story, though, is a great deal of fun.  The Lucys moved in high society, both in the country and in London, where they often stayed.  Mary Elizabeth describes lavish gowns and jewelry, balls and Drawing Rooms, country-house visits, and frequent encounters with Royalty.  She was especially taken with Princess Mary, the Duchess of Teck, who kindly introduced her to the Princess of Wales.  At the same time, Mary Elizabeth is often busy at Charlecote, which required a lot of upkeep and expensive renovations. Her biggest project was razing the old Saxon church in Charlecote Park to build a new one.  Though she cried over the loss of the church with
"that old family pew with its large oak desk around which we had all knelt together, then in the plain ancient Norman font all our children had been christened. Before that altar we had together received 'the bread of life,' and the old church bell had rung its remorseless toll four different times . . . for my beloved husband and three beloved sons,"
yet at her wish "it fell to the ground and there was not one stone left upon another."

Despite my quibbles with the editing, I did enjoy this book and the company of Mary Elizabeth Lucy, in part because she enjoyed her life so much.

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Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!