Frances William Wynn – another woman who deserves to be resurrected
I’ve written elsewhere about my belief in the importance of “resurrecting” women from history, both to restore some balance to our understanding of the past, and to provide models and inspiration for the women of today.
One of the ways in which, in a very small way, I’ve tried to do this is by “blogging” the “diary” (really better described as a commonplace book) of Frances Williams Wynn, an aristocratic woman of the late 18th and 19th century who never married and lived an apparently respectable but still quite adventurous life. The choice of her was somewhat random – I was looking for an out-of-copyright text that was not generally accessible, and not seriously expensive, and she popped up on a women’s issues books catalogue.
I was a bit worried that by using the version prepared by a mid-Victorian male editor I would be getting an inaccurate version, but he seems to have rendered that which he did pass on quite faithfully. And although a lot of the material is what Miss Williams Wynn selected rather than wrote herself, and it rarely contains any personal reflections, a sense of the person she was – independent-minded, sceptical (for her time), thoughtful – come through.
I can say he was quite faithful to the original because I’ve just come back from the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth, which holds what seems to be the bulk of her papers, as part of a family archive. I wanted not only to check out the editor, but also to see what else is there.
It seems from my limited exploration that she, and quite possibly her family, have culled these papers very hard, leaving only those with nothing scandalous or controversial. That doesn’t mean, however, that there isn’t a lot of fascinating stuff here.
I can’t see, however, that I’ll ever find the time or space to do anything with them, so if some is looking for a Napoleonic-era research topic (Miss Williams Wynn is, to judge from the commonplace books absolutely fascinated by Napoleon), about social and cultural life in the middle? aristocracy, or perhaps about women’s travel in this era – in one of the travel diaries she reports that she is on her 26th! voyage – I assume that means to the Continent – here she is.
Has a lot been done on women’s travel of this era – not the wildly adventurous Lady Hester Stanhope-type travel, but the ordinary polite cultural exploration that Miss Williams Wynn does? I suspect not.
A selection of her mother’s letters has also been published (Rachel Leighton: Correspondence of Charlotte Grenville, Lady Williams Wynn, London, 1920), and there is certainly a lot around on the family.
What I found in detail:
(f3)E. O'Meara (?) Esq died June 3rd 1836. He had been a Surgeon in the Royal Navy & lost his rank be ataching himself to Napoleon. He was a stirring Member of the new reform Club & is said to have saught his fatal illness at one of O'Connel's agitation meetings. At a Sale of his Effects, a few lines in the Empror's handwriting sold for 11 Guineas A Lock of his Hair for £2..10.0 one of his teeth £7.17.6 the instruments with wch O.M. extracted this tooth £3.3.0.
Perhaps the most interesting piece refers to the famous Ladies of Llangollen– although I haven’t looked to see if it is elsewhere. (And I have the feeling it may be the work of an amateur poet!)
Lines sent anonymously to Miss Pononsby on the Death of Mrs Eleanor Butler Ln
Miss'd is that Voice, whose gay, & courtly greeting
Welcom'd the noblest in the Sister Isles
To her Elysian Bower
Closed is that Hand, whose ever open bounty
Play'd the dictates of her gen'rous Heart
That Heart on which the lapse of ninety years
Shed not one chilling Drop!
Silent that wit which quick, & brilliant
Like Summer light'ning, still illuminates all
But scathed not-
A mind of rare Endowment whose high powers
Are now in full fruitition!
How blest was she to find a kindred Soul
Bound in the sacred Ties of holy friendship
With her she passed the pleasant days of Youth
Shared every penny, & doubled every joy.
She like a guardian Angel watch'd her Steps
With all the intensity of deep Affection
Long may she live honor'd adminr'd, belov'd
Then sinking gently in the Arms of Death
Join her twin Spirit in the realmes of bliss.
Ldy Eln Butler died June 2nd 1829 aged 93years
Sarah Ponsonby died Dec 8th 1831 aged 76
... when Watkin came here with his arm in a sling & looking very ill, Mama & my uncle with much difficulty persuaded him to send for Vaughan (Patriane being out of Town) he immediately pronounced it to be divided Gout, absolutely forbid the journey saying that he had then a very Pulse & a great deal of general irritation ... in spite of Home's vile leaches & cold applications".
Sunday March 24 1833 Mrs Iniss Shipley, Hugh Cholmondeley & I embarked at the Tower Stairs at nine o'clock. It was still bitter cold but the snow was not falling, as it had been on the preceding Sunday, the Day originally fixed for our Departure. I though it was almost too cold to sit on Deck, my Sister and I escaped some time there wondering & lamenting at the number of passengers, whom we saw embark. Our dismay was increased at finding that the greater proportion of these were females (Ladies I cannot call them) & make our chance of any thing approaching comforts or quiet still less, we saw at least half a Dozen children among them, still we comforted ourselves with the Idea, that 12 or 14 Hours were soon passed. I thought of our warm beds, & warm supper bespoke at Calais. The Weather very soon drove us down to the Cabin, and much were we dismayed at finding soon after noon that we were casting anchor. Some thing what we could not discover what was said to be amiss with the machining, & we were told that we should not reach Calais before four o'clock.
This was our first disaster, & I was told that our vessel the Ramona, had been a very good ship, till it was employed to convey troops for Don Pedro, & having received the fire of one of Miguel’s Batteries had suffered some Damage in her Machinery
For next Event, was Dinner, which collected our Motley Crew, round the very worst apology for a Meal to which I ever sate down (at least in proportion to our hungers) in all my Sea Expeditions, & this is my 26th Voyage.
The lamentations, the Ire, the surprise of various passengers amuse me, but all ended in laughing at this misfortunes excepting one old Gentleman, who really was quite a Character for a Farce. He had certainly passed 70 years of Age, was the most perfect specimen of the Nut Cracker, so pallid, so sunk, that when asleep in his worn out green Velvet furred Cap he struck us all with awe, looking so like a corpse. He spoke French & Englis with equal facility, took great care of some Parcels in wch appeared the name of Monsieur Corbeau, which seemed most appropriate.
When our long repast appeared he removed the Cap from his Brow exhibiting Eyes which will perceived some Spirit and hilarity when he began rating the unfortunate Cabin boy, taking care to get the best of the bad food that was to be got & telling us al the time it was not that he cared but he wanted to get something better for us. He then looked so like Potier in L'Abre or still more like one of the misers of Quintin Matskys that we were all struck with the resemblance. At last
p. 3 his Anger his Lamentations at not having gone by Dover which at first bored me, grew so absurd, that they excited peals of laughter from every other person in the Cabin. He was silenced, & we all learnt to keep our fervour to ourselves, & well it was that we did, for they were destined to increase. By degrees, we became aware that we were going to anchor again, that we had by the former delay missed the Ride much wait for the next & Daylight to take us out of the River. We passed the long night in the Large Cabin. I did not feel any inclination to become a candidate for one of the two births sate all night on the monairs? of a D. was bettered amused that I could have expected.
Next to me, was a young French Girl, whom we had watched scraping up acquaintance, & then flirtation with a French Boy in the morning. I believe that they had not arrived at the knowledge of each other's names when the Ladys mother went to the Male Cabin where she got a birth. Then the young pair made downright love for the benefit of all the Cabin which the Hero diversified with the worst of punbs, in English & in French. At Five we took up the Anchor, & at one o'clock landed at Calais after a most disagreeable passage of 28 Hours. It was snowing a little the ground very wet & we found the Inn (Luilliaig's) wretchedly cold.
There might well be more; almost certainly is more material relating to Miss Williams Wynn, if not of her own production – I only had a day and a half to do a quick survey.
The early 19th-century cataloguer whose typescript notes are preserved in the front of the letters says: “How came it that this handful of promiscuous correspondence, together with some Diaries & Notebooks were preserved, & so much received during the same period, from the same persons, & most probably of equal value, has been lost or destroyed.” He typically dismisses those of “domestic detail” as of no interest – guess we should be thankful they were preserved at all.
He explains that Miss Williams Wynn outlived five brothers and sisters and died in 1857 at the age of 84. “She left her personalty to her favourite niece Charlotte, daughter of her sister Charlotte Shipley (the wife of Colonel William Shipley) who had married in 1835 the Honble Richard Rowley.” It was Charlotte who gave “ten manuscript volumes” to the Victorian editor. “This book, was much criticised & disliked by the family, who considered the publication of private papers indelicate, as appreciated by the public, & quickly ran into a second Edition.” They disappear from view until reappearing for the library in 1916.
A taster of the letters to her:
Hereford March 19 1800
My dear Fanny
You have been very charitable in sending me so entertaining a letter, but when you next write I hope that you will not cramp you epistolary genius by using such small paper. I had much rather that you would take such as this (which is supplied by the County of Hereford for the reception of the Lucubration of the Learned Counsellors) & then give a free scope to your ideas. You mention some verses attributed to Ld Carlisle which I have not seen & which I should be obliged to you to send me but that from their natative father I suppose they must be very stupid Surely he answers very well to Dr Johnson's definition of a Character far superior I mean Ld Chesterfield"That he was a wit among Lords & a Lord among Wits."
In return for the philosophical & chemical part of your letter I must inform you of the experiment tried on me last Sunday. I this inhaled 5 quarts of the nitrous oxide which produced no effect on me. The next dose was 8 (?) & produced the most violent & agreeable glow all over my forme that I can ??? I was however disappointed as from the dose not being sufficient for me I neither burst out laughing or began to beat the person who administered the air to me, both of which occurrences have I understand frequently taken place.
Two or three friends of mine upon the Circuit who have tried the air describe the effects of it as much stronger than what I experienced and tell me that they have a great increase in strength during the experiment that they felt in want of some opportunity of exercise to employ it on.
The patients who have derived most benefit from it are paralytic ones four of whom have been completely restored to the use of their limbs.
I yesterday went to see Chepstow Castle in my way to Monmouth & was very much struck with its situation. Its ruins stand upon a perpendicular rock of considerable height the foot of which is washed by the Wye. The opposite banks are wooded down to the very edge of the river which is very broad & at a ??? distance makes a turn & windows under the grounds of Piercefield. The only two defects which I found in the view was that the trees were leafless & that the river was quite yellow with mud. The former will of course be removed in the summer but the second will I hear never be remedied.
I am very glad to head of Henry Lord Buckingham's recovery. Adieu I have written so far while waiting in court for the Judges. ??? is now begun so I attend it.
Pray continue to write & if you can tell me what Walker's motions are likely to be.
Below is catalogued as from Miss Hester Cotton, 1804, one of the regular correspondents:
My dear Fanny I cannot ye give you the joyful news I am anxiously waiting for. I have been here 1 week last Thursday in hourly expectation of the arrival of the young gentleman or Lady, who does not choose to makes its appearance, tho' frequently threatening. Upon the whole poor Sophy is wonderfully well, and in very good spiris, she walks out every day for an hour or more, without tiirng in the least. The moment the event takes place I will send you a live as I know how impatient you will be to hear of her safety.
I am quite delighted at the account you give of yourself, the Bath certainly has succeeded most wonderfully, Mama has not yet made trial of one as she is unwilling to make any experiments before her journey here. She sends us tolerable good account of herself, and is all impatience for the sight of the grandchild.
Sunday - I left my letter yesterday, in hopes that I might give you the good news to day, but the ??? is over. Sophy was so very unwell all evening that we were obliged to have Mr Holland to sleep in the house, but she is quite well again to day, and he thinks she may continue so for three or four days longer .
Have you heard anything lately of Mrs J. Hayman? Mr Leicester who called here two days ago, said he had head about nine days ago a very indifferent account from Mr Hayman, who was in great apprehension of her safety from her extreme ...
If anyone is interested in picking my brain about Miss Williams Wynn, not that I really know a lot beyond what is here and on the blog, I’d be happy to help. You’re welcome to contact me privately: natalieben AT gmail DOT com. (One more potentially useful piece of info: her writing, and that of her family, is generally very readable. I’m no expert, and I had very few problems.)
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