I had never heard of Mrs Delany until the Christmas before last, when my daughter (who has been most carefully brought up) gave me a very beautiful book. It is called Mrs Delany and Her Circle and is the catalogue of an exhibition held at Yale University and Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, which I sadly missed.
Pausing only to cook the Christmas lunch, I leapt to my computer to see what else was available about this remarkable woman, and saw to my delight that her ‘life and letters’ had been published by her great-great-niece, Lady Llanover, in 1861–2. We have now reissued these six volumes, and I am about halfway through Volume 1. My first impression is a rather sweeping one: you must read these books!
It’s a truism that once you discover a new fact or thing, it pops up everywhere – in the case of Mrs Delany, a new biography of her was published in July 2011. (Similarly, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, who edited the correspondence of Samuel Richardson (in which Mrs Delany appears), seems to be undergoing a resurgence of scholarly interest at the moment.) So who was Mrs D., and why should we be interested?
Mary Granville was born in 1700 and died in 1788. Her family was of the minor aristocracy, but had little money, and like many young ladies in both real life and fiction, she was required to make a prosperous marriage to ensure her own and her family’s future security. Aged seventeen, she was pressurised into marrying an overweight but wealthy 57-year-old Cornish landowner and M.P. who was a friend and political ally of her uncle. The marriage was unhappy, especially when her (needlessly) jealous husband brought his sister into the household to keep an eye on her, but relief came when he died unexpectedly in 1725, leaving his widow childless and not well off, but free.
Her account of her early life and first marriage, given in a series of letters to her great friend the duchess of Portland in the 1740s, is fascinating at many levels. Is it an artless outpouring, or a very artful construct? Is the retrospective commentary on her younger self by an older and wiser woman sincere or self-serving? The letters of the newly-free Mrs Pendarves in London to her younger sister, Anne, stuck in the country, are certainly artless: a round of attendance at Court, dinners followed by the opera, hours every day spent dressing and being ‘curled and frizzed’, errands to buy tea and chocolate to send down to the family …
Later, she was to make a long visit to Ireland, during which she met not only Dean Swift, but also another Anglican clergyman, Patrick Delany. Mutual attraction was immediate, but he was already engaged to a rich widow, whom he duly married. On her death, eleven years later, he went immediately to London and proposed: he was accepted, and in June 1743 Mrs Pendarves, at the age of 43, became Mrs Delany. The marriage seems to have been very happy, and the couple divided their time between Ireland and England until Mr Delany’s death in 1768.
It was in her second widowhood, according to both the ODNB and my Christmas book, that she began the work for which she is now remembered: the amazing, incredibly detailed, botanically accurate and stunningly beautiful images of flowers, which she created out of cut paper. She started this work in 1772, and gave up, because of failing eyesight, in 1784, having produced almost a thousand images, now housed in the British Museum. She clearly had a gift for design, and was very skilled in the crafts which were appropriate for the aristocratic lady of her time, such as making patterns for embroidery and the cutting of silhouettes: wonderful examples of the two survive. But it is odd that she is stated to have devised the technique used for her flowers in her old age, since there are several references early in her autobiographical fragment to her creations. At the age of eight, she was at a school at which her close friend, Lady Jane Douglas, ‘would pick up the little flowers and birds I was fond of cutting out in paper, and pin them carefully to her gown or apron, that she might not tear them by putting them in her pocket; and I have heard of her preserving them many years after’. As teenager, she ‘took great delight in a closet I had, which was furnished with little drawings and cut paper of my own doing’.
Most touchingly, Mary had a suitor who in her autobiography she names ‘Roberto’. (It was the fashion in her circle to give each other Italianate or classical pseudonyms: Mary herself was known to her friends as Aspasia, which might cause one to blink – Lady Llanover hastily comments that it ‘was a favourite appellation of the period, where beauty and accomplishments were united, without reference to its being inapplicable from other circumstances’.) Roberto (a Mr Twyford) seems to have been more seriously in love than her, and proposed, but his family objected to the match (lack of money on both sides was a problem), and she would not marry him without their consent. They parted forever, and the next time Mary heard of him, he had been ‘struck with a dead palsy’. She learned much later that ‘his mother’s cruel treatment of him, and absolute refusal of her consent for his marrying me, affected him so deeply, as to throw him into the palsy, he lost the use of his speech, though not of his senses, and when he strove to speak, he could not utter above a word or two, but he used to write perpetually, and I was the only subject of his pen’. Upon his death, a year after Mary married Mr Pendarves, ‘they found under his pillow a piece of cut paper, which he had stolen out of my closet’.
So the paper-cutting was clearly a skill which she had been practising since her childhood (during which, incidentally, Mr Handel, visiting her family, played on her ‘little spinnet’). At the point where I am at the moment, The Beggar’s Opera is all the rage in London, and the sheet music will be coming out any day. I’m looking forward to Mary meeting Mr Delany, and later spending pleasant evenings embroidering with Queen Charlotte, helping the duchess of Portland with her shell collection, and beginning her ‘life’s work’ at the age of seventy-two.