The Lennox ladies

Lady Sarah Lennox, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds

I can’t remember where I heard about Aristocrats by Stella Tillyard — I surf so many blogs and other sites with suggested reading titles — but chances are good it was on a talk forum on LibraryThing, still the best bibliosocial networking site out there in my opinion.

The book is a social history of upper class Britain in the latter half of the eighteenth century — and a bit of the nineteenth — as viewed through the lives of four sisters. Caroline, Emily, Louisa and Sarah Lennox were the great-granddaughters of King Charles II, via one of his mistresses. Their grandfather, product of that union, was made the Duke of Richmond so their family was part of the aristocracy.

It’s a great read; it could easily have been ponderous with all the personal and social detail to be filled in but it’s not. Tillyard does a fantastic job in making people who have been dead for centuries understandable and in providing context for their times. The reality of their lives as women — even privileged, wealthy women whose lives were far easier than 99 percent of people at that time — is an interesting and useful corrective to the romantic aura surrounding that era, thanks to Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer and a million imitators. I’m not dissing Austen et. al — I’m a huge fan — but somehow I feel a little more honest having a better idea of how life was really lived.

This family also happens to be a particularly good one for examining the time. Caroline Lennox, the eldest, married the politician Henry Fox and one of her sons was the even more prominent politican Charles James Fox. Emily Lennox married an Irish nobleman, later named a Duke, and with him had 19 children — then produced another three with her second husband, who was definitely not nobility but was her children’s tutor. Louisa Lennox was the most conventional; she also married an Irish nobleman and appeared to be happy in her marriage though they had no children. Sarah, the youngest sister in the book’s focus, had the most dramatic life. The future George III fell in love with her but she wound up marrying another man — very unhappily. She had affairs, which was not terribly unusual, but actually left her husband and wound up divorced, which was. Eventually she married a military officer and was the poorest of the sisters but happy with her lot. It was an interesting time for lots of reasons — the king went mad, the French revolted, Napoleon was running amok and the industrial revolution was right on the horizon — and the sisters were in the middle of a transition where love and fidelity within marriage were assuming greater importance — heading for the Victorian era and all its conventions.

Now that I’ve read the book I’m eager to see the miniseries produced by the BBC in 1999 — especially since Louisa is played by Anne-Marie Duff, better known to devotees of Shameless as our Fiona (she’s married to James McEvoy, by the way). Anyway it’s on the Netflix list. Once the Tour’s over I may even get to it …

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