15 July 2013

“I am sorry to hear you are going to publish a poem.”

While writing about Elizabeth Vassall Fox, Baroness Holland, over at Boston 1775, I came across anecdotes of her literary judgment and hosting in the Dictionary of National Biography that I had to share:

Lady Holland possessed a remarkable power of making her guests display themselves to the best advantage. Traits in her character that were by no means attractive rendered her power of fascination the more extraordinary.

[Thomas] Moore tells how on one occasion she asked him how he could write those ‘vulgar verses’ about Hunt, and on another occasion attacked his ‘Life of Sheridan’ as ‘quite a romance’ showing a ‘want of taste and judgment.’ To ‘Lalla Rookh’ she objected, ‘in the first place because it was eastern, and in the second place because it was in quarto.’ ‘Poets,’ says Moore, ‘inclined to a plethora of vanity would find a dose of Lady Holland now and then very good for their complaint.’

To Lord Porchester she once said: ‘I am sorry to hear you are going to publish a poem. Can’t you suppress it?’ ‘Your poetry,’ she said to [Samuel] Rogers, ‘is bad enough, so pray be sparing of your prose.’ To Matthew Gregory (better known as Monk) Lewis, complaining that in ‘Rejected Addresses’ he was made to write burlesque, which he never did, she replied, ‘You don’t know your own talent’ . . . .

In [George] Ticknor, the historian of Spanish literature, she met her match. Referring to New England she told him that she understood the colony had originally been a convict settlement, to which Ticknor answered that he was not aware of the fact, but that in the King’s Chapel, Boston, was a monument to one of the Vassalls, some of whom had been among the early settlers of Massachusetts.

She kept a tight rein on her guests when they seemed inclined to monopolise the conversation. [Thomas Babington] Macaulay once descanting at large on Sir Thomas Munro, she told him brusquely she had had enough of the subject and would have no more. The conversation then turned on the Christian Fathers, and Macaulay was copious on Chrysostom and Athanasius till Lady Holland abruptly turned to him with, ‘Pray, Macaulay, what was the origin of a doll? when were dolls first mentioned in history?’ This elicited a disquisition on the Roman doll, which in its turn was cut short by Lady Holland. On another occasion she sent a page to ask him to cease talking, as she wished to listen to Lord Aberdeen.

She…often overcrowded her table. ‘Make room,’ she said to Henry Luttrell on one of these occasions. ‘It must certainly be made,’ he observed, ‘for it does not exist.’ Lord Dudley declined her invitations, because ‘he did not choose to be tyrannised over while he was eating his dinner.’ Lord Melbourne, being required to change his place, got up with ‘I’ll be d—d if I dine with you at all,’ and walked out of the house.

Nevertheless her beauty, vivacity, and the unrivalled skill with which she managed the conversation so that there should never be either too much or too little of any one topic, atoned for everything. 

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