THE institution of Maids of Honour, or something like it-great stars, or "sparklers"
|(to use a term of that day) in this royal suburb of Kensington, must have been as ancient as that of royalty; but, with the exception of some passages in the reign of Henry the Eighth, and Mary, Queen of Scots, they can hardly be said to have made their appearance in this country, till the times of Grammont and Mr. Pepys. The first one of distinction that we meet with in Eaglish history, is Philippa Roet, daughter of Sir Payne Roet, wife of our great poet Chaucer, and sister of Katherine Swynford, who first became mistress, and afterwards wife, to John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. Katherine, who had been in the service of the Duke's first Duchess, had, perhaps, borne the title of Maid of Honour, as well as her sister; John of Gaunt having been titular King of Castile.|
Courts, owing to the temptations they naturally create, and the proportionate necessity of counteracting the temptations, are places either of strict decorums, or of unusual licence. The titular king was probably less "particular" in his court, than Edward the Third his father was (at that time) in his; and these two ladies may be said to shadow forth all the subsequent histories of maidens in the service of royalty. When we hear little or nothing of them, all goes well. The more their career becomes public, the less advantageous it is to their repute.
On the other hand, while some of the staidest reputations were probably undeserved, some of those the most shaken may have as little merited their ill fortune. We are not to take for granted that the two out of the four Maids of Honour who had the misfortune
|to become wives of Henry the Eighth deserved the imputations for which that disgusting mass of debauchery and brutality had the impudence to send them to the block. There is reason to suspect, that the staidest-looking of the four, Jane Seymour, was the least worthy of them all, as being the most heartless; and there is evidence to prove that the numerous Marys, who became celebrated in the court of their name-sake, Mary, Queen of Scots, were not, for the most part, if not altogether, more sinned against than sinning, in the censorious records of John Knox and others. Some of them, it is true, like Anne Bullen, had been bred in the court of France; and as no courts at that time had been paragons of propriety, ill constructions of the best of a set of lively damsels were easy; but some of Mary's|
|maidens evinced so much good-heartedness towards her during her troubles, that to think the worst of them became a vice; and whatever privilege might have been assumed by " Knocking Jack of the North " (as Swift called him), for calumniating all natures but his own, there remains a sharp reckoning to be come to by posterity with saints of his description, who beg all sorts of questions on the side of one kind of extreme, till they drive nations, out of melancholy desperation, into another.|
We know not what assured evils would have resulted to Scotland, had Mary and her Maids of Honour been suffered to dance and play their guitars in peace; but it is certain that John Knox was the founder of the whiskey-shops.
We have little respect for "gallantries,"
|as substitutes for love; very little indeed; almost as little as for the "legalized prostitutions," which so often drive people into them. But we respect, least of all, the inhuman superstitions, and their sottish consequences, which can desecrate gallantry itself, even in its lowest forms; which occasion all kinds of hypocrisy and evil-speaking; and give rise to successions of dull and melancholy generations, that ought never to have been born.|
But we must take care how we digress into a history of Maids of Honour. Swift, or his friend Arbuthnot, proposed such a work, in the reign to which we have now arrived; and, with the tyranny too common to wits, he seems to have been surprised and displeased at finding the project not relished by its intended victims.
"Arbuthnot," says he, in one of his letters to Stella, dated 17th September, , " made me draw up a sham subscription for a book, called a 'History of the Maids of Honour, since Henry the Eighth;' showing how they make the best wives; with a list of all the Maids of Honour since, &c.; to pay a crown in hand, and t'other crown upon delivery of the book; and all in the common form of these things. We got a gentleman to write it fair, because my hand is known; and we sent it to the Maids of Honour, when they came to supper. If they bite at it, 'twill be a very good court-jest; and the Queen will certainly have it."
But, on the 5th of the month ensuing, he says, "Mrs. Forester" (one of the Maids: it was the custom in those days to call unmarried as well as married ladies, mistress)
|"taxed me yesterday, about the 'History of the Maids of Honour ;' but I told her it was no jest of mine; for I found they did not relish it altogether well: and I have enough already of a quarrel with that brute, Sir John Walters, who has been railing at me in all companies, ever since I dined with him; (telling them) that I abused the Queen's meat and drink, and said nothing at the table was good, andall a d-d lie; for, after dinner, commending the wine, I said I thought it was something small."|
How this was "commending" the wine, the Dean does not inform us. We hear nothing further of the proposed History; and little is known of her Majesty's Maids of Honour, except that they found the Court tiresome, and their rides with the Queen fatiguing. Anne considered exercise imperatively
|necessary to her great dinners and suppers, and her chocolate on going to bed; and as her corpulence prevented recourse to horseback, she had a chaise invented for her with great safety-wheels, in which, after having secured her own life and limbs from danger, she went pelting like a female Nimrod after a poor stag, who was thus to break his heart with fatigue and terror, in order to enable her Majesty to eat too much. For, that is the object on such occasions. The plea is, health and a reasonable appetite; but the result is, just enough health to encourage repletion, and make fat fatter. A revolting spectacle must that great fat woman have been, scourging and driving after the poor panting stag.|
It was not till the next reign, that the Maids of Honour came full again into bloom;
|and this was not due to George the First, who had left a divorced queen in Germany, but to his son, the prince of Wales, afterwards George the Second; whose wife, Caroline of Anspach, a sprightly woman herself, got a congenial set of young ladies about her, who are famous to this day.|
George the First, Elector of Hanover, who succeeded to the throne of these kingdoms as the next Protestant heir of Anne's Popish relations, had parted with his queen in Germany (Sophia Dorothea, of Zell) and even contrived to lock her up for life, on an allegation, never proved, of her infidelity with Count Koningsmark, brother of the Count Koningsmark, who assassinated Mr. Thynne in the hope of depriving him of a wealthy bride.
George's own life, meantime, and ever afterwards, with the usual injustice of his sex, was full of license. He was a short, round-featured, ease-loving, selfish, dull man; not ill-natured, where he was not thwarted, but capable otherwise of hating stubbornly enough, as he did in the instances both of his wife and his son; the latter, perhaps, for some supposed likeness to Koningsmark, which was long a jest against the Hanover succession, with the partizans of the house of Stuart. George could not speak English; never cared to learn it; cared, in fact, for nothing but his ease, and his German diversions;-that is to say, for his old habits, whatever they were; and, fortunately, for the English nation, he put its government, and its security from the Stuarts, into the hands of Sir Robert Walpole, who, if he was a
|corrupt minister in regard to money, certainly applied the corruption to the maintenance of the best interests of the country. George brought over two mistresses with him from Germany; one, the Duchess of Kendal, dismally thin; the other, the Countess of Darlington, overflowingly corpulent; both of them the scorn and jest of the nation, whom they fleeced in return. They were both also as dull as himself; and, lawless as they were, occasioned no sort of vivacity in the court. Before he died (which was not at Kensington, or in England, but during one of his visits to Germany) George added to the seraglio which he is supposed to have gathered about him, an English damsel of the name of Brett, daughter of Savage's mother, the Countess of Macclesfield; and such a daughter, black-browed and bold, as|
|such a mother might be supposed to have given birth to. Establishments of this kind, begun by the kings of France, had spread over Europe, as a fashion, and a matter of course; and thus acquired a sort of privileged allowance.|
The unprincely, reserved, insignificant- looking Elector of Hanover was not fond of appearing before his new subjects. Kensington Gardens, therefore, remained with him as dull and limited as he found them; and his son, who was always at variance with him, appeared at the court there as little as he could help. Yet it is during the reign of George the First, that the fashionable promenades in the gardens, which became so popular, and the last glittering skirts of which are still within the memories of old people, would seem to have first made their
|appearance. Caroline of Anspach, the Prince of Wales's consort, probably gave rise to them, when she came with her bevy of maidens to court. People would throng to see them; the ladies would take the opportunity of showing themselves in the walks; persons of fashion, privileged to enter the Gardens, would avail themselves of the privilege, and at last the public would obtain admission, and the show be complete. The full promenade, it seems, was at first confined to Saturdays. It was afterwards changed to Sundays, and continued so till the custom went out with the closing days of George the Third.|
But we must leave mistresses and Maids of Honour awhile.
The poets of the time now began to sing of Kensington Gardens. Addison's friend,
|Tickell, leading the way. His poem, indeed, under that title, though, like the court wine, it was " something small," had real merits of fancy and elegance, and by the help of a catholic taste, which rejects nothing that has flavour at all, may still be read with gratification. There is even a story in the poem, not destitute of invention, and so very local, that, before proceeding further, we are bound to give some account of it.|
Tickell informs us that, in the earliest times of those princes who gave their name of Albion to this island, and who were descended on the mother's side from Neptune, the ground now occupied by Kensington Gardens contained the capital and the palace of the English Kingdom of the Fairies. The walks were their streets, full of such houses as
|fairies live in; and on the spot in which Queen Anne's gardeners made the dell which disappeared not long ago, stood the palace of the elfin King Oberon.|
A prince of the human royal family is stolen in his infancy by one of these fairies, and kept down as much as possible to the standard of his new associates, by a diet of daisy-roots and dwarf elder-berries. His nurse, however, cannot hinder him, as he grows up, from surpassing them in height to the amount of two inches; and this, and his other attractions, have such an effect on Kenna, a beautiful fairy princess, from whom the neighbouring town is named, that they are inspired with a mutual passion. This they vow to one another under the shade of a tulip, at " dead of day," when they suppose all other fairies to be asleep; and Kenna has
|just sworn that she will never wed a prince of her own race, when King Oberon starts up by their side in a fury, summons a hundred of his attendants to drive away the mortal prince, and bids his despairing relative prepare to marry Azuriel, a fairy only less than royal, whose mansion stood on the site of the present Holland House.|
A war now ensues between the elfin and the human royalties, the latter assisted by a fairy chief, jealous of Azuriel. Prince Albion (for the lover possessed the name of his line) invokes the aid of his dread ancestor Neptune, but not having the patience to wait for it, joins battle, and is slain. Neptune, at this, overlooking the lover's fault in his misfortune, rouses himself in final indignation. His chariot shoots him from the sea into the Thames, in a roaring whirlwind. One stride
|on land brings him into " Brumpton;" another passes the conquerors on the field of battle into their unsuspecting capital. The God thrusts his trident underneath their houses, raises the whole city on the fork of it, as he would a clod of earth, and, making a dreadful shadow of it as it descends on the horrified conquerors, mashes them and their empire for ever, at a blow. Kenna, unable to restore Albion to life, changes him into a snowdrop, a flower which, Tickell informs the botanists, first grew on the site of Kensington Gardens, and is sacred to "virgins;" that is to say, to Maids of Honour. As to the Gardens themselves, they were the creation of the same loving fairy. She, at least, pleased, when British monarch took possession of the place, to see the line of her lover's house reigning on the spot,|
|suggested to the brain of Mr. Wise, the gardener, in a morning dream, a topiary following out of the plan of the ancient city, in the disposition of his " allies green." The walls and streets, in his hedges of yew, he|
(here we catch a glimpse of the formality with which Mr. Wise set to work),
So to this day, to this very moment of the enlightened and utilitarian nineteenth century, and in spite, or rather in aid, of the effects of the utilitarian steam-carriages that shake the air at midnight in thePaddington and Surrey distances (for what can be more fairy-like and marvellous, if we consider their first causes, than those?) the eyes of the fancies of all such persons as choose to see them (and we confess our own to be of the number) may
|still behold the fairies, on moonlight nights, dancing their rounds in Kensington Gardens, with their faithful princess at their head, to the eternal honour of love, and the virgin snowdrops, and the reigning house of Albion. We think we see them now, while we are writing, gathering like fire-flies among the trees; skimming like swallows over the pond in front of the Palace; careering like doves round the Palace roof; going in procession, like mourning widows, to the sound of a feeble choir; gliding in a chain of whirling but grave-faced dancers with dishevelled hair; then, as if relieving themselves after those tragical reminiscences, imitating the graces and the follies that at different times have been developed by the events reigning in the Palace; coming down the Great Walk in a flood of hoops and other court-dresses, (see|
the close of the chapter) in a style, and with
a blaze of colours that might have made the
"human mortals" die with envy; beating
opera dancers in operatic dances, which end
with whirring flights into the air like frightened
coveys of birds; fantastically caricaturing
(at least such among them as are
the absurdities of the Chesterfields, Horace Walpole, Duchesses of Marlborough and Kingston, &c., or forcing the actual and reluctant ghosts of those worthies to do it themselves; pursuing the wretched spectre of Lord Hervey with pop-guns made of his own quills, and paper-pellets of his own pages, while the blushing shades of Queen Caroline, and her daughter Caroline,
|look and shake their heads at him; then turning themselves all at once for refreshment into living parterres and flower-beds of the most gorgeous description, that breathe forth delighted sighs of pink and sweet-briar; tuning the winds into harmonies beyond AEolian lyres; lighting the windows of the Palace on the birth-night of the Sovereign who was born there, with flame and colours beyond gas and jewellery; or forming themselves into figures of rose and lily, representing the letters of her name, and drawing it across the Palace front, till all the place is lit up with a radiance which is at once light and odour.|
But we must have done; or semi-utilitarian readers, who do not know what crowning use there is in uselessness, will think us really benighted.
To return, therefore, to flesh and blood- Tickell's poem commences with a picture of the early Kensington promenades, justly painted in chintz and damask.
(Caroline above-mentioned, to wit).
Caroline was a fine-looking woman, with a red and white complexion, and popular manners. It was rather bold in the poet to call a foreign Princess of Wales, "England's Daughter." Could the "father " have read the verses (for though he had inherited the English throne, the English language was unknown to him) he would have been anything but pleased with this ascription of his popularity to his son's wife; for he included her so strongly in his dislike of that gentleman, that he was in the habit of calling her " that devil, the Princess " or, (to use the rhyming French formula, which somehow or other had got into his head): "Cette diablesse, Madame la Princesse."
The "virgin band" over whom Caroline thus came towering along the Kensington walks, consisted of the snowdrops aforesaid, her Maids of Honour; and these remain famous to the present moment in the pages of Pope, Gay, and others. The reader may see them all at once, and make their intimate acquaintance, in the "Suffolk Correspondence," where they laugh and talk as freely they did vivd voce; and very startling to modern ears the talk sometimes is. They are not all 'in their maiden state in the " Correspondence." Some have married; but none have lost their vivacity. There is Miss Hobart, the sweet-tempered and sincere (now become Mrs. Howard, afterwards Lady Suffolk); Miss Howe, the giddiest of the giddy (which she lived to lament); Margaret Bellenden, who vied in height with her royal
|mistress; the beautiful Mary Bellenden, her sister, who became Duchess of Argyle; Mary Lepell, the lovely, who became Lady Hervey; and Anne Pitt, sister of the future Lord Chatham, whom we have seen in these pages before (" as like him as two drops of fire.") Most of these ladies, with other promenaders of the day, may be seen personally coming forward as if down the walks, in Gay's "Welcome (to Pope) from Greece :"|
(Lady Mary Wortley Montague.)
(This was afterwards the famous Lord Chief Justice)
(our reader's acquaintance, Lord Hervey, who could hardly have relished this equivocal compliment)
(who, as we have just seen, became his wife. What Gay means, by calling her "Youth's youngest daughter," we never could make out; unless it was to imply, that young as
|she was, she was remarkable for the juvenility of her appearance.)|
(Pope's two favourites, the Miss Blounts)
(Gay's hearty friend, Catharine Hyde, Duchess of Queensbury, who is said to have retained her beauty for nearly a century.)
(Anne Finch, Countess of Winchelsea, a charming woman, and real poetess. She had been Maid of Honour, when Miss Kingsmill, to poor Mary Beatrice of Modena, Queen of James the Second.)
(the giddy Miss Howe, above mentioned. This account of her is very characteristic.)
(Santlow was a dancer, and Bicknell an actress; both in repute.)
A variety of distinguished persons of the other sex then make their appearance: including Sheffield, Duke of Buckinghamshire; the Earl of Burlington, famous for his taste; Prior, Congreve, Steele, Tickell, Arbuthnot, Young, Kneller, " high-buskined Booth" (the tragic actor), &c.
(This was the brother of the Miss Blounts, and is another happily characteristic portrait.)
(a pleasant climax of obesity. Cheney was
|the physician who got rid of his fat, by taking to milk and vegetables.)|
Addison, it is observable, is not mentioned in these lines addressed by Gay to Pope. He is omitted, because he was supposed to grudge Pope his success, and, perhaps, for a reason connected with Gay himself, which has been alluded to in our chapters on Holland House. But Addison must frequently have been in the Gardens. He watched their improvements: he was a great admirer of George the First; and the "Spectator" shows what attention he paid to the moods and manners of the other sex. Swift, in a moment of spleen with that work, says he shall attend to it no longer, though Addison "fair-sex it" as much as he pleases. The fans and furbelows in the Gardens, to use a phrase of that time, must have been " prodigiously"
|on their good behaviour, whenever they saw Addison coming up the walks. Instead of Addison, we had written the " Spectator;" but though most of the pages in the " Spectator," were of his production, the " Spectator" himself, in propria persona, was its originator, Steele: and Steele, the ladies would not comparatively have cared for. They knew they had him too much at their command. " Captain" Steele, coming up the walk, though far more acceptable as the admirer, was much less formidable as the censor.|
Garth, also, would have been here, and Vanbrugh. Farquhar had died young, in the time of Anne. Even Voltaire might have been seen in the Gardens, paying compliments to his acquaintance, Miss Lepell, who was of French origin; for he was in England
|during the reign of George the First (who patronized him); the future Queen Caroline busied herself in procuring subscriptions for his "Henriadc," which was published on this side of the water; and it was not in the nature of any Frenchman, much less of a wit and poet, like Voltaire, to omit visiting a place of public resort, where pleasant intercourse was to be met with, and ladies to be admired. He could even have complimented them in their own language, had he found them coy as to speaking in his; for he made himself so well acquainted with English, that he wrote in it a book upon the nation, and, among other persons, addressed some English verses to the fair friend above mentioned- then become Lady Hervey--which, for their neatness and finish, are not unworthy the|
|compliments of a similar kind, which he was in the habit of pouring forth to his acquaintances. And the reader may see that the English is really his own, from the employment of the word power as a dissyllable; a thing rarely done by a native writer, and which certainly would never have been done in the place where it is put.|
There is no end, we confess, of supposing who might or might not have made their appearance in Kensington Gardens at some
|time or another; but we think it will be admitted that this hypothesis respecting Voltaire has every probability on its side. And full as much may be assumed respecting the most of the French painters of that time (though he was a Fleming), Watteau-the glorifier of gardens par excellence, that is to say, of artificial gardens; of well-bred groves and glades, where the trimmer had been with his shears, and ladies and gentlemen assembled to play at shepherd and shepherdess in groups full of silk and embroidery-a Golden Age, after the pattern of the Regent, Duke of Orleans. Watteau, however, had a great deal of merit as an artist; was a companionable man; and painted the ideal of an actual state of things, such as it was-pleasant, on canvass, at all events, and not to be omitted in comprehensive|
|galleries. Watteau came to England in order to consult Dr. Mead on the state of his health; and he remained here a twelve- month; but died on his return, still young. Kensington Gardens most unquestionably saw him.|