Essay on the work of Marguerite, Countess of Blessington, Deborah Docherty, May 1998
'Talking, not writing, was Lady Blessington's forte': Exploring The Repealers and other early works
The early work of Lady Blessington has received mixed reviews, yet to fully understand the quality of the work it should be realised that The Repealers and Sketches and Fragments are inextricably linked to their author's biography. In addition, the circumstances under which she was writing should be addressed. It is argued that her travel writing and Conversations with Lord Byron represent her best work, and this is because she writes in a form that is extremely close to speech. P.G.Patmore, in a review of Conversations claims that 'talking, not writing, was Lady Blessington's forte'.(1)
Nevertheless, on its publication in 1833, The Repealers was, on the whole, received favourably, with the principle journal giving it prompt and full notice, the reasons for which we should examine. Lady Blessington was writing from the informed position of a wife whose husband had a particular interest in Irish politics, and as a daughter whose father fought against the rebellion of 1798. The expererience of growing up in Ireland could not fail to give authenticity to many parts of the novel; whilst her experience of London society and its portrayal in the novel will be discussed below. Molloy reports that by 1791 Ireland was seething with rebellion, and in that same year The United Irishmen was founded. The magistrates and the military were empowered to search the houses of anyone suspected of being involved with this rebellious movement. In their search they 'practised horrible outrages', with houses being plundered and burnt, and the inhabitants being subjected to torture by way of forcing a confession(2). The vigour with which her father fulfilled his duty ensured that he became a victim of terrorism. Thus Blessington would have had personal knowledge of the atrocities in Ireland at that time, which gives credence to her description of the Mahoneys' and the Cassidys' flight to the protection of their master's house.
Blessington does not condemn these men for their actions. Instead she attempts to plead their volatile natures, as Irishmen. What Ireland needs is to be ruled without aggravation and repression, otherwise officials will incense the 'masses': 'In the Irish character all the elements of good are to be found in abundance, but these are turned into instruments of destruction by the demagogues who know how to apply the spark to inflammable and evil passions.'(3) Thus the plight of the Irish is explored as a reaction to bad ruling. Indeed, when military force is called in to support the law in the novel, the master Mr.Desmond recognises that 'it is difficult to impress on an ignorant people, a respect for that which the bayonet alone forces them to endure.'(4) The novel attempts to explain the nature of the Irish, who were ready to be easily influenced by any radical group such as the 'Repealers'.
Blessington uses her characters to expound upon the deep-rooted nature of the problem. The widespread trouble is explored at the level of personal relationships. Indeed, the first volume sees the breaking down of the relationship between Grace Cassidy and her misled husband. His male pride is excited by the Repealers, and he will not listen to his wife, when she tries to make him see reason. Grace is also torn between her loyalty to her husband and to their landlord, who represents the authority the Repealers are opposed to. In speaking to Miss Frances Desmond about her love for Colonel Forrester, Grace asserts, 'Sure he's a gentleman, and what's more, an Englishman; and they always listen to raison'. Blessington illustrates the shared political sentiments of her husband and herself further when she introduces a marriage between the Irish landlord's daughter and an English Officer.
It could be argued that the Irish characters are more symbolic than real, in order to get political message across. Some critics of the time argued that there is no depth to the novel because it is merely badly written. John Cordy Jeaffreson was of this opinion in his criticism published within ten years of her death:'with such evidences of flippancy of thought, superficiality of observation, feebleness of expression and commonness...of taste as abound in her novels, it is impossible for us to romance about her.'(5) The popularity of her work in America, following the publicity of the young writer N.P.Willis, is also slighted by Greville: 'In America this trash goes down because it is written by a Countess.'
She was advised by Bulwer to write with feeling, but it appears that Blessington had been made wary of passion by her early life experiences, so that raw emotion is notably absent from her work. The reader only experiences the passion and anger of the Repealers once mediated through a 'reasonable' character.
When she sent Landor a copy of The Repealers and The Two Friends she apologised for their triviality: 'They are written on the everyday business of life without once entering the region of imagination. I wrote because I wanted money, and was obliged to select subjects that would command it.'(6) Thus the 'symbolic' rather than 'real' impression given by the characters may be due less to artistic style, and more to the fact that '600 of its 980 pages were written in four weeks, so that delivery could be made as promised at the end of March.'(7)
Nevertheless, Blessington manages to address several important issues in the novel. Although it was believed that the 'book chiefly dealt with Irish politics'(8), Sadleir has claimed that the novel is particularly important because it provides valuable clues to her real views on the world she lived in. Thus more importance may be placed on the sub-plot of Lady Oriel's experience of London society. In fact, Blessington is included among the Silver Fork School of novelists. This mocking name referred to the early nineteenth-century novelists of fashionable life and manners, and the genre offered the reader a vicarious experience of high life.(9) Blessington's novels in many respects fit comfortably with this label.
However, to assess this claim, it is once again essential to take her biography into account. In 1831 the names of Harriet, Countess d'Orsay and the married Lord Tullamore were greatly talked of in society, as was Harriet's ill-usage by her neglectful husband and her step-mother, Lady Blessington. The mother of Lord Tullamore, Lady Charleville, made certain that Harriet would be perceived as the victim in the sordid affair, so that her son may be viewed as comforter, not adulterer. The efficiency with which Lady Charleville scarred Lady Blessington's reputation clearly affected her for the rest of her life. Blessington had become used to 'keeping up appearances and thus she went about her business without comment. Nevertheless, Lady Blessington's mischievious sense of humour is often spoken of, and considering that there was no love lost between the two women, it is quite probable that, as Sadleir asserts, Lady Abberville of The Repealers, is Lady Charleville: "Now if the Abbervilles were not drawn from life, Lady Blessington had a greater talent for imagining personalities than she ever again displayed."(10) Indeed, The Repealers has been described as a roman a cle of a particularly transparent kind.(11) Perhaps in this way Blessington was able to meet her deadline by using 'ready-made' characters, and simultaneously was able to exact revenge in the only way open to her.
Whatever the case, by 1837, in her Preface to Victims of Society, she felt it necessary 'to declare that, the characters of this work are invented, not copied, as the representatives of a class, or the agents of a moral.'(12) It would not have been the first time that readers had suspected Blessington of parodying people from society. Whether the Preface to Sketches and Fragments is genuinely apologetic, or whether it further mocks the vanity of society is left to the reader to decide: 'The author dares scarcely indulge a hope that the trifles which compose the present work will please; but as they do not contain any allusions that can be considered personal, it may be reasonably hoped that they will not offend.'(13) Cecily Lambert claims that in this work Blessington expressed 'moralising sentiments' in order to 'assume the role of "a censor of society", in an attempt to defy and to minimize the tales and rumours that were spread about her past.'(14) This may be the case in such tales as 'Marriage and Coquetry', but in 'Journal of a Week of a Lady of Fashion', she uses her powers of satire that were to become so familiar in her work. It is evident that Blessington did tend to paint clever portaits of real life characters in her works, with the most successful being the most blatent, as in her travel writing and Conversations of Lord Byron.
Critics have suggested that in one of her last successful works The Governess, Blessington had used up her creative powers, and although she published a further five novels in her lifetime, none achieved particular success. She had 'exhausted her meagre vein of fictional originality...there remained only fatigue and listless rehandling of material already used.'(15) All in all, during her lifetime Lady Blessington achieved moderate success as an author; she managed to earn a living and was widely read. Her works have slipped into oblivion during the last century. Yet it should be remembered that they were written under the pressure of meeting deadlines, and while editing two Annuals. Furthermore, Lady Blessington never made claims for herself as a writer; she merely had a moderate talent and was able to use this to make the money she needed, and to use her work as a medium to convey unspoken sentiments about the hypocritical society which surrounded her. Considering, in contrast, the great success of her Salon in the first half of the nineteenth-century, it may be fair to assume that 'talking, not writing, was Lady Blessington's forte.'(16)