It was the opinion of an eminent Scotsman of the times that Lady Anne Barnard was ‘the best specimen Scotland ever sent to London’. This was no small compliment, the roads south clogged with ambitious and talented Scots keen to get ahead by leaving home.
Lady Barnard’s was the age of James Boswell and Dr Johnson, in whose circles she mixed, and of Henry Dundas, ‘the uncrowned king of Scotland’, whom she twisted around her little finger. To be singled out by Lord Mansfield, the Chief Justice, for such a distinction says much about this extraordinary woman, one of the period’s most original characters, of whom it is safe to say most of us have never heard.
Nor would there have been much to know had Barnard not been an incorrigible writer with an eye for a good story and no qualms about sharing it with her closest companions. In pursuit of his subject, Stephen Taylor, a professional writer of biography, history and travel, found the historian’s holy grail. In Barnard’s ancestral home, Balcarres in Fife, there lay, along with countless of her gifted drawings and paintings, six volumes of unpublished memoir. These were written in her last years, and depict a highly intelligent, headstrong, troubled and kind-hearted woman who lived and busied herself at the heart of political society. Her own life was the stuff of drama, and seemed to reflect the turbulence of the wider world, this being an age of radical, scandalous and sometimes violent upheaval in Europe and beyond.
Written solely for private consumption, these memoirs came with the injunction that they must never be published, even after her death. For Taylor, unearthing Barnard’s account of her exploits must have been like lifting the lid on an old trunk in the attic, and watching the past shake off the cobwebs and dance around him clicking its heels. They form the bedrock of Taylor’s work, but he is too skilful a raconteur to reprint screeds of Barnard’s words verbatim. Like many eighteenth and early nineteenth-century writers, she could be verbose, her memorable bon mots and cutting lines embedded among sandbanks of detail. Yet in one respect she was rare: ‘At a time when literary legacies were almost invariably pruned of anything too close to the bone,’ writes Taylor, ‘hers could be utterly raw.’
It is that rawness that distinguishes Barnard, and gives her life a zest and poignancy that confounds the impression most of us have of women of her class and position in Georgian Britain. Taylor is to be commended for handling his material with a sensitivity that means his subject’s quirks and oddities emerge not as peculiar or perverse, but as the natural expression of a personality that jibbed against stifling convention, knowing it would crush her.
From the outset, Barnard’s situation was less than ideal. The eldest child of the bookish James Lindsay, the Earl of Balcarres, who married late, and a young, ill-tempered mother, she was born in 1750, and by the time she was 14 had ten siblings to watch over. Her upbringing in rural Fife was not without its pleasures – riding on a pig’s back, reading in her father’s library and above all the company of her sister Margaret, two or so years her junior, with whom she formed an intense, lifelong bond. But her description of the ramshackle, isolated way they lived, ‘like castaways’, is double-edged. ‘Though our prison was a cheerful one,’ she writes, ‘yet still it was a prison.’ It became considerably less cheerful when Lady Balcarres came under the influence of the children’s governess, Henrietta Cumming, who took a spiteful dislike to Anne, and made things as miserable as if she were the heroine of a Brontë novel.
Girls of Anne’s class were expected to marry, and marry well. She could not bring a fortune to the altar, but she did possess an abundance of intelligence and charm. When a retired merchant offered for her hand when she was 16, her mother’s warning about refusing him is chilling: ‘You must be sensible that you are not very young… You also have to consider very calmly whether you would be contented to find yourself at 50 an old spinster like Sophy Johnston, your old friends dead, on a scanty income, which would scarcely afford you a bone of mutton and potatoes.’
For the well-being of all, the lively Anne and her beautiful sister were sent to Edinburgh to live with an aunt. There they enjoyed the finest intellectual society, mingling with the likes of Adam Smith and David Hume. Margaret was congenial, but Anne was the one everybody remembered for her wit, vivacity, and clever pen. In these years she wrote profoundly poignant lyrics to the folk song ‘Auld Robin Grey’, immortalizing Margaret’s broken heart at not being able to marry the man she first and most loved: ‘The woes of my heart fa’ in showers frae my ee/ Unkent by my Gudeman wha soundly sleeps by me.’ Years later, Walter Scott published it, and publicly revealed her identity as its author, thereby assuring her literary acclaim. It is by far the best thing Anne ever wrote, revealing a woman of high attainment who would never willingly submit to dreary domesticity.
Taylor hints at the regular unwelcome attentions the sisters endured at the hands of an old family friend while at Balcarres. The fright or revulsion this caused might in part explain the reluctance with which Anne viewed the many offers of marriage that came her way in her Edinburgh years. One by one eligible, and not so eligible, suitors were cast aside, and she earned a reputation as a callous flirt. Meanwhile Margaret married a handsome rogue, whose speculating brought down a bank and dragged them to the edge of ruin.
By this time, Edinburgh had become claustrophobic, and Anne decamped for London, where her sister had set up home. It was here that over the years she became by turns a curiosity, with her outlandish clothes, and a figure of respect who had the ear of not just of politicians but, as a friend of the Prince of Wales, of royalty too. As Taylor writes, ‘Lobbying powerful men had become an alternative to marrying one of them.’ Few were more powerful than Henry Dundas, the libertine MP, whom she had known since she was young, and who for many years believed she would make an excellent second wife. As so often, Anne did not agree.
It was a thrilling period, but rackety too, and she mixed not only with men of influence, but with aristocratic mistresses, charlatans and gamblers. Only barely did she keep her reputation as a woman of upright morals. In some quarters she was forever persona non grata for a bizarre episode, in which she went travelling across Europe with her friend, Mrs Fitzherbert, with whom the young Prince of Wales had become smitten. His stratagems in trying to make Fitzherbert his mistress, she wrote, ‘however allowable for a lover in a modern comedy, were not those of an honest man’. It was hoped his ardour would cool while they were gone, but the effect was quite the reverse, and eventually they were secretly married. This illegal liaison brought the country close to a constitutional crisis, since Mrs Fitzherbert was not merely a widow but Catholic. Anne strove to persuade court and parliament that her role was not as abetter but as counsellor, and that her advice to both parties to have nothing more to do with each other had gone ignored. In a codicil to these events, Taylor describes a visit made to Mrs Fitzherbert in 1833, when she was in her late seventies, by the Duke of Wellington. He and his companion had come to burn the incriminating evidence about her marriage to the man who became George IV. ‘I think, my lord, we had better hold our hand for a while or we shall set the old woman’s chimney on fire,’ said Wellington. It is a reminder of the stakes with which Barnard, and her friends, played.
Anne was in her late thirties when she fell for an adventurer and explorer, William Windham, and thought she had found her man. When that proved cruelly wrong, she surprised everyone by accepting an offer from an army captain, the son of the Bishop of Limerick, with little to his name except debts. Andrew Barnard, invalided out of the army, was 13 years her junior when they married in 1793. Contrary to appearances, though, he was no money grubber, but a tender-hearted – perhaps too tender-hearted – romantic. When, with his wife’s help, he was given the post of secretary to the Governor at Cape Town, she sailed with him, and despite his occasional flaws – a couple of bastard children were the most tangible evidence of his roving eye – he was a kind, devoted husband, who treated her with tender respect. There is no doubt that theirs was a most contented union. ‘The Cape of Good Hope gave Anne the happiest years of her life,’ writes Taylor, who describes the fraught climate in which she became a brilliant hostess for those passing through the Cape. The joy her marriage brought her, however, did not last. Andrew died a few years later, leaving her bereft. Only after his death did she learn of the child he had had by one of their black servants, a daughter she took into her care in London as if she were her own.
The romantic turbulence and unorthodoxy of Barnard’s life would be interesting enough in its own, but placed as she was at the very centre of Georgian England, amid the troubling currents following the French Revolution, her connections and her insights and influence are a sensational archive. If Taylor had not unearthed her, you feel someone would have had to invent her: a woman who tried to dictate her own terms, who made her way in a patriarchal society without a fortune, and nothing more than pleasing looks, and emerged true to herself despite all her travails. Defiance seems too aggressive a title for her dragonfly personality, but perhaps it is intended to evoke a Jane Austenish air, for in her novels a woman like Lady Barnard would have been seen as little short of scandalous. What Scotland made of her career remains unrecorded, but one can perhaps guess, given that on her return in late middle age, she reflected on the country’s ‘illiberality of thinking on every trivial point, such as to render the society quite odious to me’.
Defiance reads at times like a Who’s Who of all who walked the Regency stage, and the plethora of figures who enter its pages can be dizzying. Nevertheless, Taylor is an expert navigator of this crowded scene. He holds the tiller steady to present an absorbing, eye-opening history that combines equally the personal and the political. The woman herself, you suspect, would have been even more entertaining.