If such behaviour were to be countenanced by Lady Westmoreland it would become a disgrace to the English Nation…
The following letter transcribed in full from the Sneyd family papers at Keele University alludes to a social faux pas perpetrated by Ralph Sneyd when visiting Rome in the winter of 1821. Ralph seems to have misunderstood the sphere of social and domestic pleasure, and that he needed to follow strict rules of engagement when dealing with elite ladies. His protagonist, Lady Westmoreland outranks him in age, wealth and status. She certainly displays very fixed opinions about the rules of gossip-mongering.
But far from being an impressionable youth Sneyd was in fact 28 years old, so perhaps he ought to have known better than to rile such a high-ranked hostess. He appears to have been warned twice already before the redoubtable Lady Westmoreland finally excludes him from her concert party, sending this letter explaining her reasons. Yet Lady Jane Westmoreland was not your archetypal crusty old matriarch, and was actually a staggeringly attractive 32 year old blonde with a far-from spotless reputation of her own. This letter of censure reveals that Lady Westmoreland had not in fact followed her own rules of confidentiality and that her animosity to Mr Sneyd arose at least in part because she herself had been upbraided by Lord Kinnaird for repeating the allegations Sneyd made against the un-named Lady. I think, however, that Sneyd’s real crime was his failure to appreciate the character of Lady Westmoreland – for he must have known that her presence in Rome was entirely on account of social exclusion and gossip resulting in her effective exile from London society
Lady Westmoreland (1783-1857)
Ralph Sneyd (1793-1870)
Born Jane-Huck Saunders in 1783, at the age of 17 she became second wife to awkward and cantankerous 41-year-old John Fane, 10th Earl of Westmoreland. She bore him three children but her wealth and lack of inhibition provided Lady Westmoreland opportunities to conduct a series of secret liaisons with men of her own age. Around 1810 Lady Westmoreland caused a sensation by leaving her marital home (including children and 5 additional stepchildren) and setting up her own establishment in London. Leaving her children behind may seem callous in today’s terms, but Lady Westmoreland would have had no legal right to take them and could not have quit the household any other way. In fact the legality of her actions was so questionable that her husband commenced action to have her committed (to a sanatorium) on the basis of ‘irresponsible conduct’. The truth was that Lady Westmoreland’s new home served as a magnet for those on the edge of society – for example Lord Byron who first saw Caroline Lamb in her house, – and she was becoming an embarrassment. Damned by public opinion Lady Westmoreland was compelled to go abroad in 1814, establishing herself in Rome and living in style. From her magnificent residence she dominated the social scene and became a renowned patron of the arts. One of her protégés was John Severn who extricated himself from her romantic overtures in 1821 by suggesting she take up with his friend Frederick Catherwood. She replied: “My dear Mr Severn, I do not know this young man , but I would take anyone of your commending, because I feel you understand me.” Consequently Catherwood became her lover and moved into her palace for several months until the relationship petered out. Lady Westmoreland’s position at the head of Rome’s ex-pat community endured because of her wealth and ability to control the social calendar. She had well-deserved reputation as a brilliant conversationalist, generous when it suited her, yet also unstable and domineering in character.
Perhaps Lady Westmoreland’s real objection to Sneyd was his decision to judge the tantalisingly un-named Lady without holding a shred of evidence to back up his story. In doing so he struck at the heart of Lady Westmoreland’s own exclusion from London society, something that was bound to raise her heckles. Had Sneyd reflected upon the reputation of Lady Westmoreland before he opened his mouth, he might have avoided her wrath and her subsequently brutal put-down of his own character and status.
This letter provides a marvellous insight into Lady Westmoreland’s views on this important facet of aristocratic social etiquette, with a few choice insults thrown in to boot. Please notice that Lady Westmoreland refers to herself in the third-person throughout, probably to emphasise the gulf in class between her and Sneyd.
Letter Reference 20/235 – Sneyd MS, Keele University Libary
[Marked in pencil: ‘Jane, 2nd wife of 10th Earl of Westmoreland’]
Lady Westmoreland having been asked by several persons why she did not ask Mr Sneyd to her concert thinks it right to acquaint Mr Sneyd that the following is the explanation she has given of her reasons
About 5 weeks ago Lady Westmoreland met Mr Sneyd at dinner at Lady Sandwich’s & suffering every man she saw in Lady Sandwich’s house to be a person of gentlemanly honour, she conversed with Mr Sneyd respecting a Lady latterly arrived at Rome & whose name has been the subject of discussion in several houses where Mr Sneyd has obtained admittance. Mr Sneyd gave it to Lady Westmoreland confidentially as his opinions that the stories as circulated in London concerning the Lady were of so unpleasant a nature & had obtained so much credit in public opinion, that it would be improper and impossible to cause that Lady to be received in general society.
Lady Westmoreland answered Mr Sneyd that (being in ignorance herself upon the subject) if she should find that to be the general sentiment of the English Ladies & Gentlemen at Rome she should not make any effort to persuade those who entertained that opinion to act inconsistently with it, but she stated also to Mr Sneyd that it would make no difference in her own conduct regarding the Lady who had been introduced to her in terms of such respectful recommendation, as would decide her at once to give the protection that was requested. & the more so, if that protection became manifestly necessary from the general sentiment of Rome being unfavourable to the Lady. – Lady Westmoreland explained that she intended to invite the Lady in question to her house with such of her friends as would not object to meet her. & Lady Westmoreland told Mr Sneyd that she thought all the single gentlemen at Rome ought to offer their respects & protection, to this their countrywoman, a Lady, of highest rank, defenceless, in a foreign land – most especially if they thought it their duty to recommend an opposite line of conduct to those Ladies who might be influenced by their testimony.
As the answers of Mr Sneyd were extremely positive & decided regarding the reputation of the Lady, the questions of Lady Westmoreland were few.
It happened however that after the lapse of a fortnight or three weeks, various circumstances came to the knowledge and observation of Lady Westmoreland, that caused her to remark that calumnies so readily uttered seemed sanctioned by very little proof & that indeed the very existence of some of them, was a presumptive disproof of others.
Lady Westmoreland therefore a second time (at Lady Bute’s) addressed herself to Mr Sneyd & resumed her enquiries more particularly. She asked him if he had ever had any means of authenticating the charges advanced.
Mr Sneyd distinctly answered that he knew nothing whatever but the gossiping stories tattled in the world of the foundation of which or the real circumstances, he had not the slightest knowledge or information.
Lady Westmoreland asked Mr Sneyd if he knew any ill opinion to be expressed of this Lady by the direct assertion of any man of honourable name or if any man of honourable name did, or ever had given his authority to any charge or distinct censure brought against her by others.
Mr Sneyd again distinctly replied that there was the total absence of any such information, that he was possessed of nothing but stories, which he supposed were believed, but which he had never traced to any honourable or credible authority & which he had only alluded to in his conversation with Lady Westmoreland from believing himself to be communicating in “strict honour and confidence”.
Lady Westmoreland answered Mr Sneyd that she also had considered the conversation to be one of strict honour and confidence & therefore she had made a point of not mentioning Mr Sneyd’s name.
(In truth Lord Kinnaird had called upon Lady Westmoreland to give up the names of the persons who slandered the honour of the Lady concerned & Lady Westmoreland informed Lord Kinnaird that without first asking their permission she did not feel at liberty so to do).
Lady Westmoreland stated to Mr Sneyd at this second conversation, that having herself received the same answers, of their entire ignorance of the truth, from all the persons who had been the loudest in defaming the Lady in question, she was of opinion that there was not cause brought forward to justify hostile conduct against the Lady nor ground sufficient to give implicit faith to the assertions that had been so positively and publicly made to her discredit. Lady Westmoreland therefore repeated more strongly than before, & as a request from herself that Mr Sneyd should in the manly character assist Lady Westmoreland in giving that protection which it became more and more the duty of Lady Westmoreland not to withdraw, & of her countrymen to assist her in according since the accusations increased in virulence against the Lady in proportion as they were acted upon, while the proofs receded upon enquiry and investigation.
Mr Sneyd answered Lady Westmoreland with the appearance of embarrassment & alarm that he wished to decline what she proposed to him as it was not an acquaintance he should have wished to form under the circumstances, & in the present ones, he feared the Lady might require some service such as request him to introduce her to some other person etc. Lady Westmoreland abruptly terminated the subject saying that “Mr Sneyd must judge for himself”, & thinking that any gentleman who when asked for protection to a woman, expresses fear, whatever may be the nature of his apprehensions, can be an acquaintance, the loss of which, is no disadvantage to the Lady.
It is with pain and surprise, & not without indignation that Lady Westmoreland has since heard, that during all these weeks that Mr Sneyd has been sheltering himself under her honour & decency, he has been permitting his tongue the greatest licence & levity in the public mention of the Lady whose name he attacks, & in promulgating with the most persuasive intention all the evil impressions that such statements are calculated to convey.
Lady Westmoreland considers that she should become the accomplice herself in such proceedings if she were to allow them her sanction.
Such behaviour is not only to defame, but to belie a Lady’s honour. For he who repeats with the authority of truth scandalous accusations that he does not positively know to be true, debases what he does positively know may be false. & when the object and result of that is to expose to infamy, contempt and insult, a woman of his own Nation, alone, and undefended in a foreign country, it is the very worst action by which a man can degrade his own character.
Lady Westmoreland has been told by several persons that she is making Mr Sneyd of too much consequence & acting with too much condescension in deigning to communicate with him at all. But Lady Westmoreland is not of this opinion. On the contrary it is one of her maxims in life by which she has constantly regulated her actions, to consider the honour of every individual as of equal value & of the same value as each individual ought to consider it himself & to the most inconsiderable person in society Lady Westmoreland would give the same opportunity of justification, & would become herself his defender if she had accused him unjustly, with the same alacrity that she would do to the first in station and honour.
Lady Westmoreland knows scarcely anything of Mr Sneyd, and not enough to have any prejudice either in his favour or against him. She does not think she has ever heard him mentioned since about 6 or 7 years ago, when she recollects having a cursory view of a copy of verses of his performance the subject of which she did not comprehend, nor did the verses themselves invite a very attentive perusal as she remembers they gave her but a mediocre idea of the natural talents of the author in a composition which seemed to convey a desperation to lampoon Lord and Lady Burghersh. Neither did Lady Westmoreland appreciate much more highly the judgement of the person who displayed a very blunt attempt to ridicule the Lord and Lady of a house in which Mr Sneyd had probably been received with Lord Burghersh’s accustomed hospitality.
As however Lord and Lady Burghersh could at Florence have crushed Mr Sneyd pleasantly with a glance, Lady Westmoreland would have conceded from good nature what she in truth suppressed from forgetfulness. For she does not recollect that from that hour to this the subject has ever recurred to her recollection nor does she think it ever would have done so if she had not now heard that Mr Sneyd has again come forth in the character of a public jester; & that he is going about from house to house talking loosely with levity upon those slanders which he tells Lady Westmoreland he only alludes to in “strict honour & confidence”, thus exposing the name of a Lady while he avails himself of the integrity of persons of honour, to serve his own.
Lady Westmoreland is sorry that Mr Sneyd should misuse a capacity that might tend to better objects than employments so degrading – Lady Westmoreland has had many years’ experience of the world herself and has acquired in consequence great contempt for all its empty contrivances. In that long experience too she has constantly observed that the jester at length becomes the joker, & those who introduce themselves into the society of persons of higher rank than themselves by deigning to amuse the community at the expense of others, generally end by diverting it at their own.
It is too great condescension to men of distinction by the mention of high sounding names & it is a much better calculation in the end to act so as to command respect then to confine the brain to the humble occupation of seeking to awaken laughter.
Lady Westmoreland is very sorry that Mr Sneyd in having communicated with her confidentially upon this subject & then having acted entirely contrary to the spirit of honourable communication, has compelled Lady Westmoreland to manifest her sense of his conduct.
In the present state of the case it is only disgraceful to one young man who may mend his manners by experience. But if such behaviour were to be countenanced by Lady Westmoreland it would become a disgrace to the English Nation.
As Lady Westmoreland considers the conduct of Mr Sneyd to be a failure in gentlemanly honour she declines any immediate conversation with him herself. But if Mr Sneyd has any statement to make in intimation of the accusation which Lady Westmoreland brings against him in this letter, she should listen to it with the kindest attention through the medium of any of the respectable married men at Rome if there should be any one of them who after reading this letter of Lady Westmoreland, will charge himself with any excuse for the conduct of Mr Sneyd
Palazzo [Rockingham], Monday 24th December 1821
Sneyd’s first cousin by marriage was Sir Charles Bagot whose wife Mary was the sister of Priscilla, Lady Burghersh – whose husband was English Minister at Florence and Lady Westmoreland’s stepson, John Fane. This explains why she alludes to her annoyance at Sneyd poking fun at the hospitality of the Burghersh family via his ‘mediocre verses’.