As we noted in a previous blog, “The Politics of Love”, Mary Pendarves née Granville became a widow at the age of twenty-four. Her husband, Alexander Pendarves, many years her senior, was with good reason insecure on the matter of his wife’s affection. He responded by isolating her from her friends in his grim and remote castle on the Cornwall coast during the seven years of their marriage. She escaped this gothic horror (Saoirse Ronan would do a good job of the lead) when gout, and probably heart failure, carried Pendarves off to his (presumably very gothic) ancestral mausoleum.
Barbara Brandon Schnorrenberg tell us that Mary had been “[e]ducated at home and at an exclusive school run by a Huguenot refugee, [where] she became fluent in French, well read in history and the classics in translation as well as English literature, a good musician, and a superb needlewoman. She showed early talent for drawing, cutting, and design.”
There are a few interesting things about this. But first we should remember that civil war politics were alive and well in early eighteenth century England. Mary’s family, which had fought for Charles I in the 1640s, were royalists and supporters of the hereditary Stuart line of succession. By the 1720s this group – the Tories – were in defeat and the Whigs (Cromwellians lite) were in control with imported and toothless Hanoverian monarchs providing the window dressing of continuity.
Mary was raised and educated in the expectation that she would have an official post – be a lady in waiting ‑ in a Stuart court. Queen Anne’s death in 1714 and the arrival of the Whig juggernaut put the kybosh on that. But in some ways that’s all detail. Mary’s education – fluency in French, well read in history and the classics in translation as well as English literature ‑ suggests that ladies of the court were far from ornamental and that perhaps the common notion of gender roles in that era requires some qualification. Mary’s life following her first marriage confirms the existence of a social space – albeit far narrower than that available to males – which allowed for the personal, artistic and intellectual realisation of elite women in society.
The existence of good functioning family connections was important for survival and success across the social spectrum in eighteenth century England and Ireland. And Mary Pendarves had good connections. This meant that when she returned to London from her matrimonial home there were numerous houses where she could stay and a vibrant social world she could enter.
Some years later one of these connections brought her to Dublin. Katherine Clayton, the sister of her friend Anne Donnellan, was married to Robert Clayton, the bishop of Killaloe, who was very wealthy and who had built a splendid mansion on St Stephen’s Green. The visit was supposed to have been for a few months but was extended to over a year.
Her initial response to Dublin in a letter to her sister Ann prior to the transformation of the city wrought by the Wide Streets Commission is interesting:
I must say the environs of Dublin are delightful. The town is bad enough, narrow streets and dirty-looking houses, but some very good ones scattered about: and as for Stephen’s Green, I think it may be preferred justly to any square in London, and it is a great deal larger than Lincoln’s Inn Fields. A handsome broad gravel walk and another of grass, railed in round the square, planted with trees, that in the summer give a very good shade; and every morning Miss Donnellan and I walk there … I have just began an acquaintance among the wits ‑ Mrs. Grierson, Mrs. Sycon, and Mrs. Pilkington; the latter is a bosom friend of Dean Swift’s, and I hope among them I shall be able to pick up some entertainment for you.
It was through that circle that she met Dr Patrick Delany, an Anglican clergyman who through the influence of Swift had the chancellorship of both Christ’s Church and St Patrick’s Cathedral. It appears there was an immediate and mutual attraction. Unfortunately Delany was engaged to be married to Margaret Tenison, née Barton, the rich widow of a Co Louth landowner. She brought her new husband an annual income of £1,600 which was useful to the son of a small farmer with no inherited capital and a disposition which was not particularly frugal. Delany was intellectually sparkling and a good listener, a positive combination in any circumstances and one which probably pleased Mary.
As the letter to her sister suggests Mary Pendarves’s interests extended beyond the social whirl during her eighteen month sojourn in Dublin. Her education had been sound but informal and she was eager to improve herself. She was pleased to meet the famous Dean Swift, whose Tory leanings would have been congenial to her, seeing in him a source of entertainment and improvement. In a letter she explained her wishes:
The day before we came out of town, we dined at Dr. Delany’s, and met the usual company. The Dean of St. Patrick’s was there, in very good humour, he calls himself “my master,” and corrects me when I speak bad English, or do not pronounce my words distinctly. I wish he lived in England, I should not only have a great deal of entertainment from him, but improvement.
The interest in “improvement” suggests that the values of the emerging Enlightenment were congenial to an ambitious young woman from a Tory background and that Mary saw in knowledge and improvement a means of personal and social advancement. Indeed at one point she wrote to Rousseau, though it is not known if he replied. The casual way Mary mentions “improvement” is also interesting. There is no sense that she was pursuing something that might excite disapproval. The Enlightenment values of inquiry and knowledge were, it seems, naturally compatible with the education a young woman of the court was expected to have.
When she returned to London Mary began a correspondence with Swift. The letters were more carefully constructed than those to her sister. She felt honoured that he corresponded with her and said as much again and again. She also continued to emphasise the theme of improvement:
I do not wonder at the envy of the ladies, when you are pleased to speak of me with some regard: I give them leave to exercise their malice on an occasion that does me so much honour. I protest I am not afraid of you, and would appear quite natural to you in hopes of your rewarding my openness and sincerity, by correcting what you disapprove of; and since I have not now an opportunity of receiving your favours of pinching and beating, make me amends by chiding me for every word that is false spelt, and for my bad English.
The wits – including Mary – enjoyed their wine and it seems the earnest business of improvement was leavened with some playfulness before the carriage was called for the return to St Stephen’s Green.
In another turn of “good fortune” for Mary – the sort that usually only occurs in novels, Margaret Delaney died a decade later. Patrick Delany lost little time in crossing the Irish sea to propose to Mary in London. Her male relations opposed the match, for Delany had neither fortune nor gentle birth. His being Irish was also regarded negatively. However, the time when Mary took direction from her relations on such matters had long passed. She accepted his proposal and the marriage took place in London in early June 1743.
The marriage was a success and the couple lived together for many years mostly in Delville, a famously beautiful house on the Banks of the Tolka in Glasnevin. Over the years Mary Delany was celebrated as a renowned hostess and artist. The house was demolished in the early 1950s to become the site of the Bon Secours hospital. A fireplace, which is all that remains of Delville, is incorporated within the hospital building.