Tea and Talk of Books: the Literary Parties of Elizabeth Spence
and Elizabeth Benger
- A truly grand party requires some A-list celebrities, and in the
early nineteenth century this requirement was often most satisfactorily
filled by a great writer or two, usually male and preferably with a
number of interesting acquaintances about whom he could tell stories.
Premier London hostesses tended to place Thomas Moore, the poet, novelist,
and friend of Byron, near the top of their invitation lists. “He
is the Venus throw in society," whispers a character in Letitia
Landon’s Romance and Reality. “His conversation carries
you along with ease and grace of skaiting” (1831: 270). The Venus
throw is the name for the highest throw in a Roman game of dice, and,
as every reader of the society columns knew, each grand party marked
another move in the game that the elite hostesses played to win.
- In 1820s London, successful poets and novelists could therefore with
relative ease become social celebrities welcome in the drawing-rooms
of wealth, rank and fashion. If popular writers had reputations
for wit or a fine singing voice, requests for their presence in the
houses of the great arrived thick and fast. The hostesses Lady
Holland, Lady Cork and Lady Charleville prided themselves on collecting
substantial groups of intellectuals to provide their guests with the
amusement of clever ripostes and perhaps, though less importantly, to
raise the tone of conversation. Along with Moore, Samuel Rogers,
Monk Lewis, Sydney Smith, Dr. Samuel Parr and Henry Luttrell were some
of the stars of this circuit, though the occasional woman writer turned
up as well, such as Lady
Morgan, Lady Caroline Lamb and Amelia Opie in her pre-Quaker days.
the writer of less renown who had published anything, be it just some
articles or a book that not many had heard of, there remained available
the few polite circles of a far more modest literary society.
Here, if the host was not a writer, the hostess probably was.
Women writers outnumbered the men at these gatherings, which provided
the opportunity for women to come without escorts and meet other writers
and editors they had never seen before and had little chance of meeting
otherwise. “We do not hear of such female coteries in these more
degenerate days," Cyrus Redding remarks in 1858:
ladies with a sprinkling of titles … met at each other’s residences,
about once a week to interchange ideas. Sometimes incipient literati
or a sprinkling of gentlemen who were supposed to be able to communicate
intelligence about the merits of a novel in the press, regarding “new
books and such works in the press." (335-36)
on the strength of one
publication or a manuscript, the few titled ladies that came were slumming
it, condescending to visit their social inferiors in hopes of somehow
benefiting their fledgling careers. But many of the women writers
who regularly met were unmarried and could barely provide for themselves,
much less host great parties (336). However, to call even the
most impoverished form of this society bohemian, as has repeatedly been
done, risks missing the point that its hostesses sought not to defy
conventions but strictly to follow all rules essential to the maintenance
hostesses were more shabbily genteel in the mid 1820s than the historical
biographer Elizabeth Ogilvy Benger and her good friend, the novelist
and travel writer Elizabeth Isabella Spence. The books by these
more than middle-aged spinsters were not reputed for radical or even
provocative ideas. Benger’s biographies comfortably informed readers
of a few women’s tactful use of their royal positions, while the novels
of Spence appear to have done little more than entertain. That
little more was supposed to be, as Spence’s obituary stated, the inculcation
of “morality, religion, and graciousness of manners," with emphasis
on the latter (Anonymous, 1833: 369). In the society of women
writers that they did much to create, Benger and Spence sought to practise
what their books gently suggested. Through their polite conversation
and letters, the two ladies tried to rise above the hustle of the literary
marketplace and its rough treatment of writers. We may see them
as essential supporters of a network connecting women authors with each
other and with male editors, but they saw themselves in feminine terms,
as benevolent hostesses intent on resisting the modern world’s unrefined
habits that paid insufficient regard to writers’ personal lives and
resistance to modernity, however well intentioned, could not but make
them look silly at times, especially to younger writers for whom Benger
and Spence took pains to demonstrate their “culture” and “the refinement
and propriety of their age."
Alaric Alfred Watts relates that both women weighed down their letters
with “modest euphuisms." When speaking to Watts’s mother,
they always referred to his father as “her caro sposo, thus avoiding
… the indelicacy of referring in direct terms to conjugal relations!”
(Watts, 1884: 204). They certainly amused the then Edward Bulwer,
Lytton: “Their affectation, their hunting after fine phrases,
and their aversion to the common language of ordinary mortals, are quite
wonderful” (Robert Bulwer Lytton, 1883: 127). Bulwer is here referring
generally to the women writers at Benger’s and Spence’s parties.
The women’s perceived absurdities, however, did not the least dissuade
Bulwer from attending, though he could have been associating with much
finer folk. In the same 1826 letter to a fashionable English lady
in Paris, Bulwer’s mockery of one “literary lady” quickly subsides into
respect for another:
have lately been much amongst the Blue Stockings. I go to town
every fortnight for two or three days; and the evenings of those days,
instead of being spent at balls, are generally consumed in the soirées
of the savans, and the learned and literary ladies. You can have
no idea what curious notes these people write me. … “Write something
in my album," said a celebrated Blue to me the other night.
Teased into consent I wrote — Fools write here to show their wit, And
men of sense to laugh at it.
I need not tell you that the Blue looked exceedingly black. If
the poems of L. E. L. (alias Miss Landon) are yet
imported into Paris, I advise you to get them forthwith. They
contain more power,pathos, and music than any I have lately seen.
The sudden move in
Bulwer’s letter from the ridiculous Blue to the sublime of Letitia Landon’s
poetry is explained by the fact that Landon was also a frequenter of
Benger’s and Spence’s conversaziones. Bulwer first met
Landon at Benger’s, at the same time he met
Landon’s friend and his future wife,
Rosina Wheeler. Neither young woman could have been fairly described
as conventional, restrained or genteel. An old flame of Bulwer,
the scandal-ridden Caroline Lamb likewise visited Benger and Spence
often and met Bulwer there. Like other women in search of some
form of literary society, Rosina, Landon and Lamb gravitated to Benger
and Spence for two or three years in the 1820s. Here we have the
curious fact that a few bold, adventurous women who were destined to
become famous, largely on account of their unorthodox passion and wit,
made the effort to get to the unimpressive residences of two old-fashioned
old maids whose literary reputations and discourse did not approach
brilliance. Benger’s and Spence’s parties, however, were never
dull and usually fun in quirky ways. Most of the female guests
were first swayed into going when they heard the hostesses enthuse about
their talent and express great desire for their presence at the next
party. Besides, no one could fault their going. Wrapped
in old world customs, Benger and Spence undoubtedly provided a protective
veneer of respectability for the women who assembled under their roofs.
Those customs included an unVictorian admiration for all kinds of women,
so-called respectable or not, so long as they had published or were
likely to prove interesting to other writers.
Arising mainly from their literary interests, Benger’s and Spence’s
eccentricities appear to have made their guests feel all the more welcome.
Benger and Spence ignored – or remained ignorant of – those conventions
that looked askance at their imperfect housekeeping and use of their
clothes to express their identity as women writers. What society
viewed as good taste was to a degree sacrificed to the great god Literature.
Thus, no polite literary parties were yet more colourful than those
which required guests to climb the stairs to Spence’s second floor flat
in Quebec Street, Portman Square, or to venture east of Tottenham Court
Road, “beyond that ultima Thule, Brunswick Square” to Benger’s
house in Doughty Street (Thomson, 1846: 353; Thomson, 1845: 183; Thomson,
1860: 2: 183).
and Spence wore turbans because that is what women writers were reputed
to wear, regardless of the fact that in the 1820s women writers were
likewise reputed to have terrible dress sense and be inclined to slovenliness
(Hall, 1883: 2: 455; Devey, 1887: 41). No slaves
to Fashion’s increasingly important mandates, Benger and Spence wanted
to stand out a little, to possess that air of the exotic and fanciful
that accompanied the turban. Before her guests arrived, Miss Benger
was known to require the services of a family friend’s son, then studying
sculpture in London, to arrange her turban for her, “and to make her,
and things in general, rather more tidy” (Martin, 1883: 142-43).
Rosina Bulwer Lytton remembers the very short and fat Miss Spence at
one soirée wearing “a caricature” of a turban “in gauze and wire” above
a face looking like it “had just ‘struck oil’," while “in imitation
of Madame de Staël” she “twirled a sprig of something” in her fingers
(Devey, 1887: 43). Also present at the soirée on account of her
husband having been “with Byron in Greece," Mrs. Edward Blaquière
comes in for Rosina’s loudest laugh, as she relates her shock at seeing
on the woman’s head what looked like “a conglomeration of Turkish bath
towels." From behind Benger’s fan
Rosina learned that Mrs. Blaquière was instead wearing “a pair of Prince
Mavrocordato’s inexpressibles, which she brought away, as one of her
Greek trophies …” (45-46).
Access to Benger’s and Spence’s literary parties was gained by invitation
only. Looking back nearly forty years, Anna Maria Hall cannot
pretend that she did not mind when her journalist husband Samuel Carter
Hall was asked to Spence’s but she was told she was not allowed:
my husband had been introduced to a certain little who, on the strength
of having written something about the Highlands, was most decidedly
BLUE, when blue was by no means so general a color as it is at present.
She had a lodging of two rooms ... and “patronized” young littérateurs,
inviting them to her “humble abode," such- like small scandals
about poor Miss Spence’s “humble abode”; still people liked to go; and
my husband was invited, with a sort of apology for poor me, who, never
having published anything at that time, was considered ineligible;
it was “a rule," and Miss Spence ... lived by rule. Of
course I had an account of the party when Mr. Hall came home.
I coveted to know who was there, and what everybody woreand said.
I was told that Lady Caroline Lamb was there, enveloped in the folds
of an ermine cloak, which she called a “cat-skin," and that she
talked a great deal about a periodical she wished to get up, to be called
“Tabby’s Magazine”; and that with her was an exceedingly haughty, brilliant,
and beautiful girl, Rosina Wheeler ... who sat rather impatiently at
the feet of her eccentric “Gamaliel." Miss Emma Roberts
was one of the favored ladies, and Miss Spence (who, like all “Leo-hunters,"
delighted in novelty) had just caught the author of “The Mummy,"
Jane Webb, who was … gentle and unpretending [Her novel The Mummy
concerns a powerful queen’s rule of England in 2126] … When I
heard Miss Benger was there, in her historic turban, I thought how fortunate
that I had remained at home! I had always a terror of tall, commanding
women, who blink down upon you, and have the unmistakable air about
them of “Behold me! have I not pronounced sentence upon Queen
Elizabeth, and set my mark on the Queen of Scots?” (A. and S. C. Hall,
The only aspect of her
husband’s evening that disenchanted Anna Hall was her notion of Benger’s
terrifying presence. Yet no other printed account of Benger allows
her to be the least intimidating, regardless of all her unfeminine historical
research. She could never have succeeded as a literary hostess
if she intimidated other women in that day when, as Samuel Carter Hall
says, “woman-authorship” was “in some cases considered a glory, in others
an offense” (1883: 1: 263). That the image of the “historic turban”
on Benger’s head was enough to cower Anna Hall indicates how easily
women writers could make other women feel uncomfortable. In the
absence of non-literary women, Benger’s and Spence’s parties provided
women writers with a rare space where they could pleasurably flaunt
their literary identity without fears that they might incur disapproval
or stir up feelings of inferiority.
- Anna Hall was wanting to write in the mid 1820s, though she was not
the least certain she could publish anything worthwhile. Benger
aside, Hall’s account reveals how much she then wished to make the acquaintance
of popular women writers.
quite appreciated the delight of meeting under the same roof so many
celebrities, and was cross-questioning my husband, when he said, “But
there was one lady there whom I promised you should call on to-morrow."
(A. and S. C. Hall, 1865: 332)
So began Hall’s long and
mutually beneficial friendship with Letitia Landon, who would in turn
encourage Hall to write for publication. In 1829, when her Sketches
of Irish Character had just been published, Hall notes with amusement
that on meeting Spence at Landon’s boarding house to plan a fancy-dress
ball, Spence “congratulated me on my début as an authoress …
and politely added, ‘Now you are one of us, I shall be happy to receive
you at my humble abode’” (334). In Spence’s view,
Hall had crossed the threshold that separated writers from the rest
of mankind. Hall’s book gave her real value as a conversationalist
and a person worth meeting. Even the pleasing aspects of her person
had probably been dignified. At the same fancy-dress ball, upon
Landon comment that Edward Bulwer was too handsome to be an author,
Spence “agitated her sultana’s dress, and assured [Hall] that ‘nothing
elevated the expression of beauty so much as literature’."
Hall cannot forget that Spence’s dress was topped by a “plum-pudding
sort of turban, with a bird of paradise bobbing over the front,"
and when the turban began to suffer from the knocks of the dancers,
Spence grabbed the young Jane Webb and made her way through the crowd,
repeating the following appeal for recognition: “Please let me pass;
I am Miss Spence, and this lady is Miss Webb, author of ‘The Mummy,’
– ‘The Mummy,’ Sir” (335). Spence relied on her bit of literary
status to receive special treatment in society, or at least be treated
with sufficient respect, but amid the dancers she felt her short self
and turban required the respect accorded two female authors rather than
In the parlance of that day of lions and lionesses, Spence and Benger
“hunted” down authors they had never met before, and those who agreed
to come to one of their evenings could then consider themselves captured.
Applied to the likes of
Lady Holland, the ruthlessness of the language of the hunt well conveys
the socially competitive nature of the soirée and the commanding presence
of the lions’ patroness. However great was the lion, the triumphant
huntress reigned supreme, the lustre of her guests only adding to her
own in the society column of the next day’s newspapers. But when
directed toward Miss Benger and Miss Spence, the language of hunting
sounds ironic. What S. C. Hall says of Spence should be applied
to both women: “There were ambitious types of Mrs. Leo Hunter,
but Miss Spence was the model of one who, aiming at patronage in small
things, succeeded in doing what more elevated ladies desired to do,
but failed to accomplish” (1883: 1: 263).
question is, why were Benger and Spence so successful? Perhaps
the answer begins with the fact that, for all the importance they placed
on wearing their turbans, neither woman seriously claimed to have triumphed
at writer-gathering or at writing: Spence because she would have
been met with suppressed smiles and disbelief; Benger because she was
not satisfied with her own achievements and thought the sneers that
female literary pretensions were known to provoke could only hinder
her efforts to help other writers. Without doubt, Benger believed
she shared the sentiments she attributed to the historian and education
writer Elizabeth Hamilton: “No one … could discover that she founded
any pretensions on authorship, or that she valued her literary reputation
on any ground but as a means of usefulness” (1818: 177).
critical regard for Benger’s historical works, Benger never made enough
money to come close to fulfilling the hopes she had entertained for
herself when young. At the age of thirteen in 1791, Benger published
a long poem in praise of women writers, The Female Geniad, but
she would fail at writing dramas and wait nearly two decades before
publishing another long poem, Abolition, and then a couple of
novels, Marian (1812) and The Heart and the Fancy (1813).
Her 1818 biography of Hamilton inspired her to follow Hamilton’s example
and take up a series of historical biographies of women. Benger
published works on Anne Boleyn in 1821 and
Mary, Queen of Scots in 1823. Recalling how she once encountered
Benger in the British Museum when Benger was researching her 1825 Memoirs
Stuart, Queen of
Katherine Thomson describes her as an “elderly woman, dressed in the
approved dowdy style adopted by lady authoresses in the reading-room."
Without “an item on her back worth preservation," Benger emerged
to face the rain with only a “dusky black” bonnet, “poking over a very
dingy, withered, blear-eyed visage” and “a thin, shaggy fur tippet,
the produce of some consumptive bear." Nevertheless, such
was Benger’s “quiet good breeding” and “perseverance” that she managed
to introduce herself and acquire a precious half-share in Thomson’s
umbrella (1846: 351).
same perseverance made it possible for Benger to meet Elizabeth Inchbald
when Benger was a young woman new to London. Mrs. Herbert Martin
explains that Benger “bribed [Inchbald’s] servant to let [Benger] take
[the servant’s] place at [Inchbald’s] lodgings in the evening.
Accordingly in cap and apron she brought up the tea kettle and tea tray”
and began a long friendship with Inchbald (1883: 143). Benger
had come to London in 1800 principally to surround herself with literary
society. Her desire to associate with “the eminent and the excellent
... always distinguished her," Lucy Aikin claims (1827: v-vi).
Benger’s enthusiastic conversation -- rather than her meagre publication
record -- also won her early friendships with Aikin and her father,
Hamilton, Anna Barbauld, George Gregory, Charles Lamb, Joanna Baillie
and Thomas Campbell, among others.
- Benger wanted more from literary society than amusement. In
her biography of Anne Boleyn, Benger writes, “It was impossible but
that the society of such a man as Wiatt ... contributed to the development
of [Boleyn’s] talents and taste; and it is from him, probably ... that
she imbibed her partiality for new opinions” (1827: 205). Benger
expected associating with well-read writers to improve her tastes, to
introduce her to the latest ideas and to help her get her work into
print (Martin, 1883: 141). She may well have never discussed
the role of the literary hostess with friends or acquaintances, but
her book on Elizabeth Hamilton provides suggestions for how she viewed
that role. The hostess was to be first and foremost an encourager
of other women writers: Miss Hamilton “was ever disposed, not
only to recognise merit, but to love it; and it was often her generous
boast, that women of talents, by their reciprocations of kindness and
friendship, verified the fable of the nine sister muses” (1818: 164).
More was required than a cheerful disposition:
secret of [Hamilton’s] power was in the ardour and benevolence of her
nature; it was by this she won the frigid to unbend, and the melancholy
to smile, the diffident to dismiss his scruples, the worldly to suspend
his calculations... . It was the heart that spoke, and the heartthat
listened; and each departed from the social feast with expanded faculties
of benevolence and enjoyment. (175-76)
There is little shrewdness
in these opinions of Benger. She would seem rather to possess
an idealistic naiveté about what the literary hostess can achieve, as
if the hostess’s “winning” ways can give all her guests a boost in spirits
that will make them in turn kinder and happier, as if no unpleasantness
could emerge from getting self-absorbed people together with such kind
intentions. Thomson does say that Benger’s “countenance [was]
rather benignant than intelligent” (1860: 2: 183); moreover, that “her
fame, in her own day, so far exceeded her merits as a writer.
She held a high place among the literary women of her time, and she
would in this [the 1840s] have obtained no place at all” (1846: 353).
Nothing that I have read by Benger so far challenges Thomson’s opinion
that she was not a deep or original thinker.
- However, Benger’s progressive concern in her histories for “female
manners” and “female influence” points us toward an explanation for
her attractiveness (Thomson, 1860: 2: 183). I would argue that
Benger’s simplistic idealism about the role of the literary hostess
– including her feminine humility and desire to hear others’ ideas –
worked as an attracting force on many women who wished for literary
recognition, enabling her to gather around her more writers more frequently
than so many lion-hunting patronesses whose capacity for self-advancement
contrasted with her more worthy goals. Thomson attributes “a ready
easy way” to Benger (1846: 351), and elsewhere remarks that Benger’s
“evenings were ... enlivened by inexpensive, easy, willing company,"
with the implication that the hostess deserves the credit (1860: 2:
184). Everyone seems to mention Benger’s fundamental “goodness
of heart” (Redding, 1858: 338), and no one praises that heart more than
the ungood Rosina Bulwer Lytton: Benger “was that little coveted
but inestimable and rare excellence which may emphatically be called
a good creature, for she was good in every relationship
of life” (Devey, 1887: 44).
Bulwer and his Wife,
Michael Sadleir refers to the pair simply as “the warm-hearted Miss
Benger and the ludicrous Miss Spence” (1933: 83). Benger indeed
appears to have been more tame than her companion in every conceivable
form of social interaction. Miss Benger might wear a turban but
Thomson’s opinion she “retained the proprieties of age”; whereas “Miss
S----e sported yellow turbins [sic] with blue muslin dresses."
On first being introduced Spence had no qualms about naming one or two
of the books she had written, such was her recognition of how hard she
had to work to have her services to literature remembered at all.
“Her chief celebrity rested ... on some Romance, which no one ‘had ever
been able to meet with,’ and ... she generally wrote down the title
for the enquiring, twice or thrice in the course of an evening” (Thomson,
1846: 353). To increase circulation of her books, Spence
supposedly used to call out to booksellers from the window of aristocratic
friends’ carriages and ask if their shops stocked one of her titles.
She would then affect shock if the book was not available, as it was
“creating the greatest sensation in town” (Watts, 1884: 210).
lost both parents by the age of sixteen, Spence wrote at least six novels
and two travel books between 1799 and 1826 to supplement a modest independent
income. None of them sold very well, and sales of her works were
said to have been helped by the attention they received from Spence’s
numerous literary and aristocratic acquaintance. Those fine ladies,
“some of whom, in those days, like to sport ‘a bit of blue’," ventured
to rub shoulders with the much-published
Miss Spence because they were aware of her background. They knew
she was “born in the rank of a gentlewoman," with a doctor for
a father and with an elegant mother who was the sister of Dr. James
Fordyce, author of the popular and highly conservative Sermons to
Young Women (209; Anonymous, 1824, “Biographical Sketch”: 94; Anonymous,
writings were voluminous – lively and pleasing , if not characterized
by depth," one of her relatives has commented (Fordyce, 1885: 228),
and his views are matched by those of reviewers, even some of the ones
writing for women’s magazines. The best that the Ladies Monthly
Museum could say of the novel How to Be Rid of a Wife (1823)
is that it “is told in an agreeable manner, and is not deficient in
interest, though it contains no very brilliant passages, nor any which
would appear to advantage in detached form” (Anonymous, 1824: 156).
Just as she so often did in literary society, Spence unintentionally
provoked some giggles with her publications, as critics could not always
resist making fun of her various errors. Reviews of Spence’s work
do make for more interesting reading than the bland approvals given
“The blemishes which may be occasionally pointed out in the writings
of Miss Spence, are chiefly such as belong to what may be called the
mechanism of literary composition, and detract nothing from
the amount of her native genius." La Belle Assemblée
thus tries to defend Spence from past reviews and one in particular
(Anonymous, 1824: 94). For very likely Spence’s greatest fame,
or notoriety, derived from her Letters from the North Highlands
and its 1818 review in
by John Wilson (Elwin, 1934: 49). After proposing that Spence
should marry a “commercial traveller” who has also written a book on
his travels in Scotland and whom he names “the Bagman” (Watts, 1884:
211), Wilson goes on to fault the “Travelling Spinster” for confusing
locations and misspelling names, including printing Francis Jeffrey’s
name as “Mr. Jaffery." “She seems to have been perfectly
intoxicated. The pure air of the Highlands was too much for her,"
Wilson chortles (1818: 428, 430).
intoxication is for Wilson epitomised by her spotting female talent
in the likes of “Christian Milne, a fisherman’s wife, who writes poetry
and sells oysters” (429). Today we must more fairly admire Spence
for recognising the worth of this interesting working-class poet, though
we might demur at her calling one of Milne’s manuscript poems “an effusion
of genius” (Spence, 1817: 55). That was Spence’s way. She
found geniuses everywhere, often neglected and in need of her compassion
and championing. As further evidence of Spence’s absurdity, Wilson
cites the following passage from her book which amounts to a declaration
of her faith:
when talents burst forth from the dark clouds of obscurity, and are
lit up by a bright ray of genius, which discovers itself under every
disadvantage of poverty, oppression, and discouragement, surely a generous
and feeling mind will not merely sympathize with the object who has
such evils to contend with, but will be inspired with an interest, for
such a person, of no ordinary nature. (1818: 429)
had complete confidence in her instincts, and unlike
Wilson (and most modern critics) she did not fuss over whether a particular
writer was supposed top-class or mediocre (Anonymous, 1833: 367).
She trusted that where some acclaim had been won, much more could be
deserved if the writer received the necessary encouragement and sympathy.
“Bruce did not more anxiously explore for the source of the Nile than
I do for litry talent in the young," Spence once boasted
to the young, soon-to-be-major novelist, Edward Bulwer, “and I have
heard so much of your prize poem, that I long to talk to you about it.
I forget, at this moment, what the subject was?” Sculpture was
the subject of Bulwer’s poem that won the Chancellor’s Gold Medal at
Cambridge, but Bulwer, who considered himself superior to Spence’s attentions,
told her the poem was “on patience." The thick-skinned Spence
easily forgave Bulwer’s reluctance to say more: “Ah! well, true
litry talent is always modest” (Devey, 1887: 63-64).
Spence believed it her duty to discover promising writers, convinced
as she was of the supreme importance of the literary hostess.
She gives glimpses of her ideal of this intelligent and charming social
being in Letters from the North Highlands and the seventeenth-century
novel Dame Rebecca Berry. In the latter she states that
“all frequented the mansion of the Lady Cordellia Trevillion, for she
loved and appreciated genius of every description, and it was in truth
the Temple of Science and the Graces” (1827: 110). For Spence
the hostess was “in truth” a kind of priest, worshipful yet assured
of the noble honour of that worship. She who could discover literary
geniuses did not find it difficult to find literary hostesses who had
attained perfection. Wilson makes fun of Spence’s “extreme delicacy”
in stating in the Letters that the Edinburgh house of “Mrs. F---”
was “the centre of all that is literary, amiable, distinguished, and
is herself no less characterized by intellect than by virtue, by wit
than by taste, softened by a captivation of manner rarely equalled”
(1818: 429). Spence’s delicacy is of course designed to display
her own feminine virtue and taste. Yet how very different Spence’s
description of Mrs. F. sounds from reports of Spence in her outlandish
turbans. The turbans and the description serve the same purpose,
though, of calling attention to the literary hostess amid all her guests.
and Benger had no illusions about what their own parties most lacked:
fine food. Whatever attempts they made to secure newly published
writers could only succeed if those invited were willing to put up with
Benger’s “innocent finger-biscuits, and gentle negus” and Spence’s tea
and muffins, or sandwiches and decanted wine (Martin, 1883: 142; Watts,
1884: 212-13). Everyone knew that “some of the ultramarines
had small incomes," Redding admits, and “it was whispered that
all were to satisfy their appetite before they came” (1858: 336).
But the absence of culinary delicacies could be said to have had the
merit of concentrating minds on somewhat higher matters. Thrilled
at receiving an invitation from Lady Elizabeth Bulwer Lytton, Spence
was not ashamed to state that at her own parties she regarded the talk
as the only worthwhile offering: .".. your parties, with
all their hothouse luxuries [especially the pineapple], quite spoil
me for my own, as in my own humble abode, at my litry réunions,
I can only pretend to purvey food for the mind” (Devey, 1887: 57).
Spence did not in fact like Lady Bulwer Lytton. Only minutes before
receiving this invitation at an 1826 party, Spence described her to
Rosina Wheeler as “dreadful” (52). Benger was not much more impressed
with “that odd, rich old woman," though she had invited Lady Bulwer
Lytton to the party (48). But that year Lady Bulwer Lytton had,
for the first and only time, privately printed a long poem of hers,
The Abbey de la Trappe. She also was mother of the
prize-winning Edward Bulwer. And, not incidentally, she had the
sparkle of rank. For her part, Lady Bulwer Lytton probably dragged
her son east of Brunswick Square to Benger’s house because she was acting
on some long-cherished literary aspirations for herself and for him,
the same that had motivated her to have the poem she wrote at the age
of fourteen put into print nearly forty years later. There was
no way she was going to turn down what was one of the first invitations
she had received partly for the sake of her literary accomplishment.
Lady Bulwer Lytton’s oddness certainly would not have disinclined Benger
to invite her, though she must have managed to stand out amid the turbans
for Benger to remark on it. Rosina Bulwer Lytton relates that
her future mother-in-law arrived at Benger’s in a “morning-dress” of
“dull-red slate” coloured “dingy silk” decked in various necklaces and
bracelets and topped by a “rather crushed... blonde cap with
artificial flowers trampled all over it," her frizzy brown hair
almost hiding her eyes. Rosina’s future husband on first appearance
looked far more attractively striking, with his blonde curls, his cane
and his shirt covered with lace and studs (48).
Mother and son thus joined
what Landon and Rosina used to call the “curious specimens of the literary
menagerie” of Benger’s and Spence’s acquaintance (41).
“Shall I not meet you at Miss Spence’s next Wednesday week?” Landon
writes to Rosina in October 1825.
have written to solicit the honour of the aforesaid lady’s company on
the Wednesday previous to her own show. I have taken it into my
head I could form a very decent menagerie, but really I have not time
to hunt up what would make a regular shilling-a-head exhibition, so
I do not rate next Wednesday above a twopenny sight, but if you would
come, I should forthwith raise the value to sixpence... (142)
These female intellectuals came together again and again partly to satisfy
their curiosity, partly to enjoy the pleasure sanctioned by Benger and
Spence of looking curious themselves. Never mind the hostess’s
boring finger-biscuits; the guests brought food for the eyes as well
as the mind. As the principal records we have of Benger’s and
Spence’s parties, the caricatures of the women there should not rankle
our feminist instincts. Periodicals from the 1820s and 1830s testify
that it was an age fascinated by its “literary characters," when
British readers longed to see pictures of, hear anecdotes about and,
best of all, meet real authors. And the more colourful their personalities,
the better. Reputed eccentricities could only add to the interest
created in the literati, and, anyway, authors in society were
expected to provide some kind of entertainment.
An eccentric dresser in those days, Landon may well not have appreciated
the polished manners and “perfect” clothes of Lady Caroline Lamb which
made her, in Thomson’s words, “the pale and pensive star” of this otherwise
too colourful crew (1860: 2, 184). “The neatness and finish of
her attire was striking, where all others seemed to have dressed extempore;
a streamer there, a feather here” (Thomson, 1846: 353). Between
her visits to aristocratic circles, Lamb attended Benger’s and Spence’s
parties seeking recognition and praise for her literary self, antidotes
to the ignominy she met with for Glenarvon and the lack of appreciation
for her 1820s novels Graham Hamilton and Ada Reis.
Lamb often met Benger and Spence in private as well and probably then
received some of the “soothing sympathy” and “comfort” with which they
were known to be generous (Anonymous, 1833: 367-68; Thomson, 1860: 2:
184). So valuable were the pair to Lamb that she could not be
disenchanted by the inevitable embarrassments. Once, when she
and Benger were talking books on Benger’s sofa, Lamb’s “poodle cur”
pulled out from under the sofa a slipper, a pair of stockings, two handkerchiefs
and more, all of which had to be stepped over by Lamb with “polished
regret” when she left (Redding, 1858: 337).
Spence considered little Lamb her principal lioness and the best advertisement
she could have for making new acquisitions to her circle.
Deprecating herself and home to flatter writers that they would
confer an honour on her by visiting, Spence would then add that Lamb
was coming as well, “whom I honour more for her litry abilities
than her rank, -- though when she condescends to honour it with
her presence, others – of less litry and social pretensions, need not
be afraid to honour my humble abode” (Devey, 1887: 43-44).
How could other writers say no to Spence, when Lady Caroline said yes?
Plus, they had to come just to see Lamb, who herself would not have
objected to being thus used. Redding remarks that “in those days,
Lady Caroline Lamb, Lady Charlotte Bury, and others ... liked to link
the noble and the plebeian together” (1858: 337).
of the writers Spence and Benger drew in were either cubs at the beginning
of their careers or ageing lions on their gentle decline, the sort who
could well do with meeting editors, reviewers and other writers.
Besides Bulwer and editor of the Amulet Samuel Carter Hall, some
of the men who often turned up included William Jerdan, editor of the
weekly Literary Gazette and ever in need of new writers to help
fill its pages; Thomas Kibble Hervey, editor of the Friendship’s
Offering for 1826 and 1827 and author of the popular poem “The
Convict Ship” (1825); and the journalist and friend of master poets,
Henry Crabb Robinson. “A gastronomic celebrity” did frequent Benger’s
salon: Dr. William Kitchiner, described by Thomson as “a useful,
conceited man ... with just and wholesome ideas founded on nature” who
produced the once famous Cook’s Oracle (1860: 2: 184).
After an 1826 party, Robinson comments in his diary that Kitchiner was
“grave and formal ... with a long face and spectacles” and had “no conversation
with him” (Sadler, 1872: 2: 21). The once-popular poet Campbell
and the editor of the Literary Souvenir Alaric Watts also likely
attended a few of the soirées. S. C. Hall cannot forget seeing
Benger at one of
Campbell’s 1820s parties dressed “in a sort of flannel dressing-gown”
(1883: 2: 456).
The women writers at Benger’s were much more interesting for Robinson
than the men. However, like most who wrote of their experience
of these parties, he reported very little of what was actually said.
Robinson records of an 1812 party that he spoke to Jane Porter, author
of the popular historical romances Thaddeus of Warsaw (1803)
and Scottish Chiefs (1810). She impressed Robinson with
her “stately figure and graceful manner," which means he was not
unimpressed – as others were known to have been – by the nun-like hood
she always wore at literary parties to remind everyone that she had
been made a “lady-canoness of the Teutonic Order of St. Joachim” (Sadler,
1872: 1: 201; Bates, 1873: 156-57). Another woman Robinson met
epitomises the notion of the bustling female writer all too pleased
at having put a book into print. “I was introduced to a character
– Miss [Sarah] Wesley, a niece of the celebrated John... . A very
lively little body, with a short round person, in a constant fidget
of good nature and harmless vanity. She has written novels which
do not sell, and is reported to have said to Miss Edgeworth, ‘We sisters
of the quill ought to know one another’” (Sadler, 1872: 1: 201-2).
That these women benefited from meeting their brother editors of the
annuals is evidenced by a quick look in Boyle’s Index to the Annuals:
Webb, Landon, Roberts, the Porter sisters, Benger, Spence, Bulwer, Jerdan
and Campbell all had short works published in Hall’s Amulets,
Hervey’s Friendship’s Offerings or Watts’s Literary Souvenirs
for the years 1826 to 1829. So they gained a little money and
prestige with the readers of annuals, but it is worth considering that
such connections have only made it easier for these writers to be lumped
together in our received literary histories, seen to deserve each other’s
company in society and on dusty library shelves. From their inception
to the present day, the annuals have had to face accusations that their
contents hold little but the second-rate or worse, and the same has
been said of the literary salons of Benger and Spence.
Bulwer’s son wrote that his father felt “contempt” for the “those little
literary tea-gardens which are the resort of second-rate aspirants”
(Robert Bulwer Lytton, 1883: 332). And a 2003 biography of Bulwer
likewise sneers at the “literary demi-monde that clustered together
in second-rate salons," with its “amateur poets like Elizabeth
Spence” – Spence was neither poet nor amateur, as we have seen (Mitchell:
15). Bulwer could be forgiven for not speaking fondly in later
years of the society which introduced him to his future wife.
But when writing before his marital difficulties began, he is funny
rather than mean-spirited as he parodies the intellectual talk at these
“soirées of the savans, and the learned and literary ladies."
In his unfinished novel Greville, for instance, a discussion
of poetry at a similar soirée concludes that since Pope is no longer
deemed a poet, one should be as unlike Pope as possible in order to
be a poet. It is also conjectured that when poetry has progressed
further, verses would so float “on the waves of the soul” that they
were “impossible to read” (1829: 447-48). Greville only
leaves one wanting more.
and Spence must have thought they were promoting a fruitful literary
union when they allowed their soirées to be used as safe places for
Rosina Wheeler and Edward Bulwer to continue to meet, once Bulwer’s
mother had declared Miss Wheeler an unsuitable match for her son.
Despite the fact she had not published a thing, Rosina seems to have
been let into the literary coterie on the strength of her beauty, clever
talk and friendship with Landon. Benger opined that she saw in
Rosina the wild brilliance of Lady Delacour from Edgeworth’s Belinda
(Devey, 1887: 141). Such was the importance placed on Rosina’s
conversation that she soon was sufficiently encouraged to form an “intention
of magazine-writing” and to co-write Spence’s novel, Dame Rebecca
Berry, set in the court of Charles II. Rosina discloses to
a friend in January 1826 that Spence, having “all of a sudden
discovered herself ... not bad enough by fifty per cent to frame speeches
and situations for the heartlessly depraved and insinuating [Charles]
Sedley ... has requested me to do that part of the work for her” (Sadleir,
1933: 84). Rosina was flattered by the request and could not resist
taking up her pen. She probably took little or no time to decide
herself a better writer than Spence, whom she defended to Bulwer as
“an exceedingly kind-hearted well-meaning person – and inoffensive,
when she lays aside the ‘litry,’ that is, doffs the ‘foolscap uniform
turned up with ink,’ and returns to the Mufti of muffins and marmalade”
(Devey, 1887: 61). Rosina managed to succumb to Spence’s flattery
yet pretend to wish the flatterer devoid of her literary pretensions
– but then Rosina would not have received the full weight of Benger’s
and Spence’s admiration, as did her friends Lamb and Landon. Rosina
had to endure years of maltreatment from her husband before she was
motivated to become an author in earnest. The many novels she
and Bulwer separately produced vilifying each other ironically vindicate
Benger’s and Spence’s great literary expectations for the couple’s relationship.
As Landon moved up the social scale and away from the turbaned pair,
she used to entertain others with witty accounts of Spence’s and Benger’s
literary parties, and so impressed was the (first-rate) Thomas Moore
that he was willing to bet Landon could rival Jane Austen if she were
to write novels (Thomson, 1860: 1: 202). Accordingly, Landon’s
first novel Romance and Reality includes a lengthy satire of
a literary party hosted by a mature woman writer where only “dry biscuits
and drier sandwiches were handed round” (1831: 155). She notes
how writers were introduced to one another, using only “credentials
in the shape of ‘such a sweet poem’ – ‘such a delightful tale’."
How many times Landon found herself being introduced by Spence or Benger
as the “young lady whose extraordinary talents have delighted all the
world” we can only imagine, but I think it fair to presume that she
never again experienced quite such flattery from fellow writers (130-31).
Landon could mock the flattery only because she could not forget it.
Thomson speculates that “the bas-bleu buttering system” practised
by Spence and Benger helped to feed Landon’s ego to the extent that
she was willing to break completely with her mother and live independently.
“She began to feel her powers, and to reject control. Society
spoiled her . . . by that pride in her talents that intoxicates”
(1860: 1: 200-02). I would only add that some of Landon’s finest
writing is founded on her rejection of society’s control.
Spence nor Benger appears to have received the tributes of gratitude
and kindness from writers that they deserved in their declining years.
Growing increasingly ill and poor as she slipped toward her 1827 death,
Benger in particular felt that reciprocation for her generous motives
had been neglected (Aikin xii). No woman writer seems to have
credited Benger with assisting her career, yet, besides the parties,
she would have tried to help several directly, just as she tried to
do for the unnamed woman about whom she writes to Alaric Watts on 31
July 1826: “I shall be happy to transmit you a contribution from
an accomplished friend, who is at once Paintress, Poetess and Tourist,
and will, I flatter myself, prove an acquisition” to Watts’s Literary
Souvenir. She herself would be happy to write for the Souvenir
next year, Benger adds, “unless I should be banished from life,
and consequently consigned to oblivion” (Watts, 1884: 206-7).
Benger was realistic. She died within six months, and oblivion
has all but buried her name and work ever since.
She seems to have understood that unglamourous literary hostesses who
invited all kinds of authors would not receive the recognition they
were due. With her Memoirs of the late Elizabeth Hamilton,
Benger tried to make an exception to that rule. It begins by describing
the nature of the loss that Hamilton’s death occasioned for the group
of writers who regularly visited her.
happy circle exists no longer; that little society, composed of various
elements, is dissolved; they who sympathised so cordially in admiration
for one object, are for ever divided; the prosperous and the gay form
new associations, whilst the melancholy and the unfortunate are replunged
in the gloom of care, or left to the desolation of solitude and neglect.
Those whom the literary
hostess most helped went onto bigger books and lavish parties, while
those who most needed her help might well have had to give up writing
because, in her absence, no more chances for publication came their
a new writer trying to make conversation with a magazine editor was
not going to pause to think about the significance the party itself
might have for her career nor how isolated she might feel without it.
Benger’s and Spence’s soirées were the first to teach Landon that “society
is a market-place, not a temple: there is a bargain to be made
– the business to be followed; novelty, curiosity, amusement, lull all
the strong passions to sleep, and, in their place, a thousand petty
emotions hurry about, making up in noise what they want in importance”
(1831: 156-57). All that was remembered of Benger’s and Spence’s
evenings was the show and its stars, or so it would seem from contemporary
accounts written by those whom Benger would call “the prosperous and
Contrast Landon’s comments with Spence’s idea of the hostess’s house
as a temple to Literature or Benger’s idea of the guests experiencing
heart-felt attentions, then departing “from the social feast with expanded
faculties of benevolence and enjoyment." With her literary
parties, Benger saw herself as working against the cruelties of the
marketplace, providing a site for friendships to form and perhaps later
flower into those bargains of business. In her 1820 Memoirs
of John Tobin, Benger asserts that “the system ... in modern times,
is, to the poet, worse than penury or scorn, or censure or contempt:
it is the blank of silence, the darkness of despair. It is not
often that a mind of poetical sensibility is endowed with the faculty
of stoical endurance” (152-53).
Benger’s and Spence’s salons, poetical sensibilities probably did compete
well enough with writers’ need to shine, and lifelong relationships
did form that remained mutually beneficial to careers. But it
did not sound very witty to admit as much, and consequently the literary
salons of the two spinsters have been held up for little besides mockery
in the last century by literary historians who did not take the trouble
to weigh all of the words about Benger and Spence left behind by their
guests. Nor do they seem to have paused to reflect on the significance
of belonging to a group of women writers who took pleasure in being
a little outlandish for the sake of their art. I think it fair
to surmise that no sooner did women like Anna Hall and Letitia Landon
feel that they belonged, than they felt they could rise above these
coteries and do great and mighty things. That is to say, Benger’s
and Spence’s flattery worked.
and Spence used the traditionally subordinate role of the feminine hostess
to subordinate themselves as writers before other women writers, as
well as men. If Benger and Spence had been less eccentric and
more assertive, and if they had been better writers with reputations
that no amount of self-abasement could put into the shadows, then they
probably would have been less successful at gathering writers together
and sending them off full of confidence and merriment. The literary
service Benger and Spence performed as hostesses should not be deemed
less important than their publications and perhaps, especially in the
case of Spence, that service was of a more lasting importance.
Women writers of the 1820s needed the respect, encouragement and contacts
that Benger and Spence doled out with their tea and muffins. Their
uncommon ways helped to bring women writers into greater acceptance.
Cynthia Lawford (Independent
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independent labour of the scholar or scholars credited with authorship.
The material contained in this document may be freely distributed, as
long as the origin of information used has been properly credited in the
appropriate manner (e.g. through bibliographic citation, etc
Cited and Consulted
Aikin, Lucy. 1827.
“Memoir of Miss Benger." Memoirs of the Life of Anne Boleyn,
Queen of Henry VIII By Elizabeth Benger. 3rd ed.
London: Longman. iii-xii.
“Biographical Sketch of Miss Elizabeth Isabella Spence." La
Belle Assembée 29: 92-94.
Anonymous. 1833. “Miss Elizabeth Spence, No. 25."
The Annual Biography and Obituary, 1833. Vol. 17. London: