The Extraordinary Life of Lady Anne Barnard
By Stephen Taylor
388 pp. W.W. Norton. $28.95.
Independent and adventurous, Lady Anne Barnard was a Georgian-era London socialite whose legacy included roughly a million words in memoirs, letters, journals, diaries and poems, most of which are unpublished. “Too colorful for propriety,” in the words of her biographer Stephen Taylor, Anne’s papers take the reader back “to another time and other worlds — to the era before revolution and war, when conflict was limited to debates over philosophy and ideas, to the conversations of men such as David Hume and Adam Smith.” Moving among the key social and political circles of her day, Lady Anne exchanged witticisms with Samuel Johnson and was very close to the Prince of Wales, playing an unwilling role in his secret marriage to Anne’s friend Maria Fitzherbert. Anne’s first published poem was praised by both William Wordsworth and Sir Walter Scott. The Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan admired her in poetry: “And Lady Anne whom so beauteous we style / As quite free of affected fine airs.”
But enough name-dropping. Born in 1750 in an austere castle high in a cold, craggy corner of eastern Scotland, Lady Anne Lindsay was the eldest of the Earl of Balcarres’s 11 children. Raised between the castle (where, when she wasn’t raiding her father’s library, she was digging up turnips and jogging around “on the back of a pig”) and Enlightenment Edinburgh, Anne left home for London in 1771.
In Edinburgh, she had become ensnared in some tricky situations involving marriage proposals that were refused, then accepted under duress, then refused again. Unsurprisingly, she gained a reputation as a “coquette,” a sobriquet that caused her and her family much pain. In the beaux quartiers of London, word spread of this marriageable young woman’s arrival, but while she received many proposals, she refused them all. She was, Taylor tells us, in pursuit of true love: “It pained and bewildered her to find herself ‘the victim of that most erroneous opinion, that it is impossible to have a gay mind and a feeling heart.’”
She was known for her charm and her eccentric taste in fashion. One contemporary who observed her at a party noted that her linen apron had two “very conspicuous” holes: “I am sure by their appearance that they were in it before it was washed, but I suppose she thought it would not look well to have them darned and flattered herself that it would be taken for an accident that had just happened.” When she finally did marry, it was at 43 and the groom was a handsome, debt-ridden army officer 12 years her junior. It was very much a love match; together they could, as she wrote, “make the pot boil.”
Observations like this whet the appetite for more from Anne herself, but in Taylor’s narrative we don’t hear quite enough of her voice. Instead, he has plowed through the six volumes of her memoirs on our behalf, repeatedly warning that they are “chatty” and digressive — a bit like a fond nephew apologizing for a dotty aunt. He proves an amiable and sympathetic guide to Anne’s life, but one wishes to hear more of the story as she herself might have chosen to tell it. Then again, I suppose we should be happy that we’ve been given even this much access to her papers, since she left behind strict instructions that her memoirs were never to be published.
Over the course of Taylor’s biography, a picture emerges of a clear-eyed yet self-doubting woman, one who was resolved to live life on her own terms but worried about her right to set those terms. So calling her “defiant” might be a bit of a stretch, a ploy to create a
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