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A Group of Scottish Women
Lady Louisa Stuart (1757 - 1851)


“Friendship, esteem, and fair regard,
And praise, the poet’s best reward!” –

These were the gifts bestowed by the lovely Matilda upon her faithful Wilfred in Sir Walter Scott’s poem of Rokeby. The author himself had probably a wider experience of popular applause and appreciation than the majority of mankind. In nothing surely was he more blessed than in those friendships which played so agreeable a part in his life. From early days, when he was rapidly winning his laurels in the field of letters, to later years when he struggled so gallantly with an overwhelming burden of debt and misfortune, Scott could always find courage and comfort in the unswerving loyalty of a large circle of devoted friends. Of Sir Walter’s literary friendships none is perhaps of greater interest than the intimacy which the novelist had formed with Lady Louisa Stuart before he reached the age of five-and-twenty, and which was only terminated by his death in 1832.

Scott was well accustomed to the adulation of his women friends; indeed, he may at times have found it somewhat tedious. But an appreciation of his talents founded upon a knowledge of literature so intimate and extensive as that of Lady Louisa could not fail to prove agreeable to him. That he set high store by it is clear from the fact that he made a practice of submitting much of his work to the discriminating eye of one whom he described as the “best critic” of his acquaintance.

Lady Louisa Stuart was born on August 12, 1757. She was one of a large family of five boys and six girls, the children of John, Earl of Bute, Prime Minister to George III. Lord Bute was a statesman whose unpopularity with the English public is notorious. It arose from a number of causes. In the first place he had been the constant and almost the sole companion of King George before that monarch ascended the throne; and the lot of a court favourite in those days might occasionally be a pleasant but was never a popular one. To Lord Bute the Heir-Apparent made a practice of unbosoming his inmost thoughts in the course of those long walks which they were in the habit of taking together. The two friends would ride daily side by side in the Park. They spent much time in an intimate companionship which could hardly fail to arouse the jealousy of those who were favoured with somewhat less of the royal society. Then, too, the fact of his being a Scotsman exposed Lord Bute to the hatred of the majority of the English people, at a time when the rebellion of 1745 was still fresh in the popular memory. He was the possessor of a very handsome person, of which advantage, we are told, he was not insensible. His enemies even went so far as to assert that he spent many hours every day in contemplating the symmetry of his own legs in the looking-glass. He might no doubt have employed his time more profitably, but the study of one’s figure – especially if it be a fine and shapely one – is a failing hardly sufficient in itself to deserve the odium of the populace. But the Prime Minister indulged in other habits which were more calculated to evoke the harsh criticism of the world. He enjoyed a higher place in the affection of the Princess-Dowager of Wales then a purely Platonic friendship commanded or strict propriety permitted. His clandestine nocturnal visits to Carlton House were the subject of general comment, and provoked the famous mot of the future Duchess of Kingston, at that time Maid of Honour to the princess, who replied, when reproached for some irregularity of conduct, “Votre Altesse Royale sait que chaqu’un a son But!” [Memoirs of Sir Nathaniel Wraxall, p.321.]

Lord Bute, indeed, provided endless material for the gossips and scandal-mongers of society. The authors of political squibs and satires lampooned him freely; the caricaturists of the period found him an inspiring subject for their scurrilous pencils. [All who were in any way connected with him were mercilessly attacked. When the Adelphi was built upon the Thames Embankment, the brothers Adam, who had by Lord Bute’s influence been appointed architects of the new buildings, did not escape the satire, and were thus ridiculed in the Foundling Hospital for Wit, (vol. iv.):-

“Four Scotchmen by the name of Adam,

Who kept their coaches and their Madam,”

Quoth John, in sulky mood to Thomas,

“Have stole the very river from us!” ] On the occasion of his first levee, some member of the huge crowd that blocked the street inquired what was the matter, and George Brudenel, a well-known wag, at once answered, “Matter enough! There’s a Scotchman got into the Treasury and they can’t get him out!” [A Century of Anecdote, by J. Timbs.] But if Lord Bute was a never-ending delight to the satirist and a bugbear to the public, in the circle of his own home he seems to have inspired respect and affection, though periodic bouts of ill-temper made him at times inaccessible even to his own children.

Lady Louisa’s mother was the daughter of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, whose letters are as well known as her famous quarrel with Pope, and for whose epistolary style a modern critic has claimed a higher order of literary excellence than that attained by either Lord Chesterfield of Horace Walpole. [Men and Letters, By Herbert Paul, p.184.] From her grandmother Lady Louisa undoubtedly inherited the gift of expressing herself on paper with a vivacity and humour which made her correspondence most welcome to her contemporaries, and still enable it to retain a perennial interest for the readers of to-day. In some introductory remarks which Lady Louisa wrote in 1837 for an edition of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s works, she says of her grandmother’s style that, “though correct and perspicuous, it was unstudied, natural, flowing, spirited; she never used an unnecessary word, nor a phrase savouring of affectation; but still she meant to write well, and was conscious of having succeeded.” [Introductory Anecdotes to the Works and Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.] Much the same criticism might be written on the subject of Lady Louisa’s letters. But she was clearly not conscious of the success she achieved, and the masculine note, which sounds so clear throughout the grandmother’s correspondence, is replaced by a far tenderer tone in that of the granddaughter.

In her nursery days she devoted much of her leisure to attempts at jotting down her thoughts and opinions. Lady Mary Coke, the youngest daughter of John, Duke of Argyle, in her Memoirs, recalls her first meeting with Lady Louisa, “a very extraordinary Girl, who has certainly a great genius,” when the latter was only ten years old. “I stayed with Lady Bute until two o’clock,” wrote Lady Mary in 1767, “and was much impressed with her youngest daughter, who showed us the beginning of a French novel written by herself, and informed us She was going to write a play, that the plan was fixt, and was to be taken from a Roman Story.” [The Letters and Journals of Lady Mary Coke, edited by the Hon. J.A. Home, vol. i. p.174. (David Douglas: Edinburgh, 1889.) “Jugurtha” was the hero of this play, which does not appear to have been completed.

Lord Bute retired from public life in 1763, when Lady Louisa was five years old, and devoted himself to horticulture and other rural pursuits, perhaps more suited to his talents – certainly more agreeable to his tastes. Science and botany were his particular hobbies, and he published at his own expense an illustrated work in nine volumes on the subject of British plants, only twelve copies of which were printed, at a cost which is said to have reached £10,000.

In due course Lady Louisa was introduced by her devoted mother to the beau monde. Lady Bute was a welcome figure in the social world of London. Beneath an exterior which Fanny Burney describes as being forbidding to strangers, she possessed “powers of conversation the most entertaining and lively,” when among intimates. Under her chaperonage Lady Louisa attended the soirées, routs, and other social functions to which a girl of her rank was sure of an invitation. These she enjoyed with all the healthy delight which such entertainments inspire in the heart of any normal debutante of high spirits. But she was far too broad-minded to be content with the trivial round of social gaieties which satisfied so many of her young companions. In the privacy of her own room in her father’s magnificent house in Berkeley Square she found time to keep herself in touch with the literary interests of the day, as well as for a voluminous correspondence with her friends. As a girl, her powers of observation were extraordinary, and in a manuscript notebook she has described with much humour that select circle of which she was so brilliant a member. Among the sketches of London society which she then made is an amusing account of a party given in the salon of Mrs. Montagu, the leader of the famous Blue-Stocking Society. Mrs. Montagu – the “Noble Lady” so perfectly described in her old age by Mrs. Carlyle, herself perhaps the best letter-writer in our language – was distinguished for her benevolence to poor chimney-sweepers for whom she provided annual banquets, and who were certainly not among the least deserving objects of her wide philanthropy. She had a large fortune, a fine house, and a good cook. Besides this she was a very clever woman. It was natural, therefore, that she should shine as a hostess. Acquainted with almost everybody of distinction, she made a point of entertaining all authors, critics, artists, and musicians of note, as well as eminent lawyers and a sprinkling of the clergy. She was gracious enough to extend her hospitality to the minor lights of the literary profession, who were much honoured by her patronage. Distinguished foreigners were sure of a warm welcome in her house, and it was impossible to attend one of her parties without having the pleasure of staring at a celebrity of some kind or another. But there was in her system of inviting guests a deplorable lack of one requisite, namely, of that art of kneading the mass well together, and art which is possessed by women far the intellectual inferiors of Mrs. Montagu. “As her company came in, a heterogeneous medley,” says Lady Louisa, “so they went out, each individual feeling himself single, and (to borrow a French phrase) embarrassed with his own person; which might be partly owing to the awkward position of the furniture, the mal-arrangement of tables and chairs. Everything in that house, as if under a spell, was sure to form itself into a circle or semi-circle.” Lady Louisa thus describes a typical party at which she was a guest. “Mrs. Montagu having invited us to a very early party, we went at the hour appointed and took our stations in a vast half-moon, consisting of about twenty or twenty-five women, where, placed between two grave faces unknown to me, I sate, hiding yawns with my fan, and wondering  at the unwonted seclusion of the superior sex. At length a door opened behind us, and a body of eminent personages – the Chancellor, I think, and a bishop or two among them – filed in from the dining-room. They looked wistfully over our shoulders at a good fire, which the barrier we presented left them no means of approaching; then drawing chairs from the wall, seated themselves around us in an outer crescent, silent and solemn as our own. Nobody could be more displeased at this than the mistress of the house, who wanted to confer with them face to face, and not in whispers. But there was no remedy; we must all have died at our posts, if one lady had not luckily been called away, whose exit made a gap for the wise men to enter and take possession of the fireplace.” [Gleanings from an Old Portfolio, vol. iii. p.61.]

There is, as lady Louisa suggests, nothing in the world so depressing as a social gathering of which the elements are inharmonious or unsympathetic. Nor is anything so fatal as an attempt to give an entertainment of what is called a “mixed” description. The lions of the day are furious at being asked to meet one another. They sit and glare at the floor in sullen silence. Like the animals in Bombastes Furioso, “the last lion thinks the first a bore,” and not all the blandishments of a seductive hostess can induce them to roar in unison. The artistic world has no wish to meet the society world; the society world finds nothing to say to the artistic world. The effect of combining the two results in a gloomy form of conversazione from which everybody hastens away with a sigh of relief.

Lady Louisa was fortunate in possessing a keen sense of humour, that saving quality which makes so many tedious situations tolerable. She did not make fun of her friends, but found much harmless amusement in the many idiosyncrasies of those whom she met in London society. There was a number of extremely peculiar people about in those days, especially in the ranks of the old ladies. Among these whose eccentricities particularly appealed to Lady Louisa was Lady Margaret Compton, whom she described as “an old maiden lady with a formidable wig, one of the regular quadrille party,” who was noted for shedding tears when she lost at cards, “not for the loss itself,” as she declared, “but for the unkindness of the cards.” [Journal of Lady Mary Coke, vol. iii. p.136, note. This old lady was the cause of one of the most brilliant of Walpole’s many bon-mots. She had been bemoaning the fact that she was “as poor as Job.” “I wonder why people always say ‘As poor as Job,’ and never ‘As rich,’” asked her friend Lady Barrymore; “for at one time in his life he had great riches.” “Yes,” said Walpole, “but then they pronounced the name differently and call him Jobb!” (See A Century of Anecdote, p.40.)]

Lady Louisa was an earnest and kindly student of human nature. She cherished a profound devotion for the world at large. She might truly have said of herself, as did Abou Ben Adhem, “Write me as one who loves his fellow-men.” Consequently she was never bored; she could obtain pleasure from the most incongruous society; her soul was filled with a universal tolerance which ensured for her a well-deserved popularity and a warm welcome wherever she went.

At a comparatively early age Lady Louisa conceived a romantic affection for her second cousin, Colonel William Medows, who was the son of Philip Medows of Thoresbury, Notts, and of Lady Frances Pierrepoint (sister of the 1st Duke of Kingston). But the course of a first love seldom runs smoothly, and that of Lady Louisa was no exception to the rule. Lord Bute considered the young man so ineligible that, in accordance with the immemorial custom of stern fathers, he put a speedy stop to the affair, and the youthful couple were forced to part in tears. Colonel Medows appears to have been the only man who ever kindled the spark of love in Lady Louisa’s breast, and his enforced dismissal was a source of very deep disappointment to her. “He seems to have that independent spirit which fortune cannot depress or exalt,” she wrote in 1784. “He is really a character unlike anything but himself, au reste, the most agreeable man I ever met with, and one of the most humorous.” [Gleanings from an Old Portfolio, vol. i. p.301.] It would no doubt be pleasant to be able to add that the gallant colonel pined away from grief and disappointment, entered a monastery, and registered a vow of perpetual celibacy. Truth, however, compels the admission that he did nothing of the sort. He did not die of a broken heart, as would have been a very right and proper thing to do, but shortly afterwards consoled himself by marrying another lady. [He was eventually appointed Governor of Madras, where he greatly distinguished himself, was made a General and K.C.B., and died in 1813.]

Lady Louisa’s first love affair proved also to be her last, but, although she does not seem to have contemplated matrimony very seriously in later years, it was not the lack of admirers that impelled her to remain single. She was never, it is said, a beautiful woman, but possessed to an unusual extent that elusive quality called “charm,” which as a rule proves fully as attractive as the more easily defined gift of physical beauty. Fanny Burney has drawn a miniature pen-portrait of her which helps to explain her popularity. “Lady Louisa Stuart,” she says (writing in 1786), “has parts equal to those of her mother, with a deportment and appearance infinitely more pleasing: yet she is far from handsome, but proves how well beauty may be occasionally missed when understanding and vivacity unite to fill up her place.” [The Diary and Letters of Madame D’Arblay, edited by Charlotte Barrett, vol. iii. p.237. (1842).] It is not therefore difficult to understand that several of the foremost men of her time should have laid siege to the heart of so charming a woman, though it may be less easy to appreciate Lady Louisa’s decision to remain a life-long spinster. Like many other women of wit, she was hard to please, and might have explained her reasons for remaining unmarried in the words of Becky Monteith, a celebrated beauty, who, on being asked why she had remained single so long, replied: “Ye see, I wadna hae the walkers, and the riders gaed by!” A woman’s taste becomes more fastidious as she grows older, and by the time she has reached an age at which, in the opinion of her friends, she should be content with any marriage, before it be too late to marry at all, she has grown so particular as to the necessary qualifications of a suitable husband that her requirements are hardly likely to be satisfied. This seems an unfortunate provision of Nature, usually so tactful in controlling the laws of supply and demand, and is the reason why many of the most delightful women remain single until all their admirers have grown tired of waiting and are married to less fastidious wives.

Lady Louisa waited on and on, in the hope that a second Colonel Medows would appear upon the scene. Failing, however, to find a love worthy to take the place of her first, she could not bring herself to be content with the second-best suitors who in turn presented themselves to her notice, but whom she smilingly dismissed one after another. Her first admirer was Henry Dundas, then member of Parliament for Midlothian, who was already a married man, but had been legally separated from his wife. His attachment to Lady Louisa caused her family a good deal of needless anxiety. Dundas was too gallant and handsome a man to be altogether ignored, but fortunately his devotion did not last very long, nor does it ever appear to have prompted Lady Louisa to any feeling deeper than that of quiet amusement. Another suitor who, for a time at least, proved very attentive, was John Charles Villiers, second son of the 1st Earl of Clarendon. This ubiquitous admirer hovered round Lady Louisa persistently, and dogged her footsteps on every possible occasion. At each rout which she attended he would place himself ostentatiously at her side. He was ever the first to open the door of her coach, or to assist her in alighting from her chair. In fact, he overwhelmed her with homage and admiration. She would not have been human had she failed to appreciate his exquisite manners, or to be flattered by his importunity. Lady Bute, too, encouraged her daughter to consider this match more seriously, and Lady Louisa herself gave the matter much careful thought. The advantages of so suitable a marriage were many and obvious, and it says a great deal for her strength of mind that she was able to forego the privileges and comfort it would secure. But she finally decided that a “love match without any love,” as she termed it, was “but a bad business,” and determined to remain single all her life sooner than make a match upon such conditions. Vainly did her best friends assure her that a spinster is forgotten and starves in a garret, while “two people of fashion never starve together”; vainly did her relatives speak of the ravages of time and the proverbial miseries of a solitary second childhood. Lady Louisa’s independent spirit revolted against the idea of a loveless marriage, the danger of solitary starvation was not one that she had any reason to anticipate, and a spinster she remained to the end of her days; nor does she ever seem to have had reason to regret her persistent decision to renounce matrimony for good and all. [The following extract from one of Lady Louisa’s letters expresses her views upon the subject very clearly: “I desired her [Miss Herbert, sister of Henry Herbert, afterwards Earl of Carnarvon] to pluck up a spirit and say, as I was determined to do for the future, instead of I can’t and I shan’t, I  won’t marry. She told me a story I thought good enough. Lady Caroline Montagu, afterwards Lady Queensberry, was persuading an old friend that had been her sister virgin to marry somebody who, she owned, would not have done for her formerly, but whom she ought to think now a very good match. ‘What!’ said the other, ‘and do you think I have waited so long to take up with him at last?’ I like this way of thinking mightily. To be sure, waiting long in all other cases gives one a right to a better thing than one expected at the beginning, but I doubt one should not get anybody to allow such a claim as this.” (Gleanings from an Old Portfolio, vol. i. p.293).]

There was yet a third man of fashion with whom the name of Lady Louisa was for a time connected. On the death of Anne, Lady Strafford (daughter of John, Duke of Argyll), the gossips of society at once arranged a match between Lady Louisa Stuart and the newly-bereaved widower. The approaching marriage of this ill-assorted pair was announced in every paper, and provided the busybodies with as fertile a topic of conversation as do the annual engagements of peers and actresses, which help to stimulate the small talk of a modern dinner-table. One-half of London society smiled knowingly at the other, and declared that it had long suspected something of the sort. The other half retorted by exclaiming, “What did I tell you?” and wisely shook its head. Both were equally delighted at having found a fresh source of gossip. Such a match was not very generally approved, however. “So Lady Louisa Stuart is going to marry her great-grandfather, is she?” said Lady Di Beauclerk to a friend. “If she can hold her nose and swallow the dose at once, it may do well. But most people would be apt to take a little sweetness in their mouths afterwards.” [Memoirs of the Argylls. (Included in the Journal of Lady Mary Coke,) vol. i. p.xlix.] Lady Louisa was, indeed, quite unwilling to swallow the dose, which was equally averse to being swallowed. She had always looked upon Lord Strafford in the light of a kind but elderly uncle, rather than a possible suitor. He, too, was thoroughly opposed to the alliance, and the whole affair ended as speedily as it had begun, without occasioning anything more serious than a certain measure of natural annoyance on the part of the two principals. After the usual nine days of wonder, the matter was allowed to recede into the nebulous background whence it had originally sprung, and fashionable society turned its attention to some more amusing, but doubtless equally unreliable, scrap of misinformation.

For nearly twenty years, from her first appearance in London society to her father’s death in 1792, Lady Louisa met and enjoyed the acquaintance of most of the interesting characters of her time. She was always her mother’s constant and devoted companion. The two were everywhere acclaimed with the enthusiastic welcome to which their mental qualities and brilliant conversational powers entitled them. “Nobody is more agreeable than Lady Bute,” says Mrs. Delany in one of her letters. “Her natural and improved good sense and knowledge of the world is a never-failing fund when she has spirits to exert her talents,” [“…You know so much of Lady Bute,” she wrote in 1774 to Bernard Granville, “that I need say nothing of her agreeableness, her good sense, and good principles, which with great civility must be always pleasing.” – Autobiography and Correspondence of Mrs. Delany, vol. v. p.36. (1861.)] which, however, was not always the case. Fanny Burney used to meet Lady Bute and her daughter frequently in the house of her friends, “both,” as she says, “in such high spirits themselves that they kept up all the conversation between them, with a vivacity, an acuteness, an archness, and an observation on men and manners so clear and sagacious” as to add very considerably to the evening’s entertainment. She describes a typical occasion when she found them at the house of Mrs. Delany (in 1786) on their return form Bath, “full  fraught with anecdote and character, which they dealt out to their hearers with so much point and humour (she says) that we attended to them like a gratified audience of a public place.” [Diary and Letters of Madame D’Arblay, vol. iii. p.463.]

The death of Lady Bute, who only survived her husband for two years, was a sad blow, not only to her favourite daughter, but also to a large number of friends. “Lady But is a great loss to me,” says Horace Walpole in one of his letters; “she was the only remaining one of my contemporaries who had submitted to grow old and to stay at home in an evening.” [Letters of Horace Walpole, vol. ix. p.450.]

At her mother’s decease Lady Louisa settled in a house in London, No. 108 Gloucester Place. Here she resided until the day of her death, the centre of a circle of intimate and devoted friends. During her father’s lifetime she had made the acquaintance of many interesting personages in the world of art and letters. Of these, their talents or peculiarities, she was never tired of speaking. One of the most curious was John Hoole, the poet and translator of Tasso and Ariosto, “and in that capacity,” as Sir Walter Scott remarked, “a noble transmuter of gold into lead.” [The Journal of Sir Walter Scott, vol. i. p.204.] Him she had met in early life when, as a clerk in the India House, with a snuff-coloured suit of clothes and long ruffles, he paid occasional visits to Lord Bute. Hoole made it a custom to complete so many couplets every day, habit making it light to him, “however heavy it might seem to the reader,” [Lockhart’s Life of Scott, p.341.] and his quaint appearance was one of Lady Louisa’s earliest recollections.

Her acquaintance with Walter Scott, of which the seeds were sown at Dalkeith Palace, the seat of the Duke of Buccleuch, ripened into friendship at Bothwell Castle, where in 1799 the novelist was staying with Lord Douglas and his wife, formerly Lady Frances Scott, with whom he had long been on terms of the warmest affection. Ten years later we hear of the poet reading his Stag Chase to Lady Louisa when they were staying together with the Duke of Montrose at Buchanan House. As the years went by, this friendship between Scott and Lady Louisa deepened and strengthened, and these kindred spirits forged a bond of mutual sympathy and common tastes that linked them together in an intimacy which was to prove a source of lifelong satisfaction to both. The two friends corresponded frequently and freely. “I would hardly write this sort of egotistical trash to any one but yourself,” says Sir Walter in 1817. His correspondence with his other acquaintances contained many references to Lady Louisa. She “unites what are rarely found together,” he writes in a letter to Mrs. Hugh Scott of Harden, “a perfect tact, such as few even in the higher classes attain, with an uncommon portion of that rare quality which is called genius.” [Gleanings from an Old Portfolio,  vol. iii. p.195.] She possessed, as he declared, the art of communicating criticism without giving pain, an art by no means easy to acquire, and as rare to-day as it was a century ago. No doubt Sir Walter often acted upon her advice, knowing it to be that of a friend whose judgement could be relied on as impartial and unprejudiced, who was not to be ranked among those “good critics,” who, as Robert Browning says, “stamp out a poet’s hope.” Scott was certainly most appreciative of Lady Louisa’s approval of his own works. On the back of one of her letters to him, in which she praised his poem, the field of Waterloo, he wrote, “This applause is worth having!” But Lady Louisa’s criticism was too genuine to partake of the nature of flattery. She did not agree with Goldsmith that “who peppers highest is sure to please,” and gave Sir Walter credit for too much taste and discernment to relish what she called “all sugar and treacle.” This is clear from a number of her letters to the novelist, in which she lays her finger tactfully but none the less forcibly upon the weak spots of his literary fabric. Writing on the subject of Rob Roy in 1818, “The beginning and end,” she says, “I am afraid I quarrel with; the mercantile part is heavy, but some part always must be so to give what painters call relief, and beginnings signify little. Ends signify more. Now, I fear the end of this is huddled, as if the author were tired, and wanted to get rid of his personages as fast as he could, knocking them on the head without mercy.” [Familiar Letters of Walter Scott, vol. ii. p.11] All of this Sir Walter took in good part, and was duly grateful.

He also for his part evinced a profound interest in Lady Louisa’s literary work. In 1802 he tells Miss Seward (perhaps the most tiresome and verbose of his friends as well as the most prolific of his correspondents) the well-known story of “muckle-mouthed Meg,” which he proposed to versify in the form of a Border ballad, “in the comic manner.” Upon this very theme Lady Louisa had based a poem entitled “Ugly Meg,” which Scott delighted in:-

“Peace to those worthy days of old

Cast in our modern teeth so oft,

When man was, as befits him, bold,

And woman, as she should be, - soft.

 

When worth was all that parents weighed,

And damsels listened not to lies,

And suitors wished a lovely maid

To bring no dowry but her eyes.”

The fabulous tradition round which these verses were written was that of an ancestor of Sir Walter, a certain Sir William Scott of Harden, who, after plundering the estate of Sir Gideon Murray of Elibank, was captured and brought in chains to the castle of his victorious enemy. Sir Gideon resolved to hang the young Knight of Harden (as Sir William was called), but at the thoughtful and typically maternal suggestion of his wife, gave the prisoner a choice between death and marriage with Meg, the ugliest of Lady Murray’s three unmarried and singularly unprepossessing daughter.

“Hang Harden’s Chief! A precious jest!

A batch’lor, youthful, comely, rich!

You with three maiden daughters blest,

Ill-favoured as a nightmare each.

 

“Unbind his hands and fetch a friar;

I sleep not till the thing be done.

He takes his choice, and I acquire

The Knight of Harden for my son.”

Meg was so exceptionally unalluring, however, that the young knight positively declined the honour of her hand.

“Stay! Leave me thus for ever bound!”

The captive in a panic cried,

Or make me turn a millwheel round,

Ere yon hobgoblin be my bride”;

and it was not until the rope was about his neck that he reluctantly consented to change his mind, preferring life in the noose of matrimony to death in a more material halter. So the knight of Harden and “meikle-mouthed Meg” were duly wedded, and, no doubt, “lived happily ever after.” [As James Hogg says, in another metrical account of this story, given in his Mountain Bard:-

“So Willie took Meg to the forest sae fair,

An’ they lived a most happy and social life;

The longer he ken’d her, he lo’ed her the mair,

For a prudent, a virtuous and honourable wife.

An’ muckle gude blude frae that union has flow’d,

An’ mony a brave fellow, an’ mony a brave feat;

I darena just say they are a’ mucklemou’ed,

But they rather have still a gude luck for their meat.”

Lady Louisa treated this story so felicitously that Scott was wont to declaim her verses to his friends, and declared in a letter to Southey that “half his fame as a minstrel-reciter” depended on this “very clever ballad.”

They were living, however, in an age when it would not have been considered dignified or decorous for an earl’s daughter to dabble in literature, far less to publish her writings. And in one of Lady Louisa’s letters to Sir Walter she expresses indignation at an unfounded report which was being circulated to the effect that she was bringing out a book of verse. “It is really too hard upon a poor snail,” she says, “to be dragged by the horns into the high road, when it is eating nobody’s cabbages, and only desires to live at peace in its own shell.” [Familiar Letters of Walter Scott, vol. i. p.108.] Scott had stolen a copy of “Ugly Meg” from Lady Louisa, who implored him to put it in the fire and thus avoid any danger of its publication. Sir Walter, however, declined to destroy the poem, strongly protesting his innocence of having started the rumour which had annoyed Lady Louisa so much. “I regret,” he wrote, “I am not the Knight for whom it is reserved to break the charm which has converted a high-born and distressed lady into a professed authoress. I have no doubt it will soon dissolve itself,

‘For never spell by fairy laid,

With strong enchantment bound a glade

Beyond the bounds of night.’” [Ibid., p.112.]

Most of Lady Louisa’s literary work is unfortunately hidden away in volumes privately compiled for the eyes of relatives or descendants. Mention has already been made of her “Introductory Anecdotes” to Lord Wharncliffe’s edition of the Letters and Works of Lady Mary Montagu, which she illumined with the same facile and delightful style already displayed in the Memoir entitled “Some account of John, Duke of Argyll, and his family,” which she had written ten years earlier. How brilliantly and charmingly she could write may be gathered from her correspondence, much of which has fortunately been preserved for posterity. In this age of sixpenny telegrams and halfpenny cards, letter-writing is practically a lost art. We no longer sit down and compose lengthy essays upon topical subjects for the edification of absent friends. We are content to scrawl a few hasty words on a half-sheet of notepaper instead. In return we receive a picture-postcard adorned with a view of some foreign cathedral in which we do not take the slightest interest, and inscribed with a few slipshod and meaningless sentences scrawled in evident haste in an almost illegible handwriting. But if we have little time or inclination to emulate the more laborious methods of our ancestors, we can still appreciate the skill, the wit, and observation which combined to make the labours of such perfect correspondents as Byron, Edward Fitzgerald, or Madame de Sévigné a source of endless delight to successive generations. Private letters are a sure gauge to character, and from those of Lady Louisa we can form a fairly just opinion of the personality of this charming woman. She was, I cannot help thinking, one of those women whom nature has designed to be an aunt. Not, be it said at once, that narrow, bigoted type of maiden aunt, dear to the heart of the humorist and no one else, who lives in a suburban villa surrounded by a menagerie of exceptionally overfed and underbred pets; but the kindly tolerant aunt whom schoolboys adore, who does not confine her generosity to the giving of good advice, not take every occasion of remarking that “it was not so in her young days.” Celibacy did not have the effect of narrowing Lady Louisa’s horizon, for no one ever had a broader outlook upon life than she. Her sisters sought her counsel in times of trouble; her friends ever found comfort in her ready sympathy. In he nephews and nieces, and grand-nephews and grand-nieces, she took the deepest interest; it was for their edification, indeed, that she undertook that history of the Argylls, which she regarded as a true labour of love. She was universally adored by the younger generation. Her youthful relatives could always be sure of her interest and appreciation, and she was ever a patient listener. Mothers must occasionally disapprove; but aunts do not labour under the same burden of responsibility. They can be sympathetic when perhaps they should be severe. Into her kindly ear the “heirs of all the ages” poured the tale of their ambitions, their loves, their troubles, and she helped them or comforted them, and sent them away happier for her advice. Her own life was not altogether a happy one. “She has, God knows, been tried with affliction,” said Sir Walter Scott, “and is well acquainted with the sources from which comfort can be drawn.” Her only serious love affair brought her nothing but misery and disappointment. “Fye upon Cupid,” she once wrote, “the nasty little devil has used me always ill.” [Gleanings from an Old Portfolio, vol. ii. p.27.] She would not have been human and a woman had she never suffered from that instinctive consciousness of failure which assails the heart of every woman who resigns herself to perpetual spinsterhood.

She lived to an extreme age which cannot be reached without suffering the loss of many dear friends. Her sisters, to whom she was devoted – Lady Jane Macartney, and Caroline, Lady Pontarlington, to whom she addressed most of her correspondence, being her especial favourites – predeceased her. Her greatest friend, Lady Ailesbury, [Lady Anne Rawdon, daughter of the 1st Earl of Moira.] who humorously styled herself “Crazy Jane,” and of whom Lady Louisa wrote that “without positive beauty, she had the charm of countenance, grace, figure, and altogether something more captivating than beauty itself,” died in 1813, after being one of the chief objects of her life for many years. She survived Walter Scott by a quarter of a century.

It may truly be said that she was never called upon to perform any acts of heroism; but has not a great philosopher declared that to live decently at all requires heroic thoughts? And Lady Louisa’s life was indeed worthy of the famous name she bore. By the example of her cultivated mind she affected her own generation profoundly. The memory of her unselfishness and the sweetness of her disposition is still a heritage precious to her descendants. She was of those who at heart are eternally young, an “old maid” in name alone, with none of the asperity and intolerance usually (and wrongly) attributed to old maids. Her outlook upon life was broad and kindly; there was about her a human and personal touch that had in it something of the maternal. “Blest to the closing years of that long life with the full and unclouded use of extraordinary faculties, admired by the most eminent of her time for her lively genius and extensive literature, she was beloved and venerated, by such as had the privilege of approaching her nearly, for the tenderness of her heart and the purity, piety, and humility of her powerful mind.” From her Epitaph.]

When Lady Louisa died in 1851, at the age of ninety-four, having long outlived her own generation, there passed away a familiar and interesting figure, truly representative of all that was best in the social life of a bygone age, a type of that “perfect gentlewoman” for whom, to use her own expression, she always had an “old-fashioned partiality.”


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