09 January 2018
The bizarre life of
the Victorian writer who
changed Kilkee for ever
I was writing last week about the Victorian bandstands in Dun Laoghaire, Co Dublin, Bray, Co Wicklow, and Kilkee, Co Clare, and discussed how the first bathing box erected in the West Clare resort in the 1840s was known as the Lady Chatterton.
It was named after the traveller and writer, Georgiana Lady Chatterton (1806-1876), later Mrs Dering, who gave the box to the town soon after her Rambles in the South of Ireland during the year 1838 was published in two volumes in 1839. The book brought the attention of Victorian travellers to Kilkee, helping to develop its appeal as a 19th century holiday resort.
Lady Chatterton was born Henrietta Georgiana Marcia Lascelles Iremonger on 11 November 1806 at 24 Arlington Street, Piccadilly, London. She was the only child of Canon Lascelles Iremonger, a prebendary of Winchester Cathedral and chaplain to the House of Commons, and his wife Sarah (Gambier), a sister of the inept Admiral James Gambier (1756-1833), Lord Gambier, known as ‘Dismal Jimmy’ by the men under his command.
When she was still only 17, Georgiana married an Irish landowner, Sir William Abraham Chatterton (1794-1855), 2nd Baronet, of Castlemahon, Co Cork, on 3 August 1824. Her only sister, Catherine, had already in 1805 married Walter Jones (1754-1839) of Drumsna, Co Leitrim, and Corke Abbey, Bray, Co Wicklow. He was MP for Coleraine (1798-1809), Governor of Co Leitrim (1805) and a nephew of the 1st Marquess of Waterford.
The Chattertons were a large, extended landed family, and the title of baronet had been given to Sir William’s father, Sir James Chatterton (1750-1806), Keeper of the State Papers.
In the first years after their marriage, Georgiana and William divided their time between Ireland, England, Italy, and Germany, mixing in literary and social circles. In London, she met Robert Browning, Charles Dickens and William Wordsworth, and her diary records regular meetings with the Duchess of Kent and Queen Victoria at Tunbridge Wells.
Sir William appeared anonymously in Georgiana’s first book, Aunt Dorothy’s Tales, which was published in two volumes in 1837. This was followed two years later by Rambles in the South of Ireland. It was so successful that the first edition was sold out within a few weeks of publication in 1839.
Her Rambles in the South of Ireland was a Victorian travelogue, vividly describing the beauty of the Irish countryside and popular scenic locations. International travel became increasingly popular during Queen Victoria’s reign, and Ireland became popular with oil painters, poets, naturalists and enthusiasts of riding, hunting and fishing.
She expressed a high moral tone and an earnest desire to do good. But, while her style was well-meaning, it was non-judgmental and superficial. She was full of enthusiasm, but she knew she was writing for the growing tourism market and so did not dwell on the squalor and destitution she found.
She visited and sketched the ruins of the Desmond castle, the banqueting hall and the Hellfire Club in Askeaton, Co Limerick, and the ruins of the Franciscan friary or abbey, including the church, and where she found ‘the cloisters are still very perfect; small, but beautifully finished.’
She found Askeaton an ‘interesting place’ and said the fact that it ‘is not often visited by strangers, is shewn by the fact there being no beggars in the town, no guide, no old man or boy on the look-out for a penny.’
The places Lady Chatterton visited included West Cork, Killarney, Dingle, the Skellig Islands, Limerick, Castleconnell and many parts of Co Clare. She described town and country life, including the lives of the Irish peasants, but without dwelling on the realities of poverty. She wrote about ‘the interesting, intelligent, grateful Irish peasantry’ in their cottages and cabins, with rooms lined with china presses and wardrobes and bookstands filled with religious books.
At Dromoland Castle, she found ‘a splendid abode, now nearly finished … a magnificent place erected without ruining the possessor. Sir Lucas O’Brien lives there in a style of hospitable splendour, which does credit to his good taste and kind heart: the rich are welcome, and the poor taken care of.’
She made a detour to visit the ruins of Quin Abbey. ‘It stands in a green plain near the clear river. The cloisters resemble those of Askeaton, and are in as good preservation; indeed, the whole building, except the roof, is entire.’ For her, Ennistymon was ‘a primitive little place in a mountain valley.’
In Kilkee, she had ‘infinite pleasure in exploring the grass-grown and interesting nooks of deserted Ireland – in arriving at inns where they do not know by rote the whole list of one’s wants; where the landlady’s face expresses a refreshing mixture of surprise, awe, and pleasure, in which cannot be detected that cold, confident, sum-total-of-a-bill sort of look, which is visible on the blazé countenances of foreign innkeepers.’
From Kilkee, she travelled on to Loop Head, Carrigaholt, Kilrush, Ennis and Killaloe, where she stayed in Clarisford House. She records that ‘Killaloe is chiefly indebted for improvements to Bishop Arbuthnot. He restored the cathedral, which he found nearly a ruin. The long bridge, over the impetuous Shannon, was impassable when he came to the see, seven of the centre arches having been carried away; owing to the Bishop’s exertions, they were replaced by the five large arches which now exist, making the bridge one of fifteen arches. He also rebuilt the Episcopal palace, which is now a most comfortable house; and adorned the grounds and gardens.’
Meanwhile, her brother-in-law’s ancestral home at Headfort in Drumsna, Co Leitrim, had fallen into ruins and Anthony Trollope’s first published novel was written while he was staying in Drumsna in 1843, inspired by the ruins of Headfort. Trollope wrote in his diary: ‘While I was still among the ruined walls and decayed beams I fabricated the plot of The Macdermots of Ballycloran.’
Lady Chatterton’s husband, Sir William, derived most of his income from his rentals in Co Cork. But the Great Famine in 1845-1851 put an end to this source of income, and the couple moved to a smaller house at Bloxworth, west of Poole, in Dorset, where they lived until 1852.
They Sir William’s young niece, Rebecca Dulcibella Orpen (1830-1923) to live with them. Her father, Dr Abraham Orpen (1779-1836) of Cork, was an illegitimate son of Major Edward Orpen (1741-1817), born 16 years before his parents married; her mother, Martha Chatterton, was Sir William’s sister. Rebecca was a six-year-old when her father died in 1836; although her mother continued to live on until 1857, Rebecca became a ward of her uncle and aunt. Her second cousins included Raymond d’Audemer Orpen (1837-1930), later Bishop of Limerick and Ardfert (1907-1921), and Arthur Herbert Orpen, father of the Irish artist Sir William Orpen (1878-1931).
For William and Georgiana, Bloxworth was a retreat to a frugal existence. But there she realised from the sales of earlier books that writing could provide a financial solution to their problems. She soon became a publishing success one again. Her resolve soon paid off, and in 1852 they moved with Rebecca to Rolls Park, Chigwell, Essex, the home of the Harvey family.
But Georgiana’s return to fame and her new income came too late for Sir William. He died on 5 August 1855. The family title then passed to his brother as third baronet, General Sir James Charles Chatterton.
Meanwhile, in 1859, Rebecca had fallen in love with a dashing ex-Guardsman and rector’s son, Edward Heneage Dering (1827-1892), who had recently resigned his commission in the Coldstream Guards. Edward Dering was also a novelist, and was the younger son of Canon Cholmeley Edward John Dering (1790-1848), Rector of Pluckley, Kent, and a chaplain to King William IV and Queen Victoria; Canon Dering was a grandson of Sir Edward Dering, 6th Baronet (1732-1798), MP for New Romney.
Rebecca was now 29, but social convention, if not the law, left Edward feeling obliged to ask formally for Georgiana’s permission to marry her niece.
However, the 53-year-old widowed Lady Chatterton had a hearing impediment; she misheard the request and gladly accepted what she heard as a surprising proposal for marriage from a man almost half her age. Dering was too gallant to correct her mistake and found himself engaged to a lady old enough to be his mother.
Georgiana and Edward were duly married in Saint George’s Church, Hanover Square, London, on 1 June 1859. After their marriage and against all conventions, Georgiana continued to use her former title, writing under the name of Lady Chatterton, although she was no longer entitled to the title and that her sister-in-law was now Lady Chatterton.
If Rebecca Orpen was initially downcast and disappointed, she soon attracted the attention of Edward Dering’s closest friend, Marmion Edward Ferrers (1813-1884), the last old squire of Baddesley Clinton Hall, a dilapidated and moated mansion between Solihull and Warwick.
Rebecca and Marmion promptly married and moved into Baddesley Clinton. There she blossomed as a prolific and talented amateur artist, working in both oil and watercolour, and much of her work remains in the house to this day. Rebecca and Marmion were soon joined at the house by Georgiana and Edward. All four entered a domestic arrangement that had the neighbours gossiping.
The four friends – known as ‘The Quartet’ – formed an unlikely kind of Bloomsbury Group, retiring from the world to paint portraits, write novels and wrap themselves in 17th century costumes, playing out the roles they imagined were appropriate to such a great house, revelling in art, history and religion. Within their close circle of friends, the two women had their own pet names – Georgiana was Gintle and Rebecca was Pysie.
At least two Catholic martyr-saints, Robert Southwell and Nicholas Owen, had once walked the corridors of Baddesley Clinton. There the Quartet created a Catholic chapel on the first floor, with Rebecca supplying the paintings and Georgiana the leather hangings, decorated with birds and flowers. There are so many portraits of Marmion and Rebecca, Edward and Georgiana at Baddesley that the visitor might imagine they are still living there.
A copy of the portrait of Cardinal Newman by Sir John Everett Milais, in University Church Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
The local vicar condemned them from the pulpit, and the Victorian equivalent of the tabloid press had a field day. But Cardinal John Henry Newman became a friend of the family and he received Edward Dering and Rebecca and Marmion Ferrers into the Roman Catholic Church in 1865. He continued to visit Baddesley, and there is a portrait of him by Rebecca in the lower landing.
In an exchange of correspondence with Georgiana, Newman also shared privately his grief at the death of his lifelong friend, Ambrose St John, who had lived with Newman as his companion for 32 years.
Early in 1875, Georgiana privately published a one-volume selection of works by Aristotle she had translated from the Greek, and she sent a copy to Newman.
Georgiana still wavered for a while about becoming a Roman Catholic. But in the course of a lengthy correspondence with William Bernard Ullathorne, Bishop of Birmingham, on doctrinal points, including the Real Presence, receiving Communion under both kinds, the decrees of the Council of Trent, clerical celibacy and Papal infallibility, she was received into the Roman Catholic Church at the end of August 1875 by an Irish priest, Father Joseph Kelly of Warwick.
When she wrote to Newman to tell him of her decision, he replied from the Oratory on 20 September 1875:
‘My dear Lady Chatterton,
‘You will easily understand how I rejoiced to read your letter this morning. You will be rewarded abundantly, do not doubt it, for the pain, anxiety, and weariness you have gone through in arriving at the safe ground and sure home of peace where you now are.
‘I congratulate, with all my heart, the dear friends who surround you upon so happy a termination of their own anxieties and prayers.
‘May God keep you ever in the narrow way, and shield you from all those temptations and trials by which so many earnest souls are wrecked.
‘This is the sincere prayer of yours most truly,
‘John H Newman.’
That year, she published her final book, a translation of The Consolation of the Devout Soul (With an Appendix of The Holy Fear of God), a spiritual guide by an Italian priest Father Giuseppe Frassinetti and first published in Italian in 1852.
Her correspondence with Bishop Ullathorne continued for some weeks. But she died at Malvern Wells in Worcestershire on 6 February 1876 at the age of 69.
Meanwhile, thanks to Georgiana’s generosity, Marmion Ferrers had refurbished his once-crumbling mansion. He died there in 1884.
But this was not the end of a story with all the elements of one of Lady Chatterton’s own romantic novels: 13 months after Marmion Ferrers died, a marriage delayed by 30 years took place in the small convent chapel at Baddesley Clinton. Edward Hering and Rebecca Marmion at last entered the final story of their lives, hand-in-hand. Edward died in 1892, Rebecca lived into her 90s and continued to live at Baddesley Clinton, the last survivor of ‘The Quartet.’
Following Edward’s death in 1892, the writer Fletcher Moss visited Baddesley Clinton. In his Pilgrimages to Old Homes (1912), Moss described the moment he was greeted at the door by a priest in a Benedictine habit: ‘In the quaint epauletted livery of black is a butler whose mien is that of a family servant – not one who is bought with mere wages, but a survival from the days when servants were serfs or chattels, bred and reared on, and part of, the estate.’ Speaking of Rebecca, he goes on: ‘In thorough harmony with the place is the Lady of the Manor, a handsome courteous elderly lady whose time is spent in works of charity, and who comes to say a few words of welcome not only for this day but also for another.’
An account left by her last servant, described life in the house in the 1920s, although it could easily have been the 1820s. ‘There was no electric light or lamps, only candles, rather trying in the winter, but we got used to it and managed quite well, but at times it was quite scary,’ she wrote. ‘Our day was spent doing the usual chores. The kitchen was one of the sights of the Hall, fitted out with lovely copper saucepans and their lids arranged all round. It took two maids two mornings to clean – hard work.’
‘The parish priest came to lunch twice a week,’ she wrote, ‘on Mondays and Fridays, a strict fish day, and a sirloin of beef was cooked on a big spit in front of the open log fire, with wood from off the estate.’
Rebecca died on 12 September 1923, aged 93. All four members of ‘The Quartet’ are buried beside each other in the local churchyard.
Next: Did Lady Chatterton leave a literary legacy?
Burke’s Irish Families, s.v. ‘Orpen’.
Burke’s Peerage, various editions, s.v. ‘Chatterrton’.
Dictionary of National Biography, vol 10, p 143.
Frances Clarke ‘Chatterton, (Henrietta) Georgiana,’ Dictionary of Irish Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press for the Royal Irish Academy).
Lady Chatterton, Rambles in the South of Ireland (2 vols, 839).
EH Dering, Memoirs of Georgiana, Lady Chatterton (1878).
Virginia Blain, Patricia Clements, Isobel Grundy (eds), The Feminist Companion to Literature in English (1990).
‘Letters from the Coast of Clare, No VIII,’ Dublin University Magazine, September 1841, pp 336-345.
Rolf Loeber and Magda Loeber, A guide to Irish fiction 1650-1900 (2006).
Goddard Henry Orpen, The Orpen Family, (Frome and London: Butler & Tanner, for the author, 1930).
Joyce Sugg, Ever Yours Affly: John Henry Newman and his Female Circle (Gracewing, 1996).
John Sutherland, The Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction (1990).