Academia

A London season

Yesterday I had one of those amazing, serendipitous archival experiences that researchers romanticize (with good reason). As I was searching Britain’s National Archives database for correspondence to and from Charles Hanbury Williams—an eighteenth-century diplomat whose letters I read at the Lewis Walpole Library last year—I found this entry: “An ‘engagement’ diary. Of a member of the Capell family (probably Frances, daughter of Sir Charles Hanbury Williams): the very concise entries give a complete picture of a fashionable young lady’s social round, her studies and reading, visits to church and illnesses and the births, marriages and deaths of her acquaintances.”

As it so happens, the dissertation chapter I’m finishing up (my final chapter!) is all about the London social world and its representation in women’s novels of the day. This diary (meaning what the English call a diary and we would call a day planner) sounded fascinating, and it was at the Hertfordshire Archives, not too far by train from where I’m staying in North London. I had never used the local archives system in the UK, and I decided to make a day of it.

The diary was more than I could have asked for, especially since it fits perfectly with this chapter as well as with my second book project, which is about the development of specialized book formats related to the concept of improvement. When I got to the archives (after getting on the wrong train and ending up in a different part of Hertford than I had originally planned—all in a day’s archival adventure), there was a tiny, neatly packaged octavo volume waiting for me.

The book was even cooler than I could have imagined. Frances Hanbury Williams does seem to be the author, based on references to her “Uncle Hanbury” and to the timing of the return of “Papa” from abroad in 1753 (Frances married William Capel, 4th Earl of Essex, in August 1754—hence the diary’s appearance in the Capel papers in Hertford). Frances used a pre-printed diary, titled The Gentleman’s and Tradesman’s Regular Accompt-Book for the Pocket, to record her social engagements from January to September 1753. The book includes a year’s worth of blanks to enter incoming and outgoing monies, appointments made and kept, and “Memorandums and Observations.” Each opening covers one week. Frances reconfigured the blanks provided to enter her mornings’ activities on the left and evenings’ on the right.

What’s particularly interesting about this is that, while the printed aspects of this book emphasize its usefulness for gentlemen and merchants, the final page includes an advertisement for “The Ladies Compleat Pocket-Book,” a “A Memorandum-Book for every Day in the Year.” Despite the existence of a ladies’ version of the very book she was using, Frances appropriated a form that trumpeted its suitability for “every Man’s purpose” to record an upper-class young woman’s social schedule.

And what she recorded provides a fascinating window onto the high society of the mid-eighteenth century. Frances apparently lived in a whirlwind of activity, generally making or receiving at least three or four visits a day and attending multiple balls, assemblies, and concerts per week. If you’re familiar with the eighteenth-century London novel, all the landmarks are there: Ranelagh, Kensington Gardens, the Foundling Hospital, reading The Spectator, playing cards, hearing private concerts. She even “lookd at Saturn thro the Telescope.”

A few images are below. I’m excited to think more about how this evidence of daily social activity reflects on the novels that spent so much time discussing that activity and its impact on young women’s lives.

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