“As for what the women really thought, we must try The Journal of Clarissa Trant (1800-1832), edited by her granddaughter C.G.Luard and published by The Bodley Head in 1925 …. Clarissa Trant is a poppet, both in speech and appearance. She is neither a prude nor too coy, and sparkles on for more than three hundred large pages.”
The quotation comes from the Scottish-American crime novelist, John Dickson Carr. In 1950 he published Fire, Burn, a historical murder mystery set in 1829, which concludes with an appendix discussing his sources. Both Fire, Burn and Clarissa Trant’s Journal are now lost in that great slough where so many good books have come to rest. Thanks to the internet and www.abe.com, however, I tracked down a second-hand copy of The Journal in Australia. Once you read it you understand not only Carr’s enthusiasm for the book as a source but also his obvious affection for its author.
The diary, which is meticulously edited, describes Clarissa’s life until her marriage. Her father was a distinguished Irish soldier. In the Peninsular War, he was seconded to the Portuguese, won several victories against the French, became the Governor of a province, and rose to the rank of lieutenant-general in the Portuguese Army. His subsequent career was less glorious, however, for the Portuguese were dilatory about paying the pension they had awarded him, and the British Army failed to give his merits the material recognition they deserved. Like many another half-pay officer, General Trant was obliged to spend much of his time on the continent after the war with Napoleon came to an end. There were three of them in the little family that zigzagged its way across Europe, from Portugal to France, from Germany to Ireland. Clarissa’s mother died when she was five, but she had a brother, Tom (who later joined the army and served with distinction in Burma).
Clarissa never says a single word against her father, though their life together cannot always have been easy. On the contrary, she writes of him always with love and respect. There are many glimpses of an intimacy between them, of episodes of unforced kindnesses, of mutual confidence — there’s one picture, for example, of her sitting by his bed, curling her hair and telling him the progress of her love affairs.
The Trants may have been poor but they were well-connected and well-bred. Wherever they travelled, they met old friends and made new ones. Clarissa received what she called “a hothouse education” which left her fluent in six languages. She was also an accomplished musician and a confident artist. The Journal includes some of her formidable reading lists, as well as her comments on her reading (“Read Goethe’s Memoirs, very German”).
But it was not an orthodox upper-middle-class upbringing. Clarissa faced, almost as routine, the inconveniences of continental travel. In January 1815, for example, the family set out from Lisbon to Marseille in a small, dirty Danish ship. First they ran into a severe Mediterranean storm and were struck by lightning. Next they sighted what seemed to be what seem to be an Algerine corsair, and the prospect of slavery loomed. Clarissa and her governess were hidden in a secret compartment which the captain reserved for contraband goods. They were left them in suspense for several hours in the evil smelling darkness until the corsair was discovered to be a Spanish felucca.
There are frequent reports of other problems, by land and sea:
“Near Trave we met with a most serious accident which had nearly terminated all our travels. Horse fell down in a fit, the Postilion nearly killed and the two leaders, taking fright were dashing headlong to the brink of a steep precipice when they were stopped by the fall of the second horse, or rather by the merciful interference of Almighty God.”
Fortunately the General was a man of resource. On one occasion he cowed an insolent Italian postilion by dazzling him with his decorations. He could deal with more serious threats, too:
“My Father had a most providential escape of being murdered by an intoxicated Voiturier, who actually drew a knife from his bosom in our presence and rushed upon my Father, whose presence of mind and coolness always seems to come with the danger. He quietly seized an un-loaded pistol, which most providentially lay within his reach, and by making the most of his apparent advantage succeeded in frightening the fellow out of the room.”
Side-by-side with these adventures are the minutiae of the Trants’ daily life — the constant travelling, the lodgings, the ever-changing towns and cities, the meals, the social occasions. The Trants moved easily in many circles. For example, Clarissa records them at a royal wedding in France, at a grand ball given by the Duke of Wellington, meeting the Queen of Portugal at a private soirée in London. When they were staying in Rome in 1825, they hired an apartment at a cardinal’s palace. One evening their landlord paid an unexpected call.
“My curls were newly frizzed in a tremendous hurry, the chairs all set in order round the room and I was seated in the Italian fashion with my hands before me ready to receive the great Man, who was already spoken of as a successor to the present Pope… his pleasant, gentle petites manières soon put me at my ease, and His Eminence and I were in a few minutes chatting away on the Sopha like old friends.”
But Clarissa did not, on the whole, care for foreign travel. She had been taught to deplore “the sad mirth of a foreign Sunday”. She was most at home in England, with the network of Anglo-Irish families to whom she was related. Certain names recur again and again — her godfather, Lord Mount Sandford, for example, the Earl and Countess of Cork, and their family, and the Fitzgeralds. Several Portuguese aristocrats were also among her closest friends. These wealthy connections frequently asked the Trants to stay with them, and their hospitality eased the day-to-day grind of making ends meet.
It was from them that Clarissa had a glimpse of the settled family life which her father was unable to give her. Time and again she betrays her yearning for a comfortable domestic routine: “The pleasantest part of the day at Marston is about two hours before dinner when Lady Cork, her sons and I meet in her dressing room and gossip until the toilette hour arrives.”
Her friends gave her hospitality: she gave them good company. If the pages of The Journal are any guide, she was an astute observer of those around her:
“I was doomed to spend another nonsensical morning varied by the arrival of Lady T. And her three gawky daughters. As usual, she was scarcely seated before she announced her determination of not allowing her girls to marry until after her death. Tell that to the Marines.”
She could also be sharp in judgement, even about those she liked: “Elle est un espèce d’homme manqué — une femme grenadière — versed in horseflesh and agriculture and more inclined to sit with the gentleman than to retire with the ladies — au reste very good-natured to me.” But
she was never a snob – which was as well, for the Trants’ lack of money brought them into contact with all sorts and conditions. In 1824, travelling by mail coach (“as best suited our finances”), they fell in with a travelling companion at Worcester: “a good-natured unaffected man with a thread-bare coat, a shabby hat and a cultivated mind. I think he must have been a schoolmaster.”
As Clarissa grew older, she fought (often in vain) against the temptation to be witty at others’ expense. “In the evening we all went to a Promenade ball at Cove; a vulgar concern. I declined being introduced to anyone, and amused myself; very wrong! with Mrs A and the girls in quizzing the barbarians.”
Increasingly, the Lady was at war with the Christian. The antagonism between the viewpoints was particularly acute when the Trants lived in Ireland, where they rented a cottage for some time. Clarissa was half ashamed and half proud of her Irish blood. On one occasion she refers to herself as a Paddy, and it is clear that she was uncomfortably aware of the traditional English disdain for the Irish. But she did not fit in with the social round in south-west Ireland. She disliked what she thought of as the rough, provincial nature of many of the people she met: “The young men obliging and respectful, but so unpolished, so coarse, so fond of punning! Oh, when will the youth of Ireland improve!”
One reason The Journal is so readable is the sheer variety of the material that Clarissa Trant records in it. Shortly after Napoleon landed from Elba, she and her father visited the place where Napoleon landed on his return to France and walked over to
“…the Bivouaque, in which his little band had spent the first eventful night after their landing — the marks of the fires were still visible.Napoleon’s first care had been to secure all the post horses and even the postilions of Cannes, in order to prevent the news of his arrival, from being too rapidly circulated, and our post boy was of the number. He had spent the night in the Bivouac with the Soldiers, and was able to point out to be identical tree under which Napoleon slept, in a sitting posture, enveloped only in his Military Cloak. He woke frequently, looked about him and having ascertained that all was safe, slept, or pretended to sleep…”
The Trants liked to see what Clarissa calls “the lions” — which she uses to mean not only the people of interest, but also the objects and places. She paid several visits to Hannah More, an elderly religious writer of great influence.
On one of the early visits, in 1816, the old lady spoke much of Dr Johnson:
“…with whom she was intimately acquainted. She told us that on one occasion when he was pressed by a lady to eat a particular dish on the plea that ‘a little would do him no harm,’ he growled out: ‘Madam, abstinence is a very easy virtue, but Temperance is a very difficult one.’ “
As Hannah More advanced into her eighties, her memory declined, and her mind became impaired. There was an exquisitely embarrassing moment when Clarissa visited her in 1829, in company with Lord Mount Sandford and Archdeacon and Mrs Pakenham. Hannah More was violently opposed to Catholic Emancipation, and was disposed to blame this subversive measure on the Duke of Wellington, then Prime Minister. Unfortunately she had forgotten that the Archdeacon was the Duke’s brother-in-law.
“‘I understand he is a sad profligate in his private life,’ said Hannah More, drawing her chair nearer to Archdeacon Pakenham as if in the expectation of hearing an assenting reply. The Archdeacon said nothing. I would gladly have given Hannah More’s foot a friendly squeeze for she was indeed treading upon tender ground, but I was the youngest and most insignificant person present, and how could I venture? ‘Is it not true, sir,’ she repeated in a loud voice, ‘that he is a shocking profligate character?’ ‘Why really, my dear madam,’ said Archdeacon Pakenham, whose politeness had been tried to its utmost limits, considering our relative positions, it would not become me as his brother-in-law to enter into these particulars.’ I really felt for poor Hannah More at this moment. She had the good sense not to make apologies… but gave one little start, her fingers resumed their tremulous nervous motion of twirling and she only said, ‘ He is a great man, sir, a very great man, certainly.’ “
Clarissa rarely gives the impression of straining for literary effect: she wrote, one imagines, as she thought. What really interested her, and brings out her best writing, are human beings in all their wonderful tangle of motive and action. But she was capable of bringing out the details of a scene if she wished. The January of 1830, for example, which the Trants spent in London, was exceptionally cold:
“We have been so long shut up in our little drawing room, with very few interruptions from visitors that I begin to feel as if we were in the cabin of a Greenland whaler bound to the North Pole. The houses looked like icebergs, the streets like frozen channels, and the snow boys employed to clear the roofs, like so many bears or esquimaux.”
One of the incidental pleasures of The Journal is Clarissa’s healthy taste for the sensational. The Trants’ visit to Rome in 1826 was particularly rich in melodrama.
“All Rome is talking of a dreadful circumstance which occurred on Saturday. A young Prelate of six and twenty was murdered while in the act of undressing by a servant whom he had discharged. So little was the culprit suspected that he remained two days in the House before he was discovered. He refused to confess until he had been chained for two nights, in solitary confinement to the bedstead on which the body of his murdered master had been stretched — fit company for the murderer!”
Clarissa does not seem to doubt the guilt of the 19 year-old servant, but she does describe and condemn the barbarous manner of his execution:
“An Italian gentleman who was speaking to me on the subject very justly observed that this barbarity could not produce a good effect upon the people. It either hardened them in their cruel propensities or irritated their minds against the Pope, whom he described as a very ‘Nero in pontifical vestments’ “.
A few days later, a count from Perugia was found guilty with his second wife of having imprisoned a daughter by his first wife in order to secure her fortune. The poor girl had been shut up in a dark room from the age of seven until she was twenty-one, when a servant revealed her plight:
“She was allowed nothing but the coarsest food, her hair and nails never being cut she had all the appearance of a Monster when liberated by the hands of Justice from her confinement. She is now in a convent where they are endeavouring to give her some rational ideas, but what can be expected from the degraded intellect of such a wretched being?”
Sometimes the excitement was closer to home. In 1829, Clarissa and a group of friends went to a large party (“a regular London rout”) at Kingston House.
“Little did my poor friends Bess and Maria Fitzgerald know that at the very time we were amusing ourselves at Lady Listowel’s together, their brother Maurice had made an attempt to cut his throat under the influence of a brain fever.”
Men liked Clarissa. Despite her lack of fortune, she had at least twelve suitors, most of them men of wealth and position. No doubt the intelligence and kindness she shows in The Journal were among the reasons for this. To judge by the book’s frontispiece, a colour reproduction of a portrait of her in her late twenties, she was also a beautiful woman. Few of these suitors seem to have touched her deeply, or to have affected her devotion to her father and brother.
Two, however, were different.
The first was Major Cameron whom she met in Bath, in 1824. He was “by far the most gentlemanly man I’ve met with for a long time. He was left for dead on the field of Waterloo and has lost his arm. He acted the part of a preux Chevalier to me in the course of the evening.”
The Journalis reticent about the details, but he seems at last to have proposed and to have been accepted. Then disaster struck in the form of Cameron’s father, a wealthy general who insisted that Clarissa should bring with her a healthy jointure. The younger Cameron withdrew.
“I exerted myself to the utmost to be cheerful and I succeeded — still it is not possible that I should not feel. I dread of the thought of returning to Ballyhonoon where every spot will remind me of that happy time when I believed Colonel Cameron to be in every respect worthy of the high opinion I had formed of him.”
Apart from this, she does not complain. Nor does she mention Cameron again in The Journal, except once in passing some years later. There is a wealth of feeling in that silence.
Clarissa was convinced that she was doomed to die an old maid. But Providence had other plans for her, though these were not immediately obvious. In October 1828, she and her father made the crossing from Ireland to Wales in a steam packet “with several hundred pigs for our fellow passengers, au quelle musique!” The following day, however, she recorded that “I never spent a pleasanter day on board a steam packet, thanks to our rencontre with a most agreeable,well-informed and at the same time truly religious young clergyman, a Mr Bramston…”
She liked him immensely, and found him entirely the gentleman, but she was worried that she had frightened him off with “my ugly yellow face”. She imagined his thinking “that his fellow passenger was a pleasant conversable sort of wild Irish girl but that it was a pity I was so old and so ugly.”
Three years later, Clarissa met Bramston again at Lord Mount Sandford’s. “I found him as I expected very pleasing and gentleman-like. We shall perhaps meet again.”
Matters progressed with extraordinary rapidity — reading between the lines, it seems likely that Lord Mount Sandford and Lady Cork had something to do with this: certainly, within a month Clarissa and her clergyman were engaged.
“I wish I had one good feature in my phiz to offer him in return, but I have only my teeth, and they will soon be gone, besides his are quite as white!”
The following January she was married from the Corks’ house, and there was no longer any need for a diary.
“The rest of my little history is written on the tablets of my heart.”
So, in a sense The Journal has a happy ending. Clarissa got what she wanted. Though her marriage was happy, she did not live to enjoy it very long.
Before her death in 1844, her brother died, followed a few years later in 1839 by her father. Her last years were haunted by illness, which she attributed to the strain of early life. She edited some of The Journal in later life for the benefit of her children but, where possible, her granddaughter and editor transcribed the originals.
Whatever the source, though, the impression the writer gives of herself is the same. Clarissa was attractive, sharp and morally fastidious. She doesn’t whinge. Her charm reaches out to the reader.But to call her a poppet is misleading as well as condescending: it would be more accurate to say that she is like a Jane Austen heroine who has strayed into a Thackeray novel and does not altogether like what she finds there. If ever a book was crying out to be republished, it is this one.
Andrew Taylor’s latest novel is The Silent Boy (HarperCollins). You can find him on Twitter @andrewjrtaylor