Fraser, Duncan; Hadfield, Andrew, eds. Gentry Life in Georgian Ireland: The Letters of Edmund Spencer (1711-1790). Cambridge. Legenda, Modern Humanities Research Association. 2017. x + 284 pp. ISBN 978-1-910887-14-1. £75, $99 hardback.
Gentry Life in Georgian Ireland: The Letters of Edmund Spencer (1711-1790) is a wellspring that offers scholars a number of useful perspectives, but especially that of the ‘insecure lower end of the property-owning classes in eighteenth-century Ireland’ (16). The collection consists of 120 letters written by Edmund Spencer, the great-great-grandson of poet Edmund Spenser, who had settled in southwest Ireland toward the end of the sixteenth century. The difference in spelling helps distinguish between the two Edmunds. Apart from one letter in 1732, after which there is a nine-year gap, the letters span the dates of August 1741 to June 1762. Most are written to Francis Price, a wealthy gentleman originating from the Anglo-Irish gentry but living for the duration of the correspondence near Wrexham in Wales, while also maintaining properties in Ireland and developing important land holdings in Birkenhead and Liverpool. Price, who seems to have been a distant relation of Spencer’s (though this is never formally established), has a wife, Alice, and a son, Richard. When Francis Price dies in 1749, Spencer maintains the epistolary relationship with Alice, and to a lesser extent, Richard, who goes from child to married man over the course of the exchange of letters. The collection is one-sided: we see only Spencer’s correspondence because Price and his family sought fit to keep and safeguard the papers, which are now preserved in the Puleston archives in the National Library of Wales. The volume is carefully annotated and includes a valuable introduction as well as several appendices, the most helpful of which allow for searches by people and by places mentioned.
The range of subject matter addressed in this collection and the way it is imparted is determined largely by its epistolary nature, and despite the single point of view there are palpable relationships that emerge across the letters as well as a compelling narrative arc which centres on Spencer’s lengthy and often desperate search for employment. From the first letter, in 1732, which announces his marriage to Anne Freeman, until 1752, when he finally finds employment in the Revenue Office, Spencer was dependent on help from Francis Price. This came in the form of money, loans and influence, with Price using his connections to try to find work for Spencer. While seeking Price’s assistance, Spencer’s letters also served a performative function: demonstrating his sociability and gentility via the eighteenth-century art of letter-writing. He, too, was born to be a member of the Anglo-Irish gentry, but because his ancestors had mismanaged the family’s land and wealth, it had been squandered just as he came of age. Spencer, therefore, became a member of the ‘Middling class’ that the editors rightly describe as impossible to define with accuracy. He was the great-great grandson of an illustrious poet, he received a certain education and he was not brought up to work in trade, yet he and his wife and two daughters lived precariously. Spencer was acutely conscious of his status and wrote to Price, ‘I do not know how one in my Way may be liked among so many of the best Fortunes’ (130). Spencer and Price worked together to create what they called a ‘Memorial’—a condensed biography detailing Spencer’s merits and hard luck. This Memorial would be included in letters Price sent to his friends in order to plead on Spencer’s behalf. One letter includes a draft of Price’s in which he lamented: ‘[Spencer] and his wife & children are in a fair way of starving unless you or some other compassionate gentleman prevent their misfortune by interceding with ye folks in power above, to get some place in ye revenue of Ireland’ (158).
These circumstances engender new avenues for Spenser scholars interested in tracing the legacy of the poet in the eighteenth century. First is the attempt by his great-great-grandson to launch a new collection of Spenser’s works through subscription in January of 1743. Promising to give ‘a more exact account’ of Spenser’s life, young Spencer solicited subscribers among the wealthy and influential, including Price, who he entreated for help in obtaining the support of his titled circle of friends. Included in the text is an image of the printed prospectus used by Spencer to launch the subscription. Interest in the proposal was muted and Spencer suggested that timing was to blame, with the ongoing War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748): ‘the badness of the Times & dread of a French War are pleaded as Excuses by a great Many: if those were cleared up I expect better Success’ (78). The last mention of the project is in July of 1744, when Spencer claimed to be taking the manuscript to press in Dublin even while voicing fears that he would not clear his expenses, and there is no further mention of it.
Spenser’s legacy can also be assessed in the unfolding experiences of his descendants in Ireland. The editors refrain from noting the poet’s problematic relationship with Ireland, evinced in his prose dialogue A View of the Present State of Ireland, and state simply that Spenser had spent much of his adult life in Ireland working for the ‘Elizabethan colonial administration and as a result of and partly as a reward for the work he did, he acquired a considerable amount of property in the province of Munster’ (2). The editors do, however, refer to the ‘Irish land problem’ (13) which resulted from Ireland’s status as a colonial dominion having undergone various invasions. Since the sixteenth century Britain’s policy was to displace Catholic landowners in favour of Protestants, and ‘by the early eighteenth century Catholics made up 75% of the population but owned only 7% of the land’ (14). Many of these land settlements had not been properly completed, or had been granted twice over, with inaccurate mapping, so disputes arising from these practices dominated Irish courts in the eighteenth century. The paramount importance of land to the Irish ruling class is demonstrated throughout this volume with property proving to be a vexing issue for Spencer. His depiction of the legal profession would become increasingly jaded as he managed his family’s wrangling over land rights as well as those of the Price family, for whom he acted informally as a land agent, and there are several editor’s notes which, in lieu of further clarification, state simply that property arrangements in eighteenth-century Ireland were very complex. In 1748, when a court order imposed by a distant relation forced Spencer to sell Renny, a property twenty miles north of Cork, and the last of his inheritance, he wrote to Price ‘then God only knows which way I must turn my Self to gett Bread’ (102).
Edmund Spenser’s political and religious allegiances had been evident. As Bart Van Es observes, ‘Spenser could be identified with historically specific causes: militant Protestantism, the cult of the monarch and the fate of the English inhabitants of Ireland’. But this collection reveals that matters for his great-great grandson were more complicated. Spencer never openly states whether he was Protestant or Catholic or speaks plainly of his sympathy or antipathy for Jacobite agitators, though editors acknowledge he might have worried about the privacy of his letters. His ties to Francis Price put him in contact with known Jacobite sympathisers, such as Sir Watkin William-Wynn, a leading Jacobite politician and head of the Jacobite Club, but especially James Barry, the Fourth Earl of Barrymore, who had a home in nearby Castlelyons. Late in life, Lord Barrymore became a leading Jacobite agitator in England, and in 1744 he was placed under house arrest in London. Spencer expressed concern for Barry in a letter to Price and noted that his Irish home was under guard and all his papers sealed and when Barry died in 1747, Price was an executor to his will. In 1755, however, in a letter to Alice Price, Spencer finally announced a clear political alliance to the Country Party, whose interests were opposed to those of the leading Court Party, which represented the Anglo-Protestant ascendancy. The Country Party will later be re-named the Patriot Party and would unite Irish people who desired greater independence for Ireland and reform of its Penal Laws. Unable or unwilling to express clear loyalty to a particular religion or king, Spencer did have the compulsion to express an allegiance to Ireland.
Spencer further demonstrated an affinity with Ireland through his frequent commentary on agriculture, the local economy, and current events, aspects about which he wrote with exactness and propensity. Partly because of his financial vulnerability, he lived close to the land, growing fruits, vegetables and herbs, as well as hunting and fishing. He asked Price to send seeds for Riga cabbage and white strawberry plants and, in turn, he shared recipes, such as his gooseberry vinegar. He had a keen knowledge of the price of commodities and would draw conclusions about regional matters by noting the fluctuations in the cost of beef or hay. He closely observed the weather and was in sympathy with farmers. He supported the nascent Irish poplin industry and sent fabric samples to the Prices. He praised Lady Chesterfield for wearing a poplin gown to a ball in Dublin and wrote: ‘indeed they are come to vast Perfection in that Manufacture, for a white or plain yellow Poplin with colourd sprigs at a little Distance looks equal to a rich Silk & sure comes much cheaper’ (108).
The relation of current events covers a wide range of typically eighteenth-century topics such as coffee houses, horse racing, highwaymen, the small pox inoculation and other medical treatments, but scholars of eighteenth-century war, in particular, will appreciate the care and detail with which Spencer documented the impact of the War of the Austrian Succession and concurrent Jacobite activities on southeast Ireland, including Dublin. His first-hand observations of military activities are put into a local context such as the economic impact on the surrounding community or the excitement generated. When placing events in a larger, national or European framework, he often had to contend with a delay in receiving news. Spencer expressed the occasional hope of obtaining a military commission, but lacked firm military connections or the funds with which to purchase a commission.
His accounts demonstrate that the Irish experience of the war differed from that of Britain, as exemplified by the French success at the celebrated Battle of Fontenoy in which Irish regiments in French service played a decisive role. Spencer noted the local arrests of two priests as well as two French officers who were recruiting in Ireland. Subsequently a reward of one thousand pounds was offered to anyone reporting recruitment for the French. The Irish response to the war also exhibited regional variance; Spencer observed that the arrival of two Men of War ships in the port of Kinsale would have caused a stir in Dublin where the citizenry turned out daily to review marching soldiers, but ‘in this part of the County, farming is minded more than Militia affairs’ (81). Throughout these years, Spencer reported the quartering of troops in the region, sometimes numbering in the thousands. The military men are generally welcomed because of their benefit to the regional economy. At Cork, however, Spencer reported that General Sinclair’s Highland Regiment, about to embark for Flanders in December of 1746, infected the local populace with a deadly fever. In typical fashion, Spencer’s response to the signing of the treaty of Aix-la Chapelle in April 1748 manifested his concern with local affairs: ‘the Farmers in top Spirits for the Peace as they expect great Prices for Beef Butter & all other Commoditys’ (144).
Much of what Spencer witnessed was the movement of British and French military ships as well as the activities of privateers, which formed an integral part of the Early Modern war effort. In 1744, Spencer observed the arrival of The Terrible, a Liverpool privateer, and its famous captain, William Death. He noted the violence which ensued from disputes over prizes, and the high-profile court cases these occasioned. The privateers sold merchandise directly from their ships and influenced local fashion and Spencer wrote despairingly that ‘most of the running Cash of the Country has been carryd off by them & a house is not thought to be furnished that has not a parcel of Jarrs & Images of China in it’ (143). A practical man, he described most of what they offered as ‘Neednots’ (143).
Despite these continual vestiges of war, the editors report that ‘Edmund Spencer’s life coincided with one of the most stable periods of Irish history’ (13) during which the country experienced its longest period of domestic peace. But, according to Toby Barnard, it was during the same period that British Protestants took over Irish property, office and power. Thus, it might be argued, this very stability allowed for the putting in place of a dense layer of British bureaucracy. Barnard observes that ‘most spectacularly, the revenue and the army grew’ (A New Anatomy 144). Indeed, when Spencer finally found employment in 1752 it was in the Revenue Office, working as a ‘Land Waiter’, a customs officer who oversaw and examined the landing of goods. From this point, the tone of the letters is changed. Firstly, there was a three-and-a-half-year gap in the letters during which Spencer learned his trade. Secondly, when letters resumed, the content became more business-like, firstly with Alice, and especially with Richard, with whom there was much less communication. But there is a poignancy to be found in the final letters of the collection in which Spencer comforted Alice over worries she must have confided. He makes reference to ‘those gloomy Thoughts you so feelingly expressed’ (208), replying with sensitivity and taking special care to allay her fears over Richard’s role in the Militia during the Seven Years War (1756-63). This volume offers readers a rich and rewarding entry into three decades of the lives of two eighteenth-century families from different parts of the class spectrum, and it is with sadness, when the letters end, that we are cut off from Edmund Spencer’s world and do not have access even to basic facts, such as the year of his death or the fate of his wife and daughter, further evidence that his status as great-great-grandson of the famous Elizabethan poet offered him little contemporary currency.