Manuscript volume of poetry with numerous pen, ink, and pencil vignettes.London: 1796-1821 Stock Code: 94720
NotesA superbly presented and deeply personal manuscript volume of largely unpublished poetry and drawings by Priscilla Susan Bertie Tarleton (1778-1864), wife of the notorious army officer and rakehell Sir Banastre Tarleton. The manuscript was produced between the years 1796, when the author was only 18 years old, and 1821, when she was 43. It contains 30 original poems, most on personal and sentimental subjects, such as love, friendship, memory, mourning, the arts, and the natural world. Tarleton was also an accomplished artist, and the manuscript contains 16 delicate pencil and ink illustrations, with some of the larger and more elaborate pieces using sophisticated wash techniques. The subjects of the illustrations complement those of the poetry, encompassing classically-inspired and emblematic imagery, Romantic depictions of mourning, flowers and plants, and rural landscapes. The level of these accomplishments is underlined by the fact that, although the present document was surely originally produced for presentation or circulation among a close circle, some of the work it contains was broadcast wider, and in genuinely intriguing circumstances, in the 1804 poetry anthology, The Wild Wreath, a copy of which accompanies the manuscript. The anthology was compiled from the work of some of the progenitors of Romanticism (including the first appearance of Coleridge's "The Mad Monk") by Maria Elizabeth Robinson, the daughter of Mary Robinson (1757?1800), "the English Sappho" of her lifetime. Mary was a former mistress of Susan's husband, and contemporaries suggested that Tarleton and Robinson's affair had ended because of Banastre's "designs" on her daughter Maria.
Author Priscilla Susan Bertie was born in 1778, the illegitimate daughter of young Robert Bertie, son of the Duke of Ancaster, who died soon after. The child was adopted by her grandmother, the dowager Duchess of Ancaster, and received a comfortable inheritance and the right to use her father's name. There is some confusion regarding the ordering of her first names. Several official documents, including the records of her birth and marriage, give it as Susan Priscilla, while she often used Priscilla Susan, as in her ownership inscription in this volume. We have kept to Susan, the usage common among historians and most probably among her contemporaries.
By all accounts, Susan grew into an intelligent, vivacious, well-educated, and somewhat eccentric young woman who loved animals and the whirl of London society, though she was also sincerely religious and disapproved of drinking and gambling. At her marriage, the Morning Post would describe her as, "about two or three and twenty. She is rather below the middle stature, but very pretty; her looks, however, are not more engaging than the accomplishments of her mind. She has had a most finished education, speaks several languages with great grace and fluency, draws with much taste and fancy, is a skilful musician, and has studied with great attention and success the more useful sciences: she is mistress of Astronomy, geography, etc., having had a perfect, polite education" (Bass, Robert D. The Green Dragoon, p. 387).
The man she would marry, Sir Banastre Tarleton (1754-1833), was infamous in both his personal and professional life: his conduct in America earned him the soubriquet "Ban the Butcher", or simply "Bloody Ban". As a young man, he gambled away his inheritance and was forced to purchase a commission in the 1st Dragoon Guards, volunteering for service in the American War of Independence in 1776, where he met and befriended Susan's father during the siege of Philadelphia. He took part in most of the major engagements of the conflict and "and won the admiration of many of his colleagues for his vigour and daring. He also acquired a reputation for ruthlessness towards civilians whom he believed were involved in the uprising. He urged a more full-blooded prosecution of the war with the characteristic claim that 'Coolness Apathy & Civil Law will never supply Hussars with Horses'" (ODNB). Tarleton's notoriety reached its peak in the southern campaigns of 1780 and 1781, when American prisoners were killed in the aftermath of the victory at Waxhaws. "Although Tarleton denied instigating this, the affair was subsequently used to justify similar outrages by the Americans" (ODNB).
Back at home, Tarleton wrote a controversial, self-justificatory book on his war service. He became an MP for Liverpool, continued gambling, and initiated a 15-year affair with the scandal-prone actress Mary Robinson, Perdita, the former mistress of the Prince of Wales. They "were the subject of much gossip" and "lived extravagantly, reportedly spending 2500 a year". Contemporaries suggested that the affair ended because of Banastre's "'designs on' Robinson's daughter" (ODNB). Following the break-up and the dismal end of his political career, Banastre fled from London to the countryside. "He was forty-four years old, gray, worn-out, and gouty. He was indigent. He was estranged from the woman who had loved and cherished him for fifteen years. And he was, as his enemies had said, 'at the fag end of a contemptible party'" (Bass, p. 384). It was then, in December 1798, that he met Susan, during a visit to Lord Cholmondely's seat Houghton Hall, where she was living almost as the adopted daughter, Georgiana Charlotte, Lady Cholmondeley being her aunt.
This meeting seems to have been a remarkable turning point in both their lives. In 1798 Susan was a 20-year-old beauty who was being courted by many suitors, including the Duke of Bedford. But within a few weeks of meeting her father's old comrade, she and Tarleton were wed and preparing to travel to Portugal for his next military posting. The marriage dramatically improved Tarleton's social standing, placing him back in the good graces of the prince and the Duke of York. While this and Susan's comfortable fortune of 20,000 must surely have played a part in Tarleton's pursuit of her, it seems there was also a significant spark between them. Despite all the potential obstructions to happiness - their age difference; Mary Robinson's novel detailing her affair with Tarleton; his gambling habit and acknowledgement of an illegitimate daughter soon after their marriage - the union was a happy and stable one, helped along by Susan's good sense and financial acumen. Certainly her peers thought so. Lady Harriet Cavendish reported to her sister that "General and Mrs. Tarleton are thought too conjugal, as they always sit on the same chair and eat out of the same plate". Later, after meeting Susan, she wrote that "my adoration at present is dear little Mrs. Tarleton. She is perfectly delightful and so kind to me she is so entertaining, merry and good-humoured so original, so remplie de talents, so fond of her husband, so good and so giddy" (Hary-O: The Letters of Lady Harriet Cavendish).
Tarleton served briefly in Portugal and then Ireland, seeing no major engagements, and when war was declared against France he was sent to Bath to oversee the defences of western England and Wales. "Susan Priscilla passed the long days in reading and singing, playing the spinet and painting. She attended church and reflected at length on religious matters. She lavished attention upon her pets. Her greatest joy was the return to London for Parliament" (Bass, p. 413). In 1815 a young niece, Mary Tarleton, described meeting her aunt for the first time: "She was a talented, graceful, and accomplished and fascinating person - but also an eccentric one, setting conventionalities at defiance, alternating between the magnificence of state of the Palaces she had inhabited with her father's family and the absence of common comfort in her own home. On that visit to Cloverly, I well remember, she brought 4 lap dogs with her - and great was the surprise of us children on going down to dessert to find our grand Aunt sitting on the floor instead of at the table, with her dogs on her knee - I noted, moreover, a general impression of sweet music and most choice perfumes enticing me - and elegant work and beautiful albums which altogether drew a halo around Aunt Susan and gave her a place in our imagination apart from that of our other Aunts" (Bass, pp. 442-443).
The present manuscript is an example of the "Elegant Work" that so delighted Susan's niece. Begun in 1804 according to the ownership inscription, it contains 30 poems on a variety of personal and sentimental subjects, many of which are dated, along with elegant drawings, the majority deftly completed in ink and washes of brown and grey inks; a few preparatory drawings in various stages of completeness, and one simply a note of the intended subject: "cupid with a broken bow, in tears". Its incompleteness, its air of a being work in progress, is certainly part of the charm of the manuscript. Written over 25 years, the poems must have been composed as drafts elsewhere and then added to this book later, as they are fair copies that are not always in date order, and some of them dated before the purchase of the notebook. As there are often several years between poems, Susan may have been selectively recording her favourites here, or perhaps she was only writing sporadically - many of the verses are about events in her life, and perhaps she tended to write at particularly emotional times. There was a process in place, its exact nature perhaps less clear.
The most remarkable of these poems are the seven lovingly addressed to her husband, which confirm from Susan's pen the strength and durability of this unusual marriage, so commented on by contemporaries. The first, written two years after their wedding and soon after their return from Portugal, is a 16-line piece: "To Tarleton on his Birthday, Llandroost, August 21, 1800": "In splendid courts, and camps & climes afar / Well pleas'd with thee I've smil'd the hours away, nor felt a wish beyond the present day / For on our Fates some kind benighted star/ still shone propitious & illum'd our way. / With thee I left my country and my friends / And cross'd the stormy ocean void of fear / For thou were dearer still than friends most dear, / and I forgot all womanish alarms / Encircled by thine kind protecting arms / Such recompense on faithfull love attends" The poem is followed by a delicate emblematic illustration depicting a putto piloting a ship through a storm with the caption "L'amour le conduit".
The poem that follows, of 32 lines, is addressed "To the same" and dated "Portsmouth, February 28th, 1799". "The weary sailor, who for many a day / driven by storms from the long wish'd for shore / Has seen the busy lightning round him play / Or listen'd to the thund'ring billows roar / If fate should smile upon his prayers at last / And guide him safely to his happy home; / There blest - he laughs at all his perils past, / And with a joyous tear, vows never more to roam. / So I - embark'd on life's tumultuous ocean / For many a year, was tost by ev'ry gale At length worn out with the false glare of pleasure, / Hopeless to find the phantom which I sought, / I left the giddy main, and in the leisure / Of gentle solitude, my cure I wrought. / Now in thine arms, the happy peaceful shore / Where all my sorrows and my cares repose / I rest secure, - resolved to trust no more / The visionary hopes, from which those sorrows rose". Two other poems are addressed "To Tarleton, on his birthday", one in 1816 and the other undated but described as "Written on his recovery from the gates of death", as well as "To Tarleton with some painted flowers"; "To Tarleton accompanying a seal with his crest consisting of a tiger's head"; and "On the fifteenth anniversary of our marriage".
Another particularly poignant poem is titled "Epitaph on an Infant". "Sweet bud of beauty! - Op'ning flower! / Thy fragrance lasted but an hour! / Fair in the rosy morn of May / We saw thy form its charms display, / But long ere noon the tempest came, / Which shook thy little tender frame, / And wildly on the ruthless blast, / Thy scattered leaves untimely cast. / An angel saw, and hov'ring nigh, / Bore thee in safety to the sky, / Where beams celestial shall fresh beauty give, / And heaven's eternal smile thy faded form revive". The poem is accompanied by a drawing depicting the child being carried to heaven by an angel. While it is not certain that this describes one of Susan's children, given the deeply personal nature of most of the poems it is reasonable to assume that it is a memorial for her child. Tarleton's ODNB entry records that the couple had one daughter but gives no additional information, and we have been unable to determine whether the couple had any children who died in infancy.
There are other memorial and sentimental poems connected with people Susan knew. "Epitaph on Caroline" mourns a friend or family member, "Like fragrant buds of richest bloom / As pure - as delicate - as bright / She who reposes in the tomb/ Shone for a moment to the sight" and celebrates that "Faith illum'd her parting hours". Another poem is titled "Written at Hampton Church, in Spring, near the Grave of Emma, 1801", and there are three poems which are ostensibly about the seasons but are revealed to be mourning pieces. Other poems are addressed to living friends and family, like the 30-line poem "Parting addressed to Mrs. Chetwood", which is undated but may have been written when the couple left for Portugal, as Susan writes dramatically that they may never see each other again. In "To Isabel", Susan calls the Muses to sing her friend's praises: "Of all the gentle graces tell / Which cheer the heart and charm the eye / Which bid rejected lovers sigh / and deck the brow of Isabel". One of the most intriguing of these is the passionate "To a False Friend" written in February 1800 and accompanied by an illustration of a scythe. "Away thou false one! Thou the destin'd bane / of all my bliss! Yet would I still restrain / The bitter thoughts that flutter on my tongue". There are no hints as to the identity of the false friend or the nature of her crime, but given that the poem was composed so soon after Priscilla's marriage, one wonders if it was connected with gossip or ill-feelings about the match. Finally, one charming, short piece in French near the end of the manuscript is titled "For Betsey's purse, embroidered in roses".
This remarkable poetry manuscript situates Susan both within and outside the social conventions of her day. The writing of verse, fine penmanship, and drawing were all accomplishments common among upper-class young women of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. And Susan's style, with its focus on sentimental and classical imagery, is perfectly of its time. However, her pursuit of the art well into middle age and the depth of the sentiments she expressed certainly bordered on what would have been considered eccentric by her contemporaries, as shown by her niece's response to her aunt's hobby. However, perhaps more remarkable still are the circumstances in which some of Susan's work came to be published, in highly intriguing company.
The 1804 anthology The Wild Wreath was compiled from the work of some of the progenitors of Romanticism, Coleridge (it contains the first appearance of his "The Mad Monk"), Matthew Lewis, Southey, Anna Seward, and most importantly "The Late Mrs. Mary Robinson": the compiler of and a contributor to the volume was Maria Elizabeth Robinson, the daughter who had drawn Sir Banastre's unwonted attention, leading the lovers to separate. In the book there are four contributions by "Susan", one of these being "To a False Friend" exactly as it appears in the manuscript, another, published anonymously, is "To a Friend, with some Painted Flowers", the same piece which in the present manuscript is addressed to Tarleton. Susan also contributes a finely worked title-page vignette, and four other roundels, all signed "Mrs. B. Tarleton", entirely of a piece, thematically and stylistically, with the work in the manuscript. The collection seems to have been published, perhaps in search of patronage from the duchess of York to whom it is dedicated "with permission", but certainly as a memorial to Maria Elizabeth's mother, an effort to polish her literary legacy, and perhaps in some ways to take on her mantle.
In a fascinating unweaving of The Wild Wreath in her paper The Romance of Motherhood: Generation and the Literary Text (Romanticism on the Net, No. 26, May 2002) Jackie Labbe notes that Maria Elizabeth should be credited for "Winkfield Plain", a poem elsewhere firmly attributed to Mary. Labbe then focuses on another oddity apparently "even odder. The collection is ornamented with several engravings, again with an intriguing attribution. We are asked to believe that "Mrs B. Tarleton" supplied the drawings for a memorial collection of poems by her husband's cast-off mistress, edited by that mistress's daughter". And yet this now cannot be doubted, and it is equally clear that Susan also contributed her literary work to Maria Elizabeth's publication.
One of Maria Elizabeth's pieces in The Wild Wreath is titled "Impromptu" and suggests a far more complex and appealing solution than simple appropriation. The poem opens; "Dear Susan, while thy happy state / By virtue shames the guilty great", continuing to praise her spurning of the "false and vulgar glare" of "Folly's tinsel show"; concluding that although "deck'd in all the pride of worth" she is possessed of "two wonders", "Thou art unfashionably chaste, / and art a faithful friend". The cast-off mistress's daughter and the loving wife became friends and part of a short-lived salon of sorts gathered in memory of the deceased Perdita. Importantly Susan's presence in the volume strengthens the sense of her belief in herself, carried throughout her life, as an artist, not just a dabbler; her poetry, her art, the compilation of this manuscript and her other crafted projects, all being manifestations of that continued conviction. Her strand in this rather oddly assembled wreath does seem somehow seem to exemplify a truly Romantic spirit. Further research is unlikely to enable a definitive explanation of the circumstances surrounding this manuscript, which almost certainly will remain to some extent enigmatic; however, the document is undeniably eloquently suggestive of quite intricate patterns of status, patronage and association, and of the social and cultural aspirations that they generated.
The manuscript is accompanied by a very good copy of the first edition of The Wild Wreath, old marbled boards rebacked to style in red morocco, the title plainly lettered direct.
Quarto (195 x 154 mm). Contemporary diced russia, skilfully rebacked to style, the spine gilt in compartments with lyre and olive branch tools, wide Greek key panel to the boards, single gilt fillet edge-roll, all edges gilt, helical twist roll to the turn-ins, marbled endpapers. Owner/author's inscription to the third leaf, "London June the 11th, 1804. Pris : Susan : Tarleton", and her initials as "P.S.T." verso of the first leaf. [Together with] Octavo (187 x 114 mm). Later half calf, marbled boards, title in gilt direct to the spine.
56 pages of pen and pencil manuscript in a 112-page notebook of good quality vélin watermarked "A. Stace 1801", 24 leaves entirely blank; written in a consistently elegant, flowing, and clearly legible hand throughout, and decorated with 16 pen, pencil an
Judiciously restored at the corners and board edges, even pale toning and occasional light spotting, but overall in an excellent state of preservation. [The Wild Wreath:] Ownership inscription to title page. Neatly refurbished, slight rubbing to boards
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