Academic journal article Women & Music

Margaret Cecil, Lady Brown: "Persevering Enemy to Handel" but "Otherwise Unknown to History"

Academic journal article Women & Music

Margaret Cecil, Lady Brown: "Persevering Enemy to Handel" but "Otherwise Unknown to History"

Article excerpt

THE IMPRESSION SO EASILY OBTAINED from the literature is that Margaret Cecil, Lady Brown, in the words of Charles Burney, "distinguished herself as a persevering enemy to Handel."(1) Burney was the first author to name her straightforwardly in a publication (in 1789; she had died in 1782), but others had hinted at her identity, even before Handel's death. I have two objectives for this paper: (1) to provide a secure factual basis for Lady Brown's biography and (2) to examine the question of why a woman (and this particular woman) should be cast as an enemy in the story of Handel's life. In view of the opprobrium that Lady Brown has attracted--including the dismissive characterization by Robert Myers that she is "otherwise unknown to history"--and the fact that all the comments on her in the Handel literature have been made by men, it would seem prudent to examine the historical record not only to uncover her attitudes and activities but also to evaluate the extent to which chauvinism or even misogyny has colored the writing about her published to date.(2) Three sections follow: The Browns, Their Relations, and Friends; Lady Brown and Opposition to Handel; and Criticism of Handel and the Role of Gender.

The Browns, Their Relations, and Friends

Margaret Cecil was born 12 June 1692, the daughter of Robert Cecil and Elizabeth Meynell.(3) Robert Cecil was member of parliament for Castle Rising, Norfolk, in 1701 (when Robert Walpole was the other member) and Wootton Bassett, Wiltshire, 1708-10.(4) Robert Brown, Margaret's husband, was the son of William Brown and Grisel Brice. Born about 1680, he had already amassed a fortune as a merchant banker in Venice before he inherited his father's business in 1712.(5) At the time of their marriage in Paris in 1725, Margaret was already among the wealthy women of England, having 4000 [pounds sterling] in investments.(6) Robert agreed to add 8000 [pounds sterling] to her money to purchase land for her benefit at his death.(7) They made their home in Venice, and their first daughter was born there on Christmas Day in 1725, as Margaret Brown recounted in letters to Thomas Coke, Vice Chamberlain, who seems to have played the role of adviser or guardian to her.(8)

Marriage brought the Cecils a link with the Cibber family, for Robert Brown's brother, Lt. Col. James Brown, was married to Catherine Cibber, Colley's eldest daughter.(9) This connection, previously unnoticed by Handelians, eventually led to Lady Brown, supposed chief opponent of Handel, becoming related by marriage to Susannah Cibber, acknowledged friend and protegee of Handel, who was the contralto soloist at the first performance of Messiah (Dublin, 1742).(10) Catherine's brother Theophilus was Susannah's husband, who, in 1737, three years after their marriage, encouraged Susannah to engage in a relationship with William Sloper (ca. 1707-89). When this went beyond the exchange of gifts to elopement, Theophilus twice brought charges against the lovers.(11) In a further Handelian twist to what was a continuing social scandal, Sloper's wife Catherine (ca. 1707-97), whom he had married when he was nineteen, was the daughter of opera supporters Maj. Gen. Robert Hunter and Elizabeth Orby.(12) Hunter was one of the founding members of the Royal Academy of Music, the company established to produce Italian operas in London, and its director in 1720.(13) His wife subscribed to Cluer and Creake's edition of Handel's Rodelinda in 1725.(14)

The Browns did not return to England for ten years.(15) They left Venice in September 1734 and in early 1735 settled into a house in Pall Mall owned by John Perceval, first earl of Egmont, whose next-door neighbor they became.(16) Robert Brown had been awarded a knighthood (in 1732) and was elected M.P. for the safe government borough of Ilchester (in 1734) while they were abroad. Once established in London, Sir Robert became active as a money manager for Sir Robert Walpole, and he conducted private negotiations with the Spanish ambassador Geraldino on Walpole's behalf in an attempt to end the conflict with Spain in 1740. …

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