Holland House and Mary Berry's Drawing-Room: Salons, Salonnieres and Writers

By Schmid, Susanne | Wordsworth Circle, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Holland House and Mary Berry's Drawing-Room: Salons, Salonnieres and Writers


Schmid, Susanne, Wordsworth Circle


Lonely subjects are as common in Romantic poetry as the myriad sonnets and lyrics addressed "To Solitude." In reality, however, the years after 1798 abounded in sociability, in the cultural alliances that lay behind these "lonely" poems. For example, while Byron and Moore celebrated the isolated and alienated outsider in Childe Harold and Lallah Rookh, they enjoyed sociability and conversation, attending dinners and meetings with publishers, in societies, clubs (Russell/Tuite) or in gatherings organized by and around women comparable to French salons. However different, Holland House and Mary Berry's drawing-room, my specific interests, were meeting-places for famous and neglected conversationalists, landmarks in Regency London that included Byron, Moore, Joanna Baillie and other writers among the guests. While scholarship on French and German salons blooms (Goodman, Dollinger, Hahn), I would like to open a conversation about English Romantic salons. Salonnieres, I propose, who knew the Romantic poets without being themselves writers are as noteworthy as the predominantly male writers and the coteries they gathered around them.

Salons were the occasion for many forms of oral communication: discussion, table talk, gossip, argument, raillery, conversation on which the production and reception of canonical Romantic poems about male loneliness depended. Such salon conversation provided another context, serving as a stage in the evolution and production of texts, illuminating and explaining them. Holland House and the Berry's drawing-room promoted interaction between hostess and guest, people and text, the spoken, the written and the printed word. By extension, such salons were expressions of female creativity; by instigating sociability and contributing to artistic production, the Romantic hostess became an important figure in her own right.

At the heart of the salon lies the spoken word, preceding literary production and initiating creative play even from the most ephemeral sources. When Lady Holland was bequeathed a snuff-box after Napoleon's lonely death on the island of St. Helena, she summoned the poets of her little court, as Thomas Moore recounted in his diary on July 30, 1821: "Lady H. showed me some verses Lord Holland had written to her in English & Latin upon the subject of Napoleon's gift--some lines of Lord John's, too-she said I must do something of the same kind, and wished she could have a few lines from Lord Byron too to add to her triumph--Lord Holland's verses chiefly turn upon the circumstance of the box having been originally given to Napoleon by the Pope for his clemency in sparing Rome." (2, 473). Following Lady Holland's enthusiasm for all things Napoleonic, Moore composed a six-line poem. "To Lady Holland, on Napoleon's Legacy of a Snuff-Box" (Poetical Works, 717), and, the next day, discussed it with her at breakfast (2, 473). The opening line, "Gift of the Hero, on his dying day ...," emphasized Napoleon's loneliness and stands in remarkable contrast with the sociable situation in which Moore wrote it. After Lord and Lady Holland moved to Paris in the summer of 1821, Byron contributed to this on-going transnational poetic debate with "Napoleon's Snuff-Box" (Works VI, 512). While Moore's poem celebrates and Byron's parodies the tragic and solitary in Napoleon's gift, they originate in sociability. Lady Holland fed Moore, but his poetic imagination was fuelled by the dying emperor's loneliness.

While male poets thrived on a sociability that involved women, many canonical texts of that period present lonely individuals: The Corsair, Alastor, Endymion or The Excursion, theoretical texts like A Defense of Poetry depict poets as solitary, isolated, even estranged from society. If "solitude" connotes pleasure, "loneliness" denotes suffering. Both figure prominently in literary and artistic representations of solitary characters (hermits, saints, knights, philosophers). The ideal of the solitary, natural man as authentic man, which emerged in the 18th century, has one root in Rousseau's criticism of female sociability and conversation: in Lettre a d'Alembert (1758), he condemns Parisian society women as noisy and prejudiced (115/16). …

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