The Ill-Treatment of Lady de la Beche, ed. Anne Auriol

The full title of this book is Statement and Correspondence Consequent on the Ill-Treatment of Lady de la Beche by Colonel Henry Wyndham, edited by Anne Auriol. The bulk of it is a collection of correspondence between the aggrieved parties and their allies; the second paragraph of the third letter (dated 20 July 1842, from Lady de la Beche to her legal advisor Edward Dartnell):

If General Wyndham would only be good enough to state what I have to hope from him, I should at once be enabled to arrange my plans for the ill-fated and unhappy future! Under existing circumstances, and remembering my unfortunate connexion of near sixteen years with him, which has entailed so much misery upon me and my poor mother and brother, and more especially at my time of life, I consider I am in every way entitled to a definitive settlement, whether it is yielded as a matter of right, or merely that which his own kindness of heart and feelings of honour may dictate to him to do.

Lady de la Beche was born Letitia Whyte, the daughter of my great-great-uncle Charles Whyte, in 1801. The editor is her mother, born Anna Ross-Lewin; after Charles Whyte’s early death in 1803, aged 26, Letitia and her brother Charles (and possibly also a sister) were brought up as Protestants by her mother and her new (and much older) stepfather, John Lewis Auriol (recently returned from 30 years in India). That entire side of the family was disinherited by my Catholic ancestors, with the result that the family property came in due course to my father, rather than one of the relatives of C and K who visited two weeks ago and are descended from Letitia’s brother.

Two months after her 17th birthday in 1818, Letitia Whyte married Henry de la Beche, who at 22 was already an up and coming geologist and went on to found the Geological Survey of Great Britain and the Palæontographical Society. (I was spurred to find all of this this by a reference to their marriage in Karen Joy Fowler’s short story “The Science of Herself”.) It did not work out, for whatever reason, and they formally separated (but never divorced) in 1825. For some reason his last letter to her is included in the book. It’s a bit sad:

Chepstow, Saturday, September 24, 1825.

It is finished. Letitia, your heart’s wish is obtained: we are parted for ever ! But, before I take leave of you for ever—Good God ! is this then the last letter I shall ever write to her, for whom I would have sacrificed every thing on earth,—whom I so devotedly loved ? But, let this pass ; it will unman me if I think of it.
Misfortune has followed me from my cradle, and it will follow me to my grave. Before I say, I take leave of you for ever ! let me assure you, as a man of honour, that I never have, notwithstanding any hasty expressions I may have uttered, believed you have wronged me. No, Letitia ; I BELIEVE you now to be as pure, with regard to others, as when you first came to my arms. If my good opinion yet remains of any consequence to you, this may give you some satisfaction. At all events, it is right that I should make this declaration to you. Now that all is over, it may be as well to state, that I consider that I ought to have trusted entirely to your own high sense of honour in many cases. Letitia, farewell for ever !

I somewhat get the sense that once the marriage had broken down, he agreed to separate on the grounds of unreasonable behaviour on his part as a way of just getting it over with. I have a friend who got divorced in a similar way in the 1990s. Those being the days that they were, de la Beche retained full custody of the children. Their daughter Elizabeth (1819-1866) married Welsh MP Lewis Llewelyn Dillwyn (1814-1892) in 1838 (she was 18, he was 24) and their daughter Amy (1835-1935), Letitia’s granddaughter, was a famous Welsh industrialist, writer and feminist.

Around 1826, we are told (though my suspicion is that it may have been a bit earlier), Letitia encountered and fell in love with the glamorous Henry Wyndham (1790-1860), son of the third Earl of Egremont (1751–1837) and his lover Elizabeth Ilive (?1765?-1822). Wyndham was a genuine war hero, having fought at the Battle of Waterloo and been injured as the gate at Hougoumont farm was closed, a key moment in stemming the French advance. He was so traumatised that he refused to ever allow the closing of a door to any room where he was present. He had separaetd from his wife, Elizabeth Somerset (1790-1871), the daughter of Lord Charles Somerset (1767-1831). who he had married in 1812. Wyndham and Letitia lived in unwedded bliss for twelve years, though her relationship with him allowed de la Beche to cancel the financial support he had promised at their separation.

Then around 1838, Letitia made the unwise move of offering hospitality to her destitute aunt, Leonora Marlay (1787-1867) – her mother’s sister, so a Ross-Lewin not a Whyte connection, I was relieved to discover – and her daughter Georgina (1814-1858). The Marlays changed the dynamic between Letitia and Henry Wyndham, and in 1842 he threw her out of his household and kept them in. Negotiations over Letitia’s retrieval of what she claimed were her belongings broke down irreparably, and she and her mother went to the lengths of publishing a pamphlet of the correspondence between the two sides in 1843. This pamphlet is available online, with – gloriously! – Letitia’s own handwritten notes in the margins. Her writing is clear. Here, she writes “Conscience makes cowards of the guilty!” in reference to the other side’s worry that the whole thing might be published.

The author of the letter annotated here is her legal representative, Edward Taylor Dartnell (1807-1892). He is interesting to me because his sister Rose (1810-1864) was married to Letitia’s brother Charles de Burgh Whyte (1804-1885) and they are the ancestors of my distant (but local) cousins C and K. So it looks as if Letitia’s family had not completely cast her off despite her extramarital association with Wyndham (she states that she approached Dartnell through her brother; the name “Whyte” is mentioned once in the pamphlet, where the date of Letitia’s wedding is inaccurately stated to have been 1820 – documentary evidence is clear that it was 1818). Edward Taylor Dartnell is interesting for other reasons as well; he emigrated to Canada around 1850 and became established as a major conservative lawyer and politician in Ontario, though he is better remembered now for his paintings, especially this one of Toronto in its early days.

It’s always fascinating to read of other people’s difficulties in their personal lives, especially when you have a vague connection to them but don’t otherwise care very much. They key point that emerges very very strongly is the utter lack of redress available to women in non-marital relationships at the time. The pamphlet includes a remarkable two-page memo from a senior lawyer (name given as “E.P. Hurlstone” but I’m fairly sure that this is a chap I’ve found in the archives called Edwin Tyrrell Hurlstone, and the middle initial is wrong) which explains pithily how few rights Letitia had, and further advises her not to even bother going to court but to seek private mediation:

I have endeavoured to point out the rights and remedies of Lady De La Beche ; but must, at the same time, observe, that the circumstances of this case are so peculiar, that I should re-commend legal proceedings to be avoided, if possible. Independently of the facts of the case being of that delicate nature, that they ought not to be publicly disclosed (even where the law is with Lady De La Beche), the Court would not feel inclined to favour a suit arising from an immoral transaction, and would doubtless advert to the maxim, ” That justice must be drawn from pure fountains.” I should therefore advise the parties, if possible, to refer all matters in difference to one or more persons, by proper legal submission.

We don’t have a lot of information about how things ended up, but it was not happy for Letitia. She died the next year, 1844, probably before her 43rd birthday which would have been on 1 September. Her mother, born in 1779, lived to 1863, surviving all the other key players in this story. The Marlays stayed with Wyndham and are buried in the graveyard near his home in Cockermouth. Georgina died aged 43 (like her cousin Letitia) in January 1858, having married a Charles Wyndham in 1856. (We have no details, but unfortunately there is a very common reason why a woman’s date of death often comes a year or so after her marriage.) Her husband appears to be Henry Wyndham’s nephew, the son and namesake of his brother Charles; he was born in 1827 and so was fourteen years younger than Georgina. Her mother had died a month earlier, in December 1857, aged 70. Wyndham himself died in 1860, also aged 70. (His estranged wife Elizabeth married a Thomas Holbrook in 1862, when she was 72, and died in 1871. I assume that she had been close to Holbrook for some time before Wyndham’s death.)

So in the end, it’s a sad story from the approximate era of Jane Austen and the Brontës, of a non-standard relationship that apparently worked well for a while and then didn’t, and a woman who found the odds stacked against her and resorted to broadcasting her version of the facts in the hope of damaging Wyndham’s reputation, given that there was nothing else she could do. It did not even succeed; there’s no reference to this on Wikipedia’s page about him (and I can’t be bothered to add it).

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