Inquiring readers: For two weeks, Laurel Ann, my blogging partner at Jane Austen Today, has been blogging about Lady Susan at her own blog, Austenprose. Lady Susan was published posthumously in 1871, almost 80 years after Jane Austen wrote this short epistolary novel. When one reads the book, one is struck by the number of letters Lady Susan writes to an address on Upper Seymour Street. This is where her friend Mrs. Johnson (Alicia) lives. It was Alicia who famously wrote at the end of the book:
I would ask you to Edward Street, but that once [Mr. Johnson] forced from me a kind of promise never to invite you to my house; nothing but my being in the utmost distress for money should have extorted it from me. I can get you, however, a nice drawing-room apartment in Upper Seymour Street, and we may be always together there or here; for I consider my promise to Mr. Johnson as comprehending only (at least in his absence) your not sleeping in the house. – Mrs. Johnson (Alicia) to Lady Susan, ca. 1805
The houses along Upper Seymour Street in Westminster, which is situated near the Marble Arch (then known as Tyburn) near Hyde Park Corner, are tall, narrow, and four stories high. Edward Lear, the Victorian writer of charming limericks, lived in a house that has been converted to a hotel (Image below). I stayed on the 3rd floor a decade ago and can attest that the stairs are steep!
Living at this location off Oxford Street was considered a moderately respectable to fairly good address during the Regency era. Upper Seymour Street is close to Hyde Park, and within easy walking distance to Mayfair and St. James’s, where the upper crust lived and visited each other when they stayed in London. Upper Seymour Street is actually situated in Marelybone, just around the corner from Portman Square and one block over from Upper Berkeley Street, an area that Jane Austen and her sister, Cassandra, knew well:
The Countess de Feuillide looked out from her windows in Upper Berkeley Street towards Portman Square, waiting for her cousin Cassandra to arrive. It still pleased the Countess to be know by her former title rather than as plain ‘Mrs Austen’, and she was always gratified by tradespeople and others who thought to humour her vanity in this matter. – Jane Austen: A Life, David Nokes, 1998, Google Books
The nouveau riche, whose ambition was to enter Society, moved as close to the “action” as they could. In 1772, Lady Home, a 67-year-old widow, made plans to move to Portman Square. This area of London was just beginning to be developed, and, as the image at right attests, the houses (Rated 1 and 2) were big and spacious. Lady Home had been twice widowed and had become rich from the money she inherited from her father and first husband, Sir Nicholas Lawes, Governor of Jamaica. Her second husband, the 8th Earl of Home, was a dissipated spendthrift. Their marriage in 1742 was one of convenience, for while she got the title, he most definitely married her for her money. In 1744 the earl deserted Lady Home just months before she was to give birth to their child, who, sadly, did not survive. The earl died in 1761, leaving Lady Home a widow once again and free to act as she pleased.
Very little is known about Lady Home’s life until she began to build her grand house in Portman Square. In the early 18th century, Henry William Portman had developed 200 acres of meadow passed down from a Tudor ancestor and turned them into Portman Square. In 1755 he began issuing the first housing leases. Lady Home took a 90 year lease from William Baker in June 1772, on which she was permitted to build a brick house. By 1774, builder Richard Norris was close to completing the house, which had been designed by the architect James Wyatt. His claim to fame was The Pantheon which had opened in 1772 when Mr. Wyatt was just 26 years old. In 1775, Lady Home fired Wyatt and hired his archrival Robert Adam to complete the interior. One of the most unforgettable features of Adam’s design was the breathtaking neoclassical stairway under a glass dome.
William Beckford, who came from another wealthy plantation-owning family, and who also lived in [Portman] square, described her as: ‘.. the Countess of Home, known among all Irish chairmen and riff-raff of the metropolis by the name, style and title of Queen of Hell…’ He went on to describe her extravagant and eccentric behaviour. She entertained other wealthy Caribbean plantation owners and was related to many of them. She also had royal connections. – BBC History, The business of enslavement
In reading about Lady Home, I was struck by her ambition and audacity, and began to compare her to Lady Susan. Publicly deserted but her husband, Lady Home chose to remain in London and entertain in high style. She successfully made a life for herself on the fringes of society, but, despite her wealth, she was never quite accepted among the haut ton. She lived and entertained in the house from 1776 to 1784, the year that she died.
In an interesting aside, Robert Adam and James Stuart were also the architects of Montagu House, which was built for Mrs. Elizabeth Montague in the northwest corner of Portman Square. The house, known as the ‘Montpelier of England’, became famous for its meetings with the literary world. The Blue-Stocking Club, named for the informal blue stockings that many in the group wore, invited intellectuals to discourse on a variety topics.
Lady Home’s Etruscan bedroom reflected the current interest in antiquities. The house almost did not survive. From 1989 to 1996, the house was listed on the 100 most endangered sites, and extensive renovations did not begin until 1998. Today the house is part of a private men’s club.
Two portraits by Gainsborough hung in her house, depicting the duke and duchess of Cumberland. The duke was the brother of George III and the duchess related to Lady Home through her first husband. It has been suggested that Lady Home’s motive for building such a large and elegant house when she was a widow who had no children was to entertain the Cumberlands. – BBC History, The business of enslavement
- Art & Architecture: Home House, Black and White Photos
- The Portman Estate
- The Portman Estate: From Restoration to Regency
- Lady Home: Absentee Plantation Owner, BBC History
- Home House Club: Website
- Abolition of the Slave Trade 1807
- Lady Susan, Naxos Audio Book
- Lady Susan: A Vicious Jewel
- London Houses in Jane Austen’s Day