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Days of the Regency
'The concert went off extremely well, and the house quite full. We had no vacancy in either of our boxes, as Mrs Terry (her sister not coming as she expected) applied to me on Thursday morning, and I was happy in giving her the only vacant place. For fear of conse- quences, I durst not put Monck and her in the same box...
'Mr and Mrs Lefevre were on the opposite side of the house, so that we had no conversation till the concert was finished, when Mr L. came to pay his compliments to me and my friends, and old dad went round to chat with Mrs L. When the house was sufficiently cleared to afford me an easy passage, I joined her also, and was agreeably surprised to find that, during the time we were waiting for their coach to get up, Mr L. had desired your friend Monck to put his night-cap in his pocket, and accompany them and us back toé Heckfield. The night was dry, though cold, and, being moonlight, our drive was a very pleasant one; and we reached their truly hospitable mansion before twelve. Sandwiches, negus, etc., were immediately brought in, and after half an hour's pleasant chat, we separated for the night.
'I cannot attempt to detail what an agreeable day we had on Friday. The gentlemen dedicated the morning to field sports; the ladies accompanied me round the grounds, and afterwards we took a ride round Lord Rivers' park before we dressed for dinner, when there was an addition to our numbers of a Mr Milton, his wife, and two daughters; the youngest of whom, Miss Fanny Milton, is a very lively, pleasant young woman. I do not mean to infer that Miss Milton may not be equally agreeable, but the other took a far greater share in the conversation, and, playing casino great part of the evening with Mr S. Lefevre, Mr Monck, and your old Mumpsa, it gave me an opportunity of seeing her in a more favourable light than her sister.'
One could be forgiven for thinking that this passage, composed in 1802, is a scene from a Jane Austen novel: tea before the concert in a provincial English town, a hint of frisson (perhaps an old lovers' quarrel) between two of the concert-goers, and then a moonlit drive to a Hampshire country house; the next day filled with field sports, long walks, rides in the local lord's park, and ending with an evening of cards and conversation. The dramatis personae even include a suitable heroine not unlike Elizabeth Bennet: the 'lively, pleasant' Miss Fanny Milton. In fact, this is a letter from Mrs George Mitford to her fifteen-year-old daughter, Mary Russell Mitford. But the resemblance to Jane Austen's fictional world is not merely coinciden- tal, for many of the people mentioned were known to her and formed part of the small world in which she lived and about which she wrote.* As for the vivacious Miss Fanny Milton, she is indeed the heroine, not of an Austen novel, but of our story.
To imagine the world in which Fanny Trollope, née Milton, grew up, one need go no further than Jane Austen's fiction. Jane was only four years Fanny's senior; their fathers, George Austen and William Milton, were the rectors of Steventon and Heckfield, respectively, both situated in the same Hampshire deanery of Basingstoke. The Revd Milton, however, installed a curate and moved to the Bristol area before Fanny was born, only returning to Heckfield with his family in 1801, a few months before the Austens moved to Bath. Although we cannot place them in the same room at the same time, Jane and Fanny would, nevertheless, have admired the same red coats of the local militia, visited the same milliners' shops, worn the same fashions, subscribed to the same circulating libraries and danced in the same assembly rooms above Basingstoke's town hall. They enjoyed the same pastimes: dancing, country walks, amateur theatri- cals and reading. They would both have discussed Napoleon's advance across Europe before turning to the local gossip, that 'epidemic of a country town', as Fanny called it in her first novel, The Refugee in America.
There was, however, one important if subtle distinction between Jane Austen and Fanny Trollope. Both women had an impeccable pedigree on their mothers' side; but, whereas Jane's paternal grand- father was a surgeon whose family belonged to the landed gentry, Fanny's grandfather, John Milton, was in trade, variously described as a 'distiller' and 'saddler' in the city of Bristol. John Milton had been able to ensure that his son William would rise above the status of tradesman, and thus 'considerably [assist] the gentility of his family' (Jessie Phillips), by sending him to Winchester, then Oxford, in preparation for the Church. None the less, the stigma was ever present, and when Mary Gresley married the young clergyman William Milton, her family evidently thought it 'a mésalliance for the lady'. They were directly descended from Sir Thomas Gresley (1552-1610) and could boast Norman ancestry. The 'illustrious Norman blood that flows in our veins', as Henry Milton wrote to his sister Fanny, became something of a family joke which later surfaced in her novel The Three Cousins.
The Bristol Gresleys were not aristocrats, but they were pro- fessional men: clergymen, apothecaries and, when merchants, very prosperous ones. The family firm was located in the elegant Queen Square, at that time the largest square in Europe, near the docks in the heart of Bristol and around the corner from the famous Bristol Theatre. The Gresleys' cousin, the well-to-do merchant Ames Helli- car, also carried on business from Queen Square. Mary Gresley's father no doubt hoped that she would marry someone with a better pedigree than the son of a small-time saddler for, as her grandson Anthony Trollope remarked of Dean Lovelace, a character in Is He Popenjoy? whose father had been a stable-keeper and tallow-chandler, 'The man looked like a gentleman, but still there was the smell of a stable.' Gresley may have feared that 'a host of aunts and cousins of the same breed, might come down upon [him] in the event of this ill-sorted marriage' - a thought which crossed the mind of one potential in-law of Fanny's creation, the vulgar Widow Barnaby, granddaughter of a tallow-chandler (The Widow Barnaby). But Mary Gresley, like another 'woman of good birth' in Fanny's novel One Fault, the beautiful Mrs Worthington, defied her family's wishes and 'persisted in her determination of becoming a poor country clergyman's wife'.
William Milton's children were no doubt made to feel inferior in rank to those around them in Bristol and Hampshire: 'I have heard,' writes Fanny Trollope in 1836, 'that it requires three generations to make a gentleman' (Paris and the Parisians). This was the received wisdom of the age: in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice Lady de Bourgh remarks to Elizabeth Bennet, whose maternal uncle lives in London's Cheapside: 'True. You are a gentleman's daughter. But... who are your uncles and aunts?' Perhaps Fanny had in mind a Heckfield neighbour when she describes in her novel Town and Country a good and friendly lady who never once 'permitted us to forget for a moment, that, although all men are equal before God - and women too - yet nevertheless, there would be something rather impious in supposing that this state of things was to begin while we remain on earth; and therefore that, at present, her place is in the manor pew, and mine is in the Vicarage ditto'. Although she may have come up against such attitudes, Fanny chose to believe, not without some foundation, that 'the clergy of England, their matronly wives and highly-educated daughters, form a distinct caste' which 'has a dignity and aristocracy of its own': they 'mingle freely in society ... and bring with them the females who form their families' (Paris and the Parisians). After all, as she wryly remarks in Town and Country, 'a beneficed clergyman may become a bishop'.
William Milton's marriage with Mary Gresley took place at St Thomas's Church in Bristol on 23 June 1774, a month after he had taken up the living of Heckfield, aged thirty-one. But the couple remained in Heckfield for only a year before installing a curate in the country parish and returning to Bristol. The living of Heckfield was worth a mere £120 per annum, and as his wife was expecting her first child, William would naturally have been concerned about money. They may also have wanted to be nearer to their parents, especially as Mr Gresley was an apothecary - in modern parlance a general practitioner. Besides the necessity of finding a second post to supplement his income, the young clergyman probably thought the small Hampshire village rather dull compared to the ancient port of Bristol: its economic and strategic importance made the city a bustling place. The first English ships to explore and colonize the New World had belonged to Bristol merchants and departed from the city's docks, situated as they were on the west coast, facing out on to the Atlantic. In 1668 Samuel Pepys considered Bristol 'in every respect like another London', and it soon became second only to the capital in size and wealth. By the middle of the eighteenth century it led the infamous Atlantic trade in rum, sugar and slaves as well as other commodities.
The young couple apparently lived first with Mary's parents, close by the family firm in Queen Square, then with William's in nearby Trinity Street: a narrow lane which passed between St Augustine's Church and Bristol Cathedral down to the river - a less fashionable if equally central address. Although exciting, Bristol was also dirty, smelly and generally unhealthy. No doubt for this reason William and Mary took a house in Stapleton, a village then about two and a half miles north-east of the centre of the city. At some point William's father, who was to reach the age of ninety-nine, came to live with them. Stapleton is now a suburb of Bristol, but Lower Grove Road where the Miltons lived still retains a country feel to it: the narrow lane, lined with the remnants of an old stone wall, looks out over green fields down to the River Frome. The clergyman took up a number of posts to supplement his income, including Clerk of Holy Orders at St Michael's in central Bristol, where all but two of the Milton children were baptized, and curate of Almondsbury, Gloucestershire, five miles north of Stapleton.
The story of William and Mary's life together was an all too familiar one to their contemporaries. They experienced the joy of having three healthy children: Mary (1776), Fanny (10 March 1779) and Henry (1784). But they also felt the great sadness of losing three others in infancy: Cecilia, born the year before Fanny, and John and Emily, who came between Fanny and Henry. Mary Milton died soon after the birth of Henry, leaving William to bring up the three children on his own as well as care for his ageing father. In One Fault the description of Colonel Seaton, who lives with his son's family, seems more reminiscent than imaginative: the old man had 'a sweet and kindly temper, which neither age nor misfortune had spoiled'. He would sit for hours with his eyes half closed, but from time to time 'there would burst from those withered lips a flow of anecdote that richly repaid the attention with which it was listened to, for it always transported the hearers, as by the wand of a magician, into the middle of the last century. Names that have long borne the permanent value which history gives to renown, were familiar in his mouth as household words; and traits of character, bons mots, and epigrams were poured forth as from a storehouse.'
Fanny would have been only five or six when her mother died. Her older sister Mary was, according to Fanny Trollope's first biographer, Frances Eleanor Trollope, 'a kind, excellent creature, sufficiently sensible, but not of shining parts'. One gathers as much from Mrs Mitford's letter to her daughter quoted above. Henry was, like his older sister Fanny, vivacious and quick-witted: 'a peculiarly delightful companion in society and quick to appreciate all that was best and brightest in the conversation of others', but he was very much the younger brother. In later years Fanny and her brother were very close, and she came to depend upon Henry's help and advice. However, one can easily imagine that while growing up in Stapleton their relationship consisted entirely of his 'attempts to quiz and plague his sister', while she 'treated him much as a large and powerful dog does a little one - enduring his gambols and annoying tricks with imperturbable patience for a while, and then suddenly putting forth a heavy paw and driving him off in an instant' (The Vicar of Wrexhill).
At this time a girl's education was a very haphazard affair, which usually depended upon the talents and inclinations of her parents. The Miltons were never affluent, and if Fanny had had a mother she would certainly have been well taught in the domestic sciences, including the ability to alter old clothes so as always to appear well dressed. But this was not the case: Fanny, according to both her sons Tom and Anthony, tended towards extravagance (usually manifested in entertaining and generosity towards friends); and both she and her children had the reputation of being badly turned out. Her daughter-in-law, Rose Trollope, wrote that 'she was somewhat indifferent as to her own personal get up'. A friend turned critic in America, Timothy Flint, remarked on 'her want of taste and female intelligence in regard to dress', also ascribing it to 'her holding herself utterly above such considerations? Perhaps she was guilty of the same 'country town indifference to decorum' exhibited by Elizabeth Bennet when the latter arrived at Netherfield with her ankles covered in dirt. Fanny almost certainly agreed with the Widow Barnaby's genteel niece Agnes that 'it was a great happiness.., that satin-stitch had never ranked as a necessary branch of female education at Empton Rectory; had she been able to embroider muslin, her existence would have been dreadful' (The Widow Barnaby). Martha (the 'Widow') Barnaby, on the other hand, had been a young lady endowed with brilliant talents: she could make pasteboard card-boxes and screens and, of course, work satin-stitch. Satin-stitch was something that Jane Austen was particularly good at.
Fanny Milton, like Jane, was a child of the Georgian era, when both men and women enjoyed a relatively unrestricted choice of reading material and topics of conversation. Thus, while other young ladies were employed with their needle, Fanny preferred, and was permitted, to indulge in 'the solitary reading that makes so immensely important a part of female education' (A Visit to Italy): Shakespeare, Milton, Spenser, Gray, Racine, Corneille, La Fontaine, Boileau, Dante, Tasso and Petrarch. Fanny would also have known the works of Alexander Pope, James Thomson, William Sherlock, Richard Sheri- dan, Oliver Goldsmith, William Cowper, Henry Fielding, Samuel Richardson, Laurence Sterne, Ann Radcliffe, Fanny Burney and Maria Edgeworth. Jane Austen declared that her family were 'great novel- readers and not ashamed of being so'; and Fanny Trollope thought that 'it is good for us to read trash occasionally' (Paris and the Parisians), though French romances were apt to give a young girl, like the scheming Lucy Dalton in The Attractive Man, the wrong moral guidance. All Fanny's heroines are voracious readers, like Mary King, whose father's 'old-fashioned library had wherewithal to supply her with enough, and more than enough, to occupy every leisure moment which her necessary needlework and her long walks left her' (Mrs Mathews).
Fanny was probably educated at home, perhaps because William Milton, like Mr Marshall in Town and Country, could not bear to part with his daughter so soon after the death of his wife. While her brother was away at a good boarding-school, Susan Marshall was taught by a family friend, Mrs Hartwell. 'This sort of intercourse drew the two families very closely together', and when Susan reached fifteen, she helped with the lessons of Mrs Hartwell's young children. This was very much the relationship between the Miltons and the family of John Garnett, a Bristol merchant and William's closest friend, who helped tutor Fanny in mathematics and science. Her great passion, however, was Italian literature, especially Dante: 'Going through life without a tolerably intimate knowledge of the Divina Commedia' practically constituted a sin in Fanny's eyes (A Visit to Italy). She 'contrived, with a little help from her father, to teach herself to read very fluently both French and Italian. But,' Fanny writes in Town and Country, 'this help from the learned vicar was only such as a good Latin scholar can always give, and went solely to construction, and in no degree to pronunciation.' Both Fanny and her father seem to have been natural linguists. Probably like Mary King in Mrs Mathews, she could not, like public school boys, compose nonsense verse in Latin, but 'she could read the language with perfect facility'.
William Milton was a devoted father. His grandson Tom remembered the Revd Mr Milton as 'an excellent parish priest after the fashion of his day', that is charming, kind, liberal, and gentle- manlike, 'with a sort of Horatian easy-going geniality about him'. One of William's contemporaries at New College, Oxford, was James Woodforde, author of The Diary of a Country Parson. In a typical entry dated 14 January 1774 we get a glimpse of the young Milton and the sort of world he lived in:
Had a new Wigg brought home this morning, which I put on before I went to dinner, it is a more fashionable one than my old ones are, a one curled wigg with two curls of the sides. I like it, and it was liked by most People at dinner. I gave the Barber's man, Jonathan 0.1.0. At Back-Gammon this evening with Milton only one gammon, and I lost to him by bad luck 0.16.6.
The diary also records that on at least one occasion, when Woodforde was a candidate for the living of Weston Longeville, Milton 'talked nothing but nonsense' (he had voted against Woodforde).
The college records note that Milton was a 'person of considerable mechanical genius'. In fact, he preferred inventing gadgets to saving souls, and he instilled in Fanny a keen interest in mathematics. On a winter's evening the candlelit parlour table in Stapleton may have resembled that described by a contemporary country vicar's wife with four daughters: 'We have French, Italian, History, Divinity, Biography, Arithmetic, Penmanship, Needlework, and to crown all Mathematics? But William Milton was also, according to his grand- son, 'crotchety and full of schemes'. Like one of the characters in his daughter's novel Tremordyn Cliff, he 'had an excellent understanding, a shrewd wit, and a most warm and generous heart - nevertheless, he had his defects. The most prominent of these, perhaps, was ... the pertinacity that worked out any purpose once taken, though the doing so might involve an expense of time and trouble, greatly disproportioned to the apparent value of the object.' William himself had a name for it, according to Tom Trollope: ' "au-mieux-ing" - i.e. never being satisfied of anything when it seemed practicable to improve it'. One can imagine the crotchety side of the clergyman coming out at the family dinner table when he decided that he had had enough of the dreadful sound of knives scraping porcelain. His tenacity drove him to design and commission special plates, doubtless at great expense, with small circular pieces of silver set into the centre, to ensure a greater measure of peace and quiet at mealtimes.
William Milton was an eccentric character, so much his daughter and grandchildren testify to. But, although he always spent and never made money on his various schemes, some of these, and in particular his plans for Bristol harbour, were far from ridiculous. As we have seen, Fanny's father had grown up in Bristol, the son of a tradesman who lived on one of the many busy commercial streets leading down to the all-important River Avon which meanders through Bristol. Alexander Pope described the Bristol of William's childhood:
in the middle of the street, as far as you can see, [are] hundreds of ships, their masts as thick as they can stand by one another, which is the oddest and most surprising sight imaginable. This street is fuller of them than the Thames from London Bridge to Deptford, and at certain times only, the water rises to carry them out; so that, at other times, a long street, full of ships in the middle and houses on both sides, looks like a dream.
But the extreme tidal range of the river, although making for a dramatic picture, was the port city's biggest drawback: ships - and their cargoes - were at the mercy of the tides. As Milton wrote, 'Our ships lay, with much mischief, dry at their wharfs, eight hours in every twelve, and without possibility of going up or down the river during the continuation of neap tides.' It was clear to everyone that Bristol could not maintain its importance as a port unless a solution to the problem was found.
In 1791, when Fanny was twelve, the clergyman presented to the ancient Society of Merchant Venturers a scheme to convert the port of Bristol into a floating harbour: 'The author of the present mode is as anxious as anyone can be, that the Port of Bristol should avail itself of every advantage which art can give to nature; and sees, though little interested in ships, the great importance to the town in general (whose essence is its commerce) of keeping them constantly afloat.' In fact, since 1765 numerous proposals for the improvement of the harbour had been put forward, but William Milton was the first to come up with the idea of a tidal bypass; that is a channel, or 'cut', built to the south of the city to accommodate the Avon's tidal flow. The old winding path of the river along the docks would then, in effect, become a canal where water levels could be controlled.
The committee considered the scheme, involving as it did major excavations, too expensive. Nevertheless, the merchant Ames Helli- car, William's relation by marriage, took an interest in the matter. In December 1792 he proposed to finance the work by subscription and shortly afterwards published a pamphlet warning of the adverse effects of building a dam across the Avon - a step which Milton's plan had rendered unnecessary. However, the city councillors vetoed Hellicar's private enterprise, declaring that 'all such works should be for the sole benefit of the public' and no individual or private body should profit from it. Within a year Britain had been forced to intervene in the War of the First Coalition against France, bringing all new and costly projects to a halt.
Ten years on, during the brief respite from the war with France following the Peace of Amiens, the city engineer Mr Jessop submitted his own proposal for a floating harbour in Bristol - the key element in it being William's idea of a tidal bypass. However, no credit or remuneration was given to the clergyman. The Bristol Dock Company was established by an Act of Parliament and the floating harbour was built between 1804 and 1809 at a cost three times that of Milton's original estimate. The clergyman fought for recognition. In order to prove his case and 'to assume only what is mine', he printed, at his own expense, three separate pamphlets setting forth the correspondence he had had since 1791 with the Merchant Venturers and other prominent townsmen. The grudging recognition which he eventually received only added insult to injury: a silver plate, with the arms of the corporation engraved upon it, 'not exceeding the value of 100 guineas ... in testimony of the high sense they entertain of his ORIGINAL SUGGESTION for the improvement of the Harbour of Bristol' (Milton's emphasis). In his last letter on the matter, dated December 1812 and addressed to his friend, Richard Bright, he wrote of his contribution with bitter resignation:
Time, the Tell-Tale, seems already to lisp its praising Sanction of the Work. In 50 years hence, all Variance between Estimate and Loss will be forgotten - The Frome will be rendered as sweet as her Sister - and Bristol will have learned to look with as confident an Eye on Liverpool as ever she did 100 years ago. I will not sign Cassandra- but Yours very sincerely, W. Milton
Milton must have felt doubly betrayed as many of the Merchant Venturers were well known to him and to his father, including the secretary of the corporation, Jeremy Osborne, who had witnessed John Milton's will.
The young Fanny would have shared in the clergyman's frustration as well as his triumphs. Of all his children, Fanny resembled her father most; certainly she was a compulsive au-mieux-er, incapable of sitting still and doing nothing if there was a problem to be solved or a situation to be improved. Without the guidance of a mother, Fanny had also learned to be self-reliant. Together these traits, initiative, tenacity and independence of mind, were to give her the courage, strength and ability to overcome the many crises which she would have to face in her lifetime; but, they also made her sometimes act rashly, without thinking, and thus court disaster. Fanny came to realize through experience the disadvantages of growing up without a mother's restraining influence, and her novels (like her son Anthony's) abound with motherless young women. In Mrs Mathews the heroine considers that 'she would probably have been a very different person' had she known her mother, for 'decidedly the chief defects in Mary King's character arose from her having been too much accustomed, almost from infancy indeed, to depend upon herself and her own resources upon all occasions which require judgement and decision, either for the regulation of her conduct or her opinions'.
Some time after the death of Fanny's grandfather in 1788, William Milton had decided to move to Clifton in Gloucestershire, then a popular and fast-growing spa town situated on the steep hill west of Bristol - high above the stench and noise of the city but still within easy walking distance of Bristol Cathedral. As the distiller and saddler had, according to his will, 'sustained sundry losses' in the last ten years of his life, William Milton would not have inherited very much from his father, and he could probably only have afforded to move to fashionable Clifton after 1795, when the war with France caused all building to cease and house prices to slump. Milton would have had good reason to leave Stapleton around this time, for two thousand French prisoners of war were kept just outside the village in a notoriously badly run camp, where the inmates lived in wretched conditions. In any case, Stapleton must have seemed like a cultural wilderness to the clergyman; in Clifton he was at the heart of Bristol's intellectual community. And it was the perfect location from which to pursue his harbour project: his scientific friends and the more influential merchants resided there, and from Clifton's Brandon Hill he had a perfect view of the Bristol docks below. Another reason for the move was that his daughters, Mary and Fanny, aged seventeen and fourteen in 1793, were ready to enjoy the benefits of good society which Clifton had to offer.
Clifton was then, and is now, a beautiful spot. Neat Georgian terraces, 'like so many palaces in fairy-land', border on the verdant downs and the dramatic precipice of the Avon Gorge. 'Looking down upon the course of the Avon, winding its snake-like path at their feet, with the woods of Leigh, rich in their midsummer foliage, feathering down on one side, and rocks of limestone, bright in their veins of red and grey, freshly opened by the quarrying, rising beautifully bold on the other, Agnes stood rapt in ecstasy.' Fanny was no doubt recalling her own life in Clifton when, in The Widow Barnaby, she pictures Agnes and her friends amusing themselves at a spot near the Gorge, 'sometimes with idle talk, sometimes with listening to the reverberat- ing thunder that arose from the blasting of the rocks below them, and sometimes by sitting silent for a whole minute together, pulling up handfuls of the fragrant thyme'.
Jane Austen too had happy memories of the spa town. After she left the detested Bath in 1806, she spent the summer in nearby Clifton: 'it is two years tomorrow since we left Bath for Clifton,' she later reminded her sister Cassandra, 'with what happy feelings of escape!' Many of the characters in her novels, when not taking the waters at Bath, do so in Bristol: either at Hotwells, the old spa on the river just below Clifton, which boasted three taverns, two ballrooms and a promenade, or at the newer and more fashionable amenities above. In Northanger Abbey Isabella Thorpe and her party 'walked down to the Pump room [of Hotwells], tasted the water, and laid out some shillings in purses and spars' (crystalline mineral fragments from the Avon Gorge). In Emma Jane Austen reveals the subtle distinction between tradesmen living amid the noise and smell of the Bristol docks and well-to-do merchants who can afford to live in the terraces of Clifton. Miss Hawkins lived in 'the very heart of Bristol'; she claims her father was 'a Bristol merchant', though Emma suspects him of a lowly trade. Her sister Selina had escaped the nastiness of the city and married the successful Mr Suckling, a resident of the sought-after Maple Grove, clearly intended to be Clifton.
Fanny Milton lived in Clifton during an extraordinary time, when the spa town hosted such literary and scientific figures as Maria Edgeworth, Robert Southey (whose father was a Bristol merchant), Wordsworth, Coleridge, Joseph Priestley, Humphry Davy and Thomas Beddoes. The Miltons may have met many of these local celebrities through the clergyman's friend in the floating-harbour affair, Richard Bright. Bright, the son of a wealthy merchant (the family firm was next door to the Gresleys' in Queen Square), had been taught chemistry by Priestley and was a friend and collaborator of Beddoes. It was Bright who helped Priestley flee to America in 1794 after Bristol citizens rioted in protest against his support of the French Revolution? Bright's spacious house in Abbots Leigh, a village across the Avon where the Hellicars also had a mansion, was a gathering place for scientists, chemists and enthusiasts. Like Richard Bright, Sir Herbert Monson in Tremordyn Cliff was a 'man of science', and his interest 'amounted almost to a passion'. 'His ample fortune gave him leisure and power to indulge this without restraint.' At one of the Monsons' soirées, besides musical instruments, chessboards, playing-cards, engravings, albums, annuals, sculptures and pretty miniatures, there was a large round table 'covered with a soft, rich, crimson carpet, on which were spread various delicate models in brass, of newly invented, or newly improved instruments. A miniature steam engine, a small galvanic apparatus, and such curious specimens of newly ground lenses, as might make an astronomer's eyes water to look through them.'
But direct connections are hardly necessary in order to imagine Fanny Milton, as she went about her daily life in Clifton and Bristol, encountering such colourful characters as Southey and Coleridge when they had rooms in College Street, at the bottom of Clifton Hill. She may well have been a frequent visitor to the Bristol bookshop of Thomas Cottle, the friend and publisher of Coleridge and Southey. Perhaps she overheard the two poets spreading the gospel of Panti- socracy, their proposed utopian settlement on the banks of the Susque- hanna in Pennsylvania. Walking down the hill from her house in Clifton Place (now Clifton Road) to Bristol Cathedral, Fanny might have seen, as did Richard Bright, Southey and Wordsworth dancing in the street, leaping over dogs and giggling hysterically, having just inhaled Beddoes's and Davy's new discovery, nitrous oxide, otherwise known as laughing gas. 'Davy,' remarked Southey, 'has invented a pleasure for which the language had no name.' The young Fanny certainly would have been surprised, if not shocked, to see Maria Edgeworth in the same state. The author of Moral Tales described it as a 'gas which inebriates in a most delightful manner, having the same obvious effect of Lethe and at the same time giving the rapturous sensations of the nectar of the Gods'.
The Widow Barnaby, much of which takes place in the 1810s, gives a vivid picture of the Clifton of Fanny's girlhood. The widow takes lodgings in Sion Row, the most fashionable area, on the very edge of the town; today it still overlooks Observatory Hill towards the downs and the Gorge, the site of Brunel's suspension bridge (built between 1831 and 1864). Martha Barnaby's relations by marriage, the prosperous merchant Mr Peters and his family, have a house in one of the most beautiful terraces in Clifton, Rodney Place, where Davy and Beddoes lived in 1798. Martha Barnaby is at first dis- appointed that her brother-in-law is a mere clothier, but she soon discovers that he 'held a much higher station in society than she had anticipated'. Mr Peters, perhaps based on Ames Hellicar, was 'an active and prosperous manufacturer, neither above his business, nor below enjoying the ample fortune acquired by it'. Mr Peters's handsome establishment includes a carriage, footman, boy and coach- man. The elder son had already joined the family firm; the younger son, intended for the Church, was soon to go up to Oxford; the Peters's daughters, 'from appearance, education, and manners, were perfectly well qualified to fill the situation of first-rate belles in the Clifton ballroom'.
After taking lodgings, the widow sets about initiating herself into the mysteries of Clifton society. The first task is to put her name down at the assembly rooms, where dances were held on a regular basis, and at the 'library', which was at one and the same time a bookshop, newsagent, stationers and circulating library. At the assembly rooms, when she inquires, 'what is it the fashion to do? To subscribe for the season, or pay at the door?', she receives the knowing answer: 'You may do either ... but if you wish your arrival to be known, I believe you had better put your name in the book.' Martha Barnaby soon learns that the library is the gathering place of the smart set. She exclaims to her niece Agnes, 'and as for the library, it's perfectly like going into public! What an advantage it is every morning of one's life to be able to go to such a place as that!' Elsewhere Fanny Trollope describes another Gloucestershire library in loving detail. On market day Mr Stephens's library
was thronged. Many very well dressed ladies, seated on chairs and benches between two counters, and a still greater number of gentlemen, wedged in every nook and corner that could furnish standing room, were engaged in discussing provincial politics, or metropolitan bon ton... Nearly the whole of the party seemed more or less known to each other, as was made manifest by an occasional nod, or smile, or a hand raised to the hat, or a chin lowered to the breast, or a little dip from an unfortunate lady who had not obtained a seat, or a shrug of the shoulders from a gentleman more unfortunate still, who found himself jammed into a corner. The conversation, meanwhile, if carefully listened to, would have resembled the cross-readings from a newspaper, for it was going on in at least a dozen groups at the same time.
Yet, 'Notwithstanding the well-dressed crowd in his shop, Stephens knew that it was not likely he should sell much to any of them' ( Tremordyn Cliff).
In Clifton the fashionable crowd was also drawn to the pastry shop, where they could sit down at the counter and indulge in cakes, ices and gossip. Church-going on Sundays was also 'of great importance to strangers about to be initiated into the society of the place' (The Widow Barnaby). And, of course, in a spa town one subscribes to pump rooms at one's own peril. Fanny Trollope does not record if Mrs Barnaby visited Hotwells or the Clifton facilities, but the experience would have been similar to that at Cheltenham, which she later patronizes:
Her spirits rose as she approached the fount on perceiving the throng of laughing, gay, and gossiping invalids that bon ton and bile had brought together; and when she held out her hand to receive the glass, she had more the air of a full-grown Bacchante, celebrating the rites of Bacchus, than a votary at the shrine of Hygeia. But no sooner had the health-restoring but nauseous beverage touched her lips, or rather her palate, than, making a horrible grimace, she set down the glass on the marble slate, and pushed it from her with very visible symptoms of disgust. A moment's reflection made her turn her head to see if Agnes were looking at her, 'I think it might do you a vast deal of good, Agnes' (The Widow Barnaby).
But the focal point of the social life in any town, certainly for a young woman, was the assembly-room balls. Both Jane Austen and Fanny Milton were especially fond of dancing, as were many of their heroines. Jane wrote to her sister Cassandra of one particular ball: 'There were twenty dances, and I danced them all, and without any fatigue... I fancy I could just as well dance for a week together as for half an hour.' One of Martha Barnaby's accomplishments was that she 'could dance every night, and very nearly all night long' (The Widow Barnaby), and Fanny herself wished to make dancing 'more general and of more frequent occurrence than it is' (Paris and the Parisians). However, as a visitor in a provincial town one's first ball could be a tricky affair. There was a real horror of walking into the assembly room and not recognizing a soul. However, as is made clear in The Widow Barnaby, if a newcomer to Clifton had not already made an acquaintance at the library or the pump rooms, then a master of ceremonies was at hand to make the appropriate introductions, often inviting the older guests to join one of the whist tables while the dancing continued apace near by. Then, at some point later in the evening, the two groups reconvened in another room for tea and refreshments before the orchestra started up again.
The Clifton assembly balls would have been especially colourful affairs when the Miltons were living in Clifton Place, for members of the Bristol regiment and militia (one of the Gresleys had joined the Light Infantry) would have been seen parading about in their handsome red uniforms and flirting with the native beauties - until, that is, they were called away to face the French. (In fact, the only duty they saw was patrolling the Stapleton prisoner-of-war camp.) 'Volunteering was the order of the day,' wrote Mary Russell Mitford of this period; the very name of the barrack was 'redolent to all provincial female hearts as much of terror as of joy' (The Widow Barnaby).
Rather surprisingly, in 1800, after fifteen years of being a widower, the Revd Milton decided to remarry. His bride was a Clifton resident, Sarah Partington. Perhaps he realized that, without a mother's guid- ance and advice, his daughters, by now aged twenty-one and twenty- four, were like sheep among the Clifton wolves. Fanny, rather petite in stature, with small hands and feet, full lips, a pleasant smile and blue-grey eyes set rather far apart, certainly seems to have made an impression on the ballroom floor. Many years later a certain peer of the realm spoke to Anthony Trollope of his mother, 'I danced with her when she was Fanny Milton, and I remember she had the neatest foot and ankle I ever saw!' Perhaps the young Fanny fell in love with a handsome young man in a red uniform, and wrote her name together with his all over the margins of her French exercise book, as did Caroline Hartley in The Blue Belles of England.
More likely, William Milton may have seen that Mary and Fanny were not able to show themselves to full advantage in the assembly rooms without money for the new dresses, gloves, shoes and hats necessary to keep up with the fashionable set. 'I know', wrote Fanny later, 'that a young lady's ball dress is considered ... as something sacred to the Graces, and that the whole fabric should consist of materials lighter and brighter than any clothing that ordinary mortals can presume to wear' (Vienna and the Austrians). Clothes were a perpetual problem for a woman of limited income: a young Jane Austen wrote to her sister that she was 'tired and ashamed' of her wardrobe. The Milton girls needed a woman who, like Martha Barnaby's mother, had the ingenuity to convert 'the relics of her own maiden finery into fashionable dancing-dresses for her girls'. Fanny Trollope goes on to describe almost wistfully - yet not without a touch of characteristic sarcasm - something which she herself never had, that is the
unwearied industry of a proud, poor, tender mother, when labouring to dress her daughters for a ball ... the dyings, the ironings, the darnings, that have gone to make misses of ten pounds a-year pin-money look as smart as the squanderer of five hundred... the light of morning never steals into the eyes of mortals to spur them on again to deeds of greatness after nightly rest, without awaking many hundred mothers whose principal business in life is to stitch, flounce, pucker, and embroider for their daughters!... All this is very beautiful!... I speak not of the stitching, flouncing, puckering, and embroider- ing ... but of the devotion of the maternal hearts dedicated to it (The Widow Barnaby).
However, if this were the case, things apparently did not quite work out according to plan. Rather than help the girls gain a firmer foothold in Clifton society, within a year of his marriage the Revd Milton had moved his family back to the country vicarage in Heckfield after an absence of twenty-five years. It is not hard to imagine - or to sympathize with - the new Mrs Milton attempting to stifle her husband's obsession with the floating harbour by moving well away from Bristol. (This was, in fact, to have little effect: the clergyman's most bitter correspondence in the matter was written from Heckfield vicarage between 1803 and 1812.) Mrs Milton may also have been anxious for their safety since coastal towns, and especially major ports like Bristol, would be prime targets if Napoleon were to invade Britain - a real fear at the time.
As she grew older, and especially after her father's death, Fanny came to look back on her life in the village of Heckfield with nostalgia. Thus, in One Fault she describes the parsonage of the kind-hearted, good and beloved Henry Worthington, modelled in part on her father William Milton, in terms of a country idyll: 'In one of the richest valleys of Somersetshire [read Hampshire], where hedgerows green, abounding herbage, and unshorn elm trees, make every separate field look like a separate paradise, nestles the white-washed village of Abbot's Preston.' The Worthington's parsonage, which closely resembles the vicarage in Heckfield, was beautiful: 'Though large enough to be a commodious dwelling for a numerous family, it was a cottage in aspect, the roof thatched, and the windows opening in the fashion of casements, though their leaded lozenge-shaped panes had been exchanged for others, giving a fairer proportion of light.' Anthony Trollope set Ralph the Heir in just this spot: 'there is no prettier district' with 'a sweeter air, or a more thorough seeming of English wealth and English beauty and English comfort. Those who know Eversley and Bramshill and Heckfield and Strathfieldsaye will acknowledge that it is so.' In middle age Fanny wrote to Mary Russell Mitford, by this time the author of a popular series of stories set in rural Hampshire entitled Our Village, concerning her description of Bramshill: 'That part was the favourite, and in summer often the daily haunt of my youthful days. There was one particular spot under a high oak, where I have sat alone for hours. It was within hearing of the great clock, and but for that I should often have been benighted there.' Nevertheless, the young Fanny must also have been bored and frustrated on many occasions in the quiet Hampshire village, agreeing with Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey that 'one day in the country is exactly like another'.
There were the drives in Lord Rivers's park near by and parties at the Lefevres' spacious mansion, where we caught our first glimpse of the Milton sisters that November evening in 1802, but Fanny was not over-fond of her wealthy neighbours. It was a commonly held belief that Lord Rivers was 'a model of a modern fine Gentleman', that is, 'well-bred, accomplished, and debauched'. Apparently, he ill-treated his wife, 'the most charming in the world', until 'he deserved to be hated'. Sir Charles Otterborne in Mrs Mathews was just such a 'county worthy', though 'it would be difficult to find any individual less deserving honour or distinction of any kind', 'for he was silly, selfish, and unprincipled'. 'But there was a Lady Otterborne, who was as deserving of all admiration and esteem as he was the reverse.' Lord Otterborne's neighbour, Mr Steyton, had acquired his great wealth in the same way as Heckfield's local M P, Charles Shaw- Lefevre, through trade. Perhaps, like the Mathews, the Miltons wondered that 'Steyton does not contrive to get a little air manufac- tured on purpose for his own private use, for that he always looks as if he thought what he was breathing was not good enough for him'.
From her later letters it also appears that Fanny was not particu- larly fond of her stepmother, who evidently held the purse-strings. (Again one can sympathize, knowing how much William Milton must have spent on his various schemes.) Fanny had always had things too much her own way, and she no doubt found it very difficult to adjust to another woman having authority over her. Anthony may have been remembering his mother's practice when he observed in Cousin Henry that the strong-willed Isabel Broderick never referred to her stepmother as 'Mother' but always 'Mrs Broderick'. Apparently, Fanny's children shared their mother's indifference to Mrs Milton: in later years Mary Russell Mitford had to remind Fanny's eldest son Tom of his duty to visit his widowed step-grandmother.
But perhaps the most serious objection to life in Heckfield was that at age twenty-five Mary Milton had, according to Lydia Bennet's calculations in Pride and Prejudice, already reached old-maid status and Fanny, aged twenty-two in 1801, was only a year short of it. True, these were the 'palmy days' when the militia's 'country quarters still existed, and many may still remember the tender sensibilities excited by a departing regiment, and the gay hopes generated by an arriving one' - all calculated to relieve the 'unbroken routine of ordinary existence' (The Widow Barnaby). Both Fanny Milton and Jane Austen had had experience of regimental towns in Hampshire: Martha Barnaby's native West Country village, Silverton, is remark- ably like Meriton in Pride and Prejudice, where military galas are held and redcoats are to be found everywhere, eating ices at the pastry-cook's, posing in the library and lounging in the shade of the village green. However, the experience of a young woman without a fortune was all too often like that of the young Martha Barnaby in Silverton, who 'had seen so many colonels, majors, captains ... ay, and lieutenants too, march into the town, and then march out again, without whispering anything more profitable in her ear than an assurance of her being an angel' (The Widow Barnaby). The Milton girls had fallen into that category of young provincial girls looking for husbands which Jane Austen studied so closely.
'If adventures will not befall a young lady in her own village, she must seek them abroad,' wrote Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey. Within two years of arriving, Fanny and her sister Mary had decided to leave Heckfield for London. Their younger brother Henry had started work as a clerk in the War Office and needed someone to keep house for him. Perhaps the Milton girls set out on such an April day as the Hartley ladies in The Blue Belles: 'A heavy shower had fallen', 'the dust was laid, the sun was shining, the birds singing, the primroses sleeping, the violets breathing vigorously and the post-horses pricking their ears, and looking as spruce as if they had nothing to do but trot out a little for their own amusement'.