Notable Irishwomen/The Countess of Cork and Orrery

Notable Irishwomen by C. J. Hamilton
The Countess of Cork and Orrery


The Countess of Cork and Orrery

1747- 1840.

IT is a recognised fact that women of Irish or French nationality are better suited to be leaders of society than their more sedate Anglo-Saxon sisters. The Celtic temperament is eminently social; the variety, the movement, the excitement of society are congenial to it.

Next to Frenchwomen, the Irish are the best hostesses. Who that has ever been at one of Lady Wilde's receptions in that well-known house at Oakley Street, can forget how admirably she received her guests, saying the right thing to each, and making even the most obscure guest feel at home.

A born leader of society was the woman whose name stands at the head of this article. For sixty years she kept a mimic court at which every celebrity of any kind was welcome. Beginning with Dr. Johnson, Burke, Goldsmith, Boswell, and Reynolds, she went on to Sheridan, Moore, Byron, Kemble, and other lesser notabilities. She either had a dinner party, a reception, or else she went out every night of her life. Society was as the breath of her nostrils, she was never so much at her ease as when she was receiving guests, or exhibiting lions, literary or otherwise. Though she rarely seems to have visited Ireland, on her mother's side, at any rate, she came of a thoroughly Irish stock—the family of Westenra. Her Irish blood came out in her temperament; she was warm-hearted, hospitable, generous, desirous of making an impression either by exhibiting herself, or being an exhibitor of other people. Vain she certainly was, but never ill-natured or churlish. She never sought out people merely for their rank or riches, but because she enjoyed their society. Her parties were the pleasantest in London, because they were exempt from the monotony that then brooded over the leaders of English fashion. Connected by birth and by marriage with two families of high rank, she was perfectly free from pride and ostentation.

She was the youngest child and only surviving daughter of John Monckton, first Viscount Gal way by his second wife, Jane, fourth daughter of Henry Warner Westenra, of Rathleagh, Queen's County,

Maria Monckton was born in 1747, and lived to the patriarchal age of 93, being generally known in her later years as "Old Lady Cork." She was compared by Luttrell, the famous wit, to a shuttlecock, "All Cork and feathers."

As the Hon. Miss Monckton, she was a prime favourite with Dr. Johnson, who delighted in her liveliness and intelligence.

Boswell says that Johnson "did not think himself too grave even for the lively Miss Monckton, who used to have the finest bit of blue at the house of her mother. Lady Galway. Her vivacity enchanted the sage, and they used to talk together with all imaginable ease. One evening she insisted that some of Sterne's writings were very pathetic. Johnson bluntly denied it.

"I am sure," she said, "they have affected me.

"Why," said Johnson, smiling, and rolling himself about, "that is because, dearest, you are a dunce."

When she repeated this speech to him afterwards, he said, "Madam, if I had thought it, I should not have said it."

Ever afterwards Miss Monckton became known as "Johnson's little dunce."

She did not at all object to the name, though she belonged to Mrs. Montagu's Blue Stocking Club, and frequented every literary re-union of the day. She once appeared at a masquerade at Mrs. Cornely's, at Soho, as an Indian Sultana, in a robe of cloth of gold, and a rich veil. The seams of her gown were embroidered with precious stones, and she had a magnificent cluster of diamonds on her head. Her jewels on this occasion were valued at £30,000, and she was attended by four black female slaves.

Though the "noble house" in Charles Street, Berkeley Square, belonged to her mother, the Dowager Lady Galway, it was to all intents and purposes, Miss Monckton's. It was she who received the guests and did the honours, while Lady Galway sat by the fire in a little round white cap, flat to her head, and only spoke to those who were brought up to her.

Fanny Burney, the authoress of "Evelina," relates how Miss Monckton come to see her at Brighthelmstone, as Brighton was spelt in those days. She describes her as being between 30 and 40, very short, very fat, but handsome, with very bright eyes; she was splendidly and fantastically dressed, and "evidently and palpably desirous of gaining notice and admiration." Miss Burney adds, "She has an easy levity in her air and manner, that speaks all to be comfortable within, and her rage of seeing anything curious may be satisfied, if she pleases, by looking into a mirror." Miss Monckton told one story which Fanny Burney pronounced to be extremely worth relating. It was about the Duke of Devonshire, who happened to be at an assembly, and was standing close to a very fine glass lustre. By carelessly lolling back, he knocked the lustre down and it was broken to atoms. The people of the house, be it said, were not rich enough to bear the loss with unconcern. The Duke, however, merely observed, "I wonder how I did that?" He then went to the opposite side of the room, and apparently forgetting what he had just done, leaned his head back and down came the other lustre. He looked at it very calmly and said philosophically and with perfect coolness, "This is singular enough," and walked away without distress or apology.

Fanny Burney next describes a reception she and her friends, the Thrales, went to at Miss Monckton's house in Charles Street. It is too long to give here, but it relates in a very amusing way how Miss Monckton never stood up to receive her guests, she only turned round her head to nod it, and say "How do you do?" Dr. Johnson was standing near the fire surrounded by listeners. Some new people coming in, Miss Monckton started up exclaiming, "My whole care is to prevent a circle."

Fanny Burney remarks that "the company were dressed with more brilliance than at any rout I was ever at, as most of them were going on to the Duchess of Cumberland's. … At the sound of Burke's voice. Miss Monckton darted forward, crying out, 'Oh, that's Mr. Burke.'"

Sir Joshua Reynolds was one of the party on this occasion. He had painted Miss Monckton in a pastoral attitude, sitting in a garden, with a dog at her feet. When Fanny Burney took her leave, Miss Monckton pressed her to come another evening, when she would have Mrs. Siddons to meet her. This invitation was duly accepted. Two years afterwards—in May 1786—Miss Monckton married, at the mature age of 39, Edmund, seventh Earl of Cork and Orrery. His first marriage had been dissolved four years before. The second Lady Cork proved a much greater success than the first had done, and certainly no one could be dull with her. Her married life, however, was not a long one, for she was left a widow in 1798. Her salons were now held in a house in New Burlington Street, that she had decorated according to her own taste, which was rather in advance of the day she lived in. Her boudoir was literally filled with flowers and large looking-glasses, which reached from the top to the bottom. At the base was a brass railing, which, reflected in the glasses, had a very pretty effect. The boudoir was terminated by a sombre conservatory, where eternal twilight fell on fountains of rose-water "that never dry, and on beds of flowers that never fade."

Her receptions had now become noted features in London Society, and she would go to infinite trouble to secure a new attraction. Hearing that the celebrated surgeon. Sir Andrew Carlisle, had dissected and preserved a female dwarf, named Cochinie, Lady Cork became seized with the desire to exhibit this curiosity at one of her assemblies. She asked eagerly:

"Would it do for a lion for to-night?"

"Well, I think, hardly."

"But surely it would, if it is in spirits."

Off drove the indefatigable Lady Cork to Sir A. Carlisle's; he was not at home, and the following conversation took place between her and the servant—

"There's no child here, madam."

"But," cried Lady Cork, "I mean the child in the bottle."

"Oh, this isn't the place where we bottle the children, madam, that is in the master's workshop."

She always signed herself "M. Cork and Orrery," which once caused an amusing mistake on the part of a furniture dealer. Lady Cork, having seen something in his window which took her fancy, wrote to him to send her what she wanted. His answer was as follows—"D.B. not having any dealings with 'M. Cork and Orrery,' begs to have a more explicit order, finding that the house is not known in the trade."

Talking of her conversaziones, she said, "My dear, I have pink evenings for the exclusives, blue for the literary, and grey for the religious; I have them all in their turns; then I have one party of all sorts, but I have no name for that."

Quite the best description of one of Lady Cork's receptions is that given by Lady Morgan in her now forgotten "Book of the Boudoir." It was during her early fame as an authoress, she had only recently arrived from Ireland, and she says that her sensations at approaching the noted salons were those of her countryman, Maurice Quill, who, in the heat of the battle of Vittoria, exclaimed,

"By —— ! I wish some of my greatest enemies were kicking me down Dame Street."

The account goes on to say—

"Lady Cork met me at the door of the suite of apartments, which opens with a brilliant boudoir.

"'What, no harp, Glorvina?' said her ladyship.

"'Oh, Lady Cork!'

"'Oh, Lady Fiddlestick! You are a fool, child; you don't know your own interests. Here James, William, Thomas, send one of the chairmen to Stanhope Street, for Miss Owenson's harp.'

"Led on by Dr. Johnson's celebrated 'little dunce,' I was at once merged in that crowd of elegants and elegantes, amongst which was a strikingly sullen-looking, handsome creature, the soon-to-be-celebrated Lord Byron. I found myself pounced down upon a sort of rustic seat by Lady Cork. … So there I sat, the lioness of the evening, exhibited and shown like the hyena that never was tamed, looking about as wild, and feeling quite as savage. … Lady Cork prefaced every introduction with a little exordium—'Lord Erskine, this is the Wild Irish Girl whom you were so anxious to know. I assure you she talks quite as well as she writes. Now, my dear, do tell Lord Erskine some of those Irish stories that you told the other evening at Lady Charleville's. Fancy yourself en petit comité, and take off the Irish brogue. Mrs. Abington says you would make a famous actress; she does indeed! This is the Duchess of St. Albans—she has your Wild Irish Girl by heart. Where is Sheridan? Do, my dear Mr. T.—(This is Mr. T., my dear, geniuses should know one another)—find me Mr. Sheridan. Oh, here he is! What! you know each other already? Tant mieux! This is Lord Carysfort. Mr. Lewis, do come forward! That is Monk Lewis, my dear, but you must not read his works, they are very naughty …… Do see, somebody, if Mr. Kemble and Mrs. Siddons have come yet, and pray tell us that scene at the Irish baronet's in the rebellion, that you told the ladies of Llangollen, and then give us your blue-stocking dinner at Sir R. Phillips's, and describe the Irish priests.' …"

This graphic snap-shot of Lady Cork's conversation illustrates better than any long descriptions how she talked, and how she showed off her lions and lionesses. At one time, she had the Prince Regent on view; at another, the Countess Guiccioli (famous from her connection with Lord Byron), while Moore and his singing were well known at her little dinners. He tells that one morning, at a rehearsal of a reading of Comus, when he had given a bad cold as an excuse for not taking part in it, she assailed him with a pitch-plaster, and proceeded to unbutton his waistcoat, with the intention of putting it on. He took flight, and she pursued him, with the plaster in her hand.

He notes in his journal that he called one morning on Lady Cork, who snubbed him for using the word "nice," and said that Dr. Johnson would never let her use it.

Mrs. Opie relates going to an assembly at Lady Cork's in 1814, at which Blucher, the Prussian General, was expected. The company, which included Lord Limerick, Lord and Lady Carysfort, James Smith of the "Rejected Addresses," Monk Lewis, &c., waited and waited, but no Blucher appeared. To keep up Lady Cork's spirits, Lady Caroline Lamb proposed acting a proverb, but it ended by acting the French word orage (a storm). She, Lady Cork, and Miss White went out of the room, and came back digging with the poker and tongs. They dug for gold (or) and they acted a passion for rage, and then acted a storm for the whole word orage. Still the old General did not come, and Lady Caroline disappeared; but previously Mrs. Wellesley Pole and her daughter arrived, bringing a beautiful Prince with them, Prince Leopold of Saxe Coburg, (afterwards married to the Princess Charlotte). She feared Blucher would not come.

"However," continues Mrs. Opie, "we now heard a distant, then a near hurrah. … the hurrahs increased, and we all jumped up saying, 'there's Blucher at last! 'The door opened, the servant calling out 'General Blucher!' on which in strutted Lady Caroline Lamb in a cocked hat and great coat!"

When Mrs. Opie joined the Quakers, Lady Cork wrote her a charming and most characteristic letter. She says in it.

"I must be glad that you are happy, but I must confess that I have too much self not to feel it a tug at my heart the no-chance I have of enjoying your society. Will your primitive cap never dine with me? Am I never to see you again? Pray, pray, do not put on the bonnet! So come to me and be my love in a dove-coloured garb, and a simple head-dress. Your friend of the lower House [Wilberforce in all probability], will agree with me that good people mixing with the world are of infinitely more use than when they confine themselves to one set. I could fill a paper with fun, but the cold water of your last makes me end my letter. God bless you, adieu. Yours ever, saint or sinner,

"M. Cork and Orrery."

One of the literary people befriended by Lady Cork was Thomas Hogg, a poet that she picked up in a ditch (he was a hedger and ditcher). She clothed and fed him, and had a bed made up for him in her stables. Great was the astonishment of Mrs. Opie and her friends when this "man in a slop" (an unbleached linen garment, worn by labourers) arrived, escorted by Lady Cork's footman, to read out his poem on Hope.

Though Lady Cork was famed for the excellence of her dinners, she was very temperate both in eating and drinking. Her usual drink was barley water. She chose to dress in pure white, and always wore a white crepe cottage bonnet, and a white satin shawl, trimmed with the finest point lace. She was never seen in a cap, and, although so old, her complexion, which was really pink and white, not put on, but her own natural colour, was beautiful. She had often been at the court of France during the reign of Louis XVI. and Marie Antoinette, and never forgot what the Princess de Joinville once told her, that "neatness is the beauty of old age." She was very fond of birds, especially parrots and macaws, and once invited all the birds of her acquaintance to a party, in order that she might decide which was the cleverest. The winning bird was presented with a little gold collarette, from which a medal was suspended.

Lord Lansdowne said that he called on Lady Cork one morning, and found her establishment in a state of bustle and excitement.

"Come in, Lord Lansdowne," cried Lady Cork "come in, I am so glad you came at this moment. Only think, the gray parrot has just laid an egg!"

During the latter years of her life, her eyesight became impaired, but she retained her gay spirits and her love for celebrities to the end. She was never really old, her interest in life was the same as ever. Under a sketch of her which was made by one of her grand nieces, she scrawled the words—

  "Look at me,
  I'm ninety-three,
And all my faculties I keep,
Eat, drink, and laugh, and soundly sleep! "

But even her vitality gave way at last, and she died in her ninety-fourth year, May 20th, 1840. She formed a link between the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, and filled a niche in society that no woman but herself could have occupied.