Can There Be a More Romance Story Than Ours?
All letters methinks should be free and easy as one’s discourse not studied, as an oration, nor made up of hard words like a charm.
—DOROTHY OSBORNE [to William Temple, September 1653]
as those romances are best which are likest true stories, so are those true stories which are likest romances
—WILLIAM TEMPLE [to Dorothy Osborne, c. 1648–50]
The romance began in the dismal year of 1648. It was much wetter than usual with an English summer full of rain. The crops were spoiled, the animals sickened “and cattle died of a murrain everywhere.” The human population had fared no better. The heritage of Elizabeth I’s reign had been eighty years of peace, the longest such period since the departure of the Romans over twelve centuries before. After this, the outbreak of civil war in 1642 had come as a severe shock. Few had remained unscathed. By the time the crops failed in 1648, the first hostilities of the war were over but the bitterness remained. The nightmare of this domestic kind of war was its indistinct firing lines and the fact the enemy was not an alien but a neighbour, brother or friend. The rift lines were complex and deep. Old rivalries and new opportunism added to the murderous confusion of civil war. Waged in the name of opposing interests and ideologies, the pitiful destruction and its bitter aftermath were acted out on the village greens and town squares, in the demesnes of castles and the courtyards of great country houses.
One of the many displaced by war was the young woman Dorothy Osborne. She was twenty-one and in peaceful times would have been cloistered on her family’s estate in deepest Bedfordshire awaiting an arranged marriage with some eligible minor nobleman or moneyed squire. Instead, she was on the road with her brother Robin, clinging to her seat in a carriage, lurching on the rutted track leading southwards on the first leg of a journey to St. Malo in France, where her father waited in exile. Low-spirited, disturbed by the catastrophes that had befallen her family, Dorothy could not know that the adventure was about to begin that would transform her life.
Dorothy’s family, the Osbornes of Chicksands Priory near Bedford, was just one of the many whose lives and fortunes were shaken and dispersed by this war. At its head was Sir Peter Osborne, a cavalier gentleman who had unhesitatingly thrown in his lot with the king when he raised his standard at Nottingham in August 1642. Charles’s challenge to parliament heralded the greatest political and social turmoil in his island’s history. And Sir Peter, along with the majority of the aristocracy and landed gentry, took up the royalist cause; in the process he was to lose most of what he held dear.
Dorothy was the youngest of the Osborne children, a dark-haired young woman with sorrowful eyes that belied her sharp and witty mind. When war first broke out in 1642 she was barely fifteen and her girlhood from then on was spent, not at home in suspended animation, but caught up in her father’s struggles abroad or as a reluctant guest in other people’s houses. After the rout of the royalist armies in the first civil war, the Osborne estate at Chicksands was sequestered: the family dispossessed was forced to rely on the uncertain hospitality of a series of relations. Being the beggars among family and friends left Dorothy with a defensive pride, “for fear of being pitied, which of all things I hate.”
By 1648 two of her surviving four brothers had been killed in the fighting, and circumstances had robbed her of her youthful optimism. Her father had long been absent in Guernsey. He had been suggested as lieutenant governor for the island by his powerful brother-in-law Henry Danvers, Earl of Danby, who had been awarded the governorship for life. To be a royalist lieutenant governor of an island that had declared for the parliamentarians was a bitter fate and Sir Peter and his garrison ended up in a prolonged siege in the harbour fortress of Castle Cornet, abandoned by the royalist high command to face sickness and starvation. Dorothy, along with her mother and remaining brothers, was actively involved in her father’s desperate plight and it was mainly the family’s own personal resources that were used to maintain Sir Peter and his men in their lonely defiance.
Camped out in increasing penury and insecurity at St. Malo on the French coast, his family sold the Osborne silver and even their linen in attempts to finance provisions for the starving castle inmates. When their own funds were exhausted, Lady Osborne turned to solicit financial assistance from relations, friends and reluctant officials. Often it had been humiliating and unproductive work. Dorothy had shared much of her mother’s hardships in trying to raise funds and both had endured the shame of begging for help. These years of uncertainty and struggle took their toll on everyone.
Dorothy’s mother, never the most cheerful of women, had lost what spirits and health she had. She explained her misanthropic attitude to her daughter: “I have lived to see that it is almost impossible to believe people worse than they are”; adding the bitter warning, “and so will you.” Such a dark view of human nature expressed forcefully to a young woman on the brink of life was a baleful gift from any mother. Lady Osborne also criticised her daughter’s naturally melancholic expression: she considered she looked so doleful that anyone would think she had already endured the worst tragedy possible, needing, her mother claimed, “no tears to persuade [show] my trouble, and that I had looks so far beyond them, that were all the friends I had in the world, dead, more could not be expected than such a sadness in my eyes [she could not look any sadder].”
So it was that this young woman, whose life had already been forced out of seclusion, set out with her brother Robin in 1648 for France. Dorothy recognised the change these hardships had wrought, how pessimistic and anxious she had become: “I was so altered, from a cheerful humour that was always alike [constant], never over merry, but always pleased, I was grown heavy, and sullen, froward [turned inward] and discomposed.” She had little reason to expect some fortunate turn of fate. More likely was fear of further loss to her family, more danger and deaths and the possibility that their home would be lost for ever.
An arranged marriage to some worthy whose fortune would help repair her own was the prescribed goal for a young woman of her class and time. Dorothy had grown up expecting marriage as the only career for a girl, the salvation from a life of dependency and service in the house of some relation or other. But it was marriage as business merger, negotiated by parents. Love, or even liking, was no part of it, although in many such marriages a kind of devoted affection, even passion, would grow. She struggled to convince herself it was a near impossibility to marry for love: “a happiness,” she considered, “too great for this world.”
Dorothy, however, had been exposed also to the more unruly world of the imagination. She was a keen and serious reader. She immersed herself in the wider moral and emotional landscapes offered by the classics and contemporary French romances, most notably those of de Scudéry. These heroic novels of epic length, sometimes running to ten volumes, enjoyed extraordinary appeal during the mid-seventeenth century. Some offered not just emotional adventure but also the delights of escapism by taking home-based women (for their readers were mostly female) on imaginary journeys across the known world.
Despite having her heart and imagination fired with fables of high romance, Dorothy knew her destiny as an Englishwoman from the respectable if newly impoverished gentry lay in a grittier reality. As she and her brother passed through their own war-scarred land they were faced by the hard truth that the conflict was not yet over and the country was becoming an increasingly disorderly and lawless place. Traditions of accepted behaviour and expectation were upended. Authority, from the local gentry landowners to the king, had been fundamentally challenged and law and order were beginning to crumble. Travelling was dangerous at any time, for the roads were rutted tracks and travellers were vulnerable to desperate or vicious men. There was no police force, and justice in a time of war was random and largely absent. In her memoirs Lady Halkett,* a contemporary of Dorothy’s, noted the increase in unprovoked acts of murderous sectarian violence against individuals: “there was too many sad examples of [such] at that time, when the division was betwixt the King and Parliament, for to betray a master or a friend was looked upon as doing God good service.”
Dorothy recalled later the self-imposed tragedy, witnessed at first hand, of what had become of England, “a country wasted by a civil war . . . Ruined and desolated by the long strife within it to that degree as it will be useful to none.” Certainly her family’s fortunes and future prospects appeared to be as ruined as the burned houses and dying cattle they passed on their journey south. However destructive civil war was to life, fortune and security, the social upheavals broke open some of the more stifling conventions of a young unmarried woman’s life. Although exposing her to fear and humiliation, the struggle to save her father propelled Dorothy out of Bedfordshire into a wider horizon and a more demanding and active role in the world.
Now she was on the road again: however disheartening the reasons for her journey, whatever the dangers, she was young enough to rise to this newfound freedom and the possibility of adventure. The bustling activity of other travellers was always interesting, the unpredictability of experience exhilarating to a highly perceptive young woman: for Dorothy the small dramas of people’s lives were a constant diversion. She would have shared her amusement with her brother Robin on the journey, making similar comments to this, when she noted the extraordinary diminishment wrought by marriage on a male acquaintance whom she had thought destined for greater things. It is as if she is talking directly, and in the present, confiding this piece of mischievous gossip to an inclined ear:
I was surprised to see, a man that I had known so handsome, so capable of being made a pretty gentleman . . . Transformed into the direct shape of a great boy newly come from school. To see him wholly taken up with running on errands for his wife, and teaching her little dog tricks, and this was the best of him, for when he was at leisure to talk, he would suffer nobody else to do it, and by what he said, and the noise he made, if you had heard it you would have concluded him drunk with joy that he had a wife and a pack of hounds.
Dorothy’s analytic, philosophical turn of mind always searched for deeper significance as well as humour in the antics of her fellows. Her conversational letters, full of irony and gossip, showed her striving to do right herself and yet highly entertained by the wrongs done by others. As Dorothy and Robin crossed by ferry to the Isle of Wight to await the boat to France there was much to watch and wonder at. When they eventually arrived at the Rose and Crown Inn, they had the added piquancy of being close to the forbidding Norman fortress, Carisbrooke Castle, where Charles I was imprisoned, with all the attendant speculation around his recent incarceration and various attempts at escape and rescue.
Also en route to France was a young man of quite extraordinary good looks and ardent nature. William Temple was only twenty and had evaded most of the bitter legacies and depredations of the civil war. His family were parliamentarians, his father sometime Master of the Rolls in Ireland and a member of parliament there. William was his eldest son and although not dedicated to scholarship was highly intelligent and curious about the world, with an optimistic view of human nature. His easy manners, interest in others and natural charm were so infectious that his sister Martha claimed that on a good day no one, male or female, could resist him. Sent abroad by his father to broaden his education and protect him from the worst of the war at home, William Temple, naturally independent-minded and tolerant, avoided playing his part in the sectarianism that divided families and destroyed lives.
There was nothing, after all, to keep him at home, as his sister later explained: “1648 [was] a time so dismal to England, that none but those who were the occasion of those disorders in their country, could have been sorry to leave it.”9 William headed first for the Isle of Wight to visit his uncle Sir John Dingley, who owned a large estate there. He had another more controversial family member on the island, his cousin Colonel Robert Hammond,* who as the governor of Carisbrooke Castle had the unenviable task of keeping the defeated king confined.
Having lost the first of the civil wars and in fear for his life, Charles I had escaped from Hampton Court in November 1647 but, like his grandmother Mary Queen of Scots nearly eighty years before, had decided against fleeing to France. Instead he turned up on the shores of the Isle of Wight. When he was taken into captivity in Carisbrooke Castle, Charles turned his restive mind on schemes of rescue. He was plotting an uprising of the Scots and hoping even for help from the French, encouraged by his queen Henrietta Maria, who had sought asylum there.
There has been some speculation that William may have visited his Hammond cousin too and seen the king at this time. If he did see Charles he was not impressed. In a later essay, written in his early twenties, he wrote disparagingly about how disappointed he was with the Archduke Leopold† in the flesh after his “towering titles gave me occasion to draw his picture like the knight that kills the giant in a romance.” The sight instead of a mere mortal, in fact a very ordinary man that “methinks . . . looks as like Tom or Dick as ever I saw any body in my life” reminded him of the commonplace appearance and “air of our late King.” Emotionally, William was more royalist than parliamentarian but this less than respectful reference just three years after Charles’s traumatic execution, to what true royalists at that time would consider a martyred king, revealed his independent mind in action. To write of the “air” or manner of the king also suggested he had seen Charles I in life. If this was so then this visit to the Isle of Wight was the probable occasion for such a meeting.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Read My Heart by Jane Dunn. Copyright © 2008 by Jane Dunn. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.