Minor characters and their inspiration

HOUSE OF SHADOWS webNicola here. I’ve always found writing minor characters to be fun. They add context and depth to a story. Sometimes they run away with it and demand a story of their own. In House of Shadows I have an “offstage” character, Lady Evershot, who is modelled on a famous Georgian aristocrat, Elizabeth Berkeley, and as this is Women’s History Month I thought it would be fun to talk about Lady Elizabeth, who was most definitely a woman ahead of her time.

Lady Elizabeth Berkeley was the daughter of the Earl of Berkeley, and married the 6th Baron Craven when she was 16 years old, before he inherited his title. It was not a love match and later, in her memoirs, she claimed she was too young to have made an informed decision and that she gave in to family pressure, which is an interesting insight into the workings of the marriage mart in Georgian England.

The young couple lived at Ashdown House for a couple of years, their two eldest children being Elizabeth Berkeley born there. Alas the Craven marriage was not a happy one; from the earliest times Lady Elizabeth was complaining that her husband was uncultured and uncouth, a man who read nothing but the newspapers, whereas she was more creative, an artist and a writer. After not many years they drifted apart and she had an affair with the French ambassador whilst her husband set up a mistress who styled herself Lady Craven, much to the real Lady Craven’s fury.  Matters became so bitter between them and the scandal so well-known in society that King George III himself stepped in to order the Cravens to be more discreet. No one minded them having affairs; the only criticism was for the public mud-slinging!

Eventually Lady Craven left her husband and travelled abroad, visiting Europe, Russia and Turkey, travelling in her own, luxuriously appointed travelling carriage with plenty of servants to ease her way. She wrote letters home describing her experiences and the sights and sounds of her journeys, an intrepid female explorer long before women thought that lone travelling was respectable, safe or appealing. The author Sybil Rosenfeld, in her book Temples of Thespis, describes Lady Craven’s subsequent life:

Brandenburg house“She travelled about Europe for some years until she finally settled at the court of the Margrave of Anspach in 1787 as his “adopted sister”. In 1791 only a month after she heard of the death of her husband she married the Margrave in Lisbon and persuaded him to give up the ruling of his principality and retire with her and his fortune to England. Her precipitancy was considered indecent and, on her return, she found herself cold-shouldered by the court and high society. The Margrave, a stolid German who seems only to have wished for a peaceful life, purchased Brandenburgh House a country villa on the bank of the Thames at Hammersmith and spent the rest of his days there. His wife built a theatre in the grounds where she could entertain him and at the same time indulge in her favourite past time of taking the centre stage….

Despite the fact that the Margrave was related to King George III his wife was not received at court as she was considered too scandalous. Nothing daunted, she spent her time at the races and in organising private theatricals, which were often performances of plays she had written herself. The theatre at Brandenburg House was built as a faux castle in the manner of Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill and the productions were lavish and extravagant with the Margravine frequently taking a leading role. As a larger than life figure of the era, she was lampooned by the caricaturists of the time and described my Walpole as entertaining but “infinitely indiscreet.”

Perhaps private theatricals suited the former Lady Craven’s need to be the focus of attention and gave her the opportunity to Brandenburg theatre assume a number of different roles and act out her fantasies. In that she was not alone since it was a popular entertainment in upper class Georgian society. Nevertheless she snubbed her eldest son’s wife who was a “real” actress, Louisa Brunton. The two were said cordially to detest one another. Perhaps it was envy on the Margravine’s part rather than snobbery though, although Louisa was considered a great beauty rather than a great actress.

The Margravine was reconciled with her sons, the eldest of whom became the First Earl of Craven of the 2nd Creation, but she and her daughters never spoke. Her second daughter was Maria, Countess of Sefton, who was one of the patronesses of Almack’s and said to be a stickler for respectability. One can only imagine the impression her scandalous mother’s behaviour might have made on her.

Elizabeth_%28Berkeley%29%2C_Margravine_of_Anspach_by_Ozias_HumphryThe Margrave of Anspach died in 1806 and Elizabeth moved to Naples where she died in 1828. There are still two roads named after her in Hammersmith, London!

In House of Shadows Lady Evershot is a more sinister and less likeable figure than Elizabeth Craven, although she has the same questionable sense of morality and the same love of horse-racing. She never appears in the book but her presence over-shadows the Regency element of the story and certainly affects her son, who is dependent upon her for money.

Do you have a favourite minor character who appears in a book – or doesn’t appear but is still a presence?