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Lady Andalusia Molesworth’s copies of Jane Austen

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Published in 1856 by Richard Bentley, this set of Jane Austen’s novels initially belonged to a fashionable Victorian hostess whose social gatherings redirected political careers and included literati such as Dickens, Macaulay, and Thackeray. Better still, she was celebrated for staging just the type of scandalous private theatricals described in Mansfield Park. By those who were jealous of her social influence, she was ridiculed as a connoisseur in the well-turned calves of her footmen. She was a self-made woman who set Victorian tongues wagging wherever she went.   Owner's History >

DESCRIPTION

These are four surviving volumes of a five-volume set of “The Works of Miss Austen” in Bentley’s famous “Standard Novels” series. Printed in 1856, the complete set contained all six major novels (the volume shared by Northanger Abbey and Persuasion is missing). Advertised as “neatly bound for the library,” such sets were offered in a handful of binding styles in different colored cloths. This particular set in light green cloth is decorated with blind-stamping and some gilt extras on the spines and top boards. This unusual binding is likely bespoke, for it still contains the bookbinder’s ticket in the first volume of Westley’s & Co. of London. The green cloth binding typifies the modest elegance of stamped cloth bindings then replacing the tradition of hand-tooled leather books. 

CONDITION
Volume IV has been lost and the set has slightly faded along the spines from sun exposure. There are a few surface-stains, slight foxing that is limited to only initial pages in a few volumes, water stains on only the initial pages of Mansfield Park, plus the usual minor wear and tear of books that have actually been read. (see photos) Inside, each Bentley volume remains embellished with the status symbols of a frontispiece and illustrated title page (printed with the 1833 date), which in each case is followed by an additional 1856 title page. Only the Emma volume retains the tissue guard between the frontispiece and its 1833 title page.

PROVENANCE
Each volume is signed and dated by its original owner “Lady Molesworth of Pencarrow, 1859.”

Lady Molesworth
of Penncarrow

In summer of 1824, Andalusia joined the first set of students at the Royal Academy of Music. By 1827, she was receiving strong reviews for a sweet soprano voice on the professional stage at Covent Garden. She goes on to act and sing, working with the celebrated tenor John Braham. After a performance in the Pump Room in Bath on 31 March 1831, she accepts a proposal from a Worcestershire country squire named Temple West (c. 1770- 1839), a man forty years her senior.  For young Andalusia, the marriage was a passport to financial security and respectability.

 

Temple West dies in 1839, at the age of 67, leaving his entire estate (Mathon Lodge and a modest fortune of £2,000) to his wife Andalusia, now the widow of a country gentleman. But life in Worcestershire proved dull. Five years later, Andalusia rents out the country house and re-enters London society, attracting the attentions of a bookish Philosophical Radical and wealthy aristocrat named Sir William Molesworth, Baronet (1810-1855)—her contemporary.  He writes in his diary in 1844 about a private gathering at his mother’s house: “Mrs. West sang beautifully.” William soon proposes and, in spite of strong objections on his family’s side, the couple is married within the month. 

HISTORY OF OWNER

“Lady Molesworth of Pencarrow” was born Andalusia Grant Carstairs in 1809.  Young Andalusia took her middle name (her mother’s maiden name) as a stage name, launching a singing career as “Miss Grant.”  Little is known about her father, James Bruce Carstairs, for whom in later life she paid experts to prove a connection to an extinct baronetcy (the experts came up empty).  Whatever his profession or resources, her father’s ability to secure a place in the Royal Academy of Music when she was about fifteen made possible all that followed. 

When Andalusia steps into the role of Lady Molesworth of Pencarrow, an unexceptional stately home in Cornwall becomes, under her guidance as mistress, one of the most coveted social invitations of the beau monde.  Important social occasions greased the wheels of Victorian politics, and it is with the help of his brilliant new wife that the awkward and stodgy William revives his political career and is twice elected to Parliament, rising to a post on the Whig Cabinet. Andalusia, in turn, becomes a high-profile socialite who regularly has literati such as Thackeray, Macaulay, and Dickens to dinner. 

Pencarrow House

But literati can be cutting.  In 1850, Thackeray boasts in a private letter of arriving so late to a “magnificent entertainment provided by my titled friends Sir William & Lady Molesworth on Saturday” that the first course had already been removed.  To the snub of tardiness Thackeray adds mockery.  The success of Vanity Fair had made him a celebrity who found himself invited by the very lords and ladies satirized in his fiction.  He continues: “The banquet was sumptuous in the extreme & the company of the most select order—I had the happiness of sitting next to Clarence Bulbul Esqe. M.P. and opposite was the most Noble the Marquess of Steyne” (Selected Letters, ed. Edgar F. Harden [1996], 153.)  Applying the names of his own satirical creations, Thackeray lards his report of the evening with sarcasm and a reverse snobbery.  Celebrity and wealth will indeed have its detractors, and Lady Andalusia’s lowly backstory combined with her unabashed delight in her own lavish dinner parties made her the target of such digs. 

 

The Temple Bar magazine, edited by Dickens protégées Edmund Yates and George Sala, existed to lampoon town life and eagerly held its funhouse mirror up to a woman with actual opinions (“had no reticence”) and, worse still, “knew pretty well her own importance.” (Their lampoon appeared after Lady Molesworth’s death in 1888.)  Theirs are the recollections that fix Andalusia as a connoisseur of beauty in her male servants:

 

“I think I must include Lady Molesworth’s footmen among the ornaments of her house. As there are dog fanciers, so she was a fancier in flunkeys, and hers were incomparable; such unique specimens of well-grown, well fed humanity, such complexions, such calves, such superb humility, were not to be matched in London. I believe she could only have recruited them in the manner in which the bride of the king’s son is selected in fairy tales, and that a general muster of aspirants must have been collected from east to west; ordinary mortals felt awed in their presence” (Yates and Sala, eds. Temple Bar, Vol. 106 [London: Ward & Lock, 1895], 350).

 

Well-turned calves aside, Andalusia became celebrated for her legendary house parties and private theatricals. Yates and Sala themselves took part.

 

Sadly, there is no evidence to suggest that at either Eaton Place in London or Pencarrow in Cornwall Lady Andalusia staged Lovers’ Vows, the German melodrama performed by the characters at Mansfield Park.  Nonetheless, the private theatricals so central to Austen’s novel resonate with Andalusia’s penchant for staging similar events.  A private book closet at Pencarrow still contains some of her well-annotated prompt copies—with parts marked out for particular guests in farces such as The Little Savage, Dearest Mamma, Lend Me Five Shillings, and Wooing One’s Wife.  The theatrical selections and heavy annotations convey great energy and frivolity.  At Pencarrow, the guests performed in the attic space that Andalusia had converted into a small at-home theatre, donning elaborate costumes and constructing stage sets.  Not all her guests were mere amateurs, for Sir Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan) stayed at Pencarrow to polish up a score. 

 

After her husband’s death in 1855, the theatricals and lavish dinners continued for three further decades.  Worse still, Andalusia took a companion: George Byng, seventh Viscount Torrington (1811–1885).  Never having reconciled with her husband’s family, at her own death in 1888 she left everything not in trust or nailed to the floor to Byng’s nephew and heir (about £26,000).  When making her purchase of these books in 1859, Andalusia may well have been planning the next house party with the Viscount.  

 

Today, all that remains of those glamorous theatricals are a few prompt books in the Pencarrow closet at the top of the stairs, some sneering recollections by former participants, and dusty attics stained by a leaking roof.  This particular copy uniquely connects Austen to a specific Victorian reader and a flurry of audacious private theatricals in a country house in Cornwall.

 
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FROM THE CLARK COLLECTION
Sandra Clark, of Texas, has donated Lady Andalusia’s copies—the four surviving volumes of the set—to the North American Friends of Chawton House so that funds raised at auction might help to keep the library and house going during these COVID-19 restrictions.  The volumes contain the bookseller’s penciled annotation from a purchase a few decades ago: “4 vols / scarce in original cloth / 1856 / (w/o Northanger Abbey [and Persuasian])/ £950.”  Think of this number as the reserve.

 

EXTRAS
The winner of the auction will also receive a few extras, including a biography of the Molesworths, a guidebook to Pencarrow (signed by the current Lady Molesworth), and some of the research on this set that Janine Barchas did in the course of her research for The Lost Books of Jane Austen. All of this will help the new owner lock in the provenance history that makes these pretty Bentley copies extra special.

NAFCHL (DBA NAFCH)  is a United States 501(c)3 tax-exempt nonprofit organization affiliated with Chawton House in the U.K.

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