Today’s article from Cheryl Bolen is a review of the published journals of Harriet Arbuthnot, a close friend and confidant of the Duke of Wellington. Mrs. Arbuthnot was also a social hostess of the Tory party, and knew many of the social and political luminaries of her time. She has recorded her impressions of many of them in her journal. Cheryl Bolen will share her observations on Mrs. Arbuthnot herself, based on that same journal. This review of the journal includes excerpts, which allow Mrs. Arbuthnot to speak to us across the centuries.
The Journal of Mrs. Arbuthnot, 1820-1832, Vol. I
February 1820 to December 1825
Edited by Francis Bamford and the Duke of Wellington
London, Macmillan & Co. Ltd., 1950, 434 pages
The Journal of Mrs. Arbuthnot, 1820-1832, Vol. II
January 1826 to January 1832
Edited by Francis Bamford and the Duke of Wellington
London, Macmillan & Co. Ltd, 1950, 490 pages
Anyone who’s ever read about Waterloo’s hero, the Duke of Wellington, has read about his closeness to Mrs. Arbuthnot. Many biographers — as well as their contemporaries — say she was his mistress, though no one has ever uncovered concrete evidence to substantiate these claims. There is nothing in these two volumes of her journals to shed light on that aspect of their friendship.
Certainly, she loved Wellington, but whether that love manifested itself physically cannot be ascertained. Only once in the journals does she speak of her own feeling toward anyone. She writes that next to her husband and his children, she loves Wellington more than anyone else. She does not mention her mother or any of her many siblings in the context of love. (Mrs. Arbuthnot never had any children of her own.)
When writing of Wellington’s eldest son, she writes, “I am very fond of him because he is so very like the Duke.”
What is evident in the journals is that Wellington wished to spend as much time with Harriet Arbuthnot as possible and that she served as his intimate confidant throughout the years these journals cover, almost up to her untimely death of cholera in early 1834. She died at age forty, a quarter of a century younger than Wellington. The grieving Wellington and Mrs. Arbuthnot’s grieving husband — who was almost the same age as Wellington — lived out their lives together at Wellington’s house.
The pictures of Mrs. Arbuthnot in these volumes show a very attractive woman in her twenties and thirties.
Regarding Wellington’s duchess, Mrs. Arbuthnot writes, “I am sorry for her; she cannot help being a fool, & never was a person so mismatched. I am sorry for him too. It drives him from his home.” In another passage, Mrs. Arbuthnot writes, “She [the Duchess of Wellington] is the most abominably silly, stupid woman that ever was born; but I told the Duke I thought he was to blame, too, for that all would go much better if he would be civil to her, but he is not. He never speaks to her and carefully avoids ever going near her.”
Those wishing to learn about the people who were Mrs. Arbuthnot’s contemporaries will do well to read these journals. After all, once Wellington attached himself to Harriet Arbuthnot, she moved in the highest echelons of English society. She was also one of the principal influences encouraging him to serve as prime minister, which he did from 1828 through 1830.
It was her closeness to the men who ran English government that prompted her to pick up her pen and begin her journal. “It has often been a matter of great regret to me that, in all the years that I have been married & from circumstances have been living so much among the leading men of the day, it had never occurred to me to keep a journal,” she writes at the beginning. “I have now determined to conquer my natural laziness & make it a rule from this time forth to write down all that occurs to me, or that I hear of in public affairs that is interesting to me.”
Though not published until more than a hundred years after her death, the diaries have provided a great source to historians studying the ministrations of British government during late Georgian England.
These accounts of leaders’ actions both public and behind-the-scenes are in no way unbiased. Harriet Arbuthnot was unabashedly a Tory — and a passionate Tory who was opposed to any kind of reform. Her extreme dislike of Whig leaders Lord Gray, Lord Palmerston, and Henry Brougham nearly singes the pages.
Mrs. Arbuthnot’s observances almost exclusively pertain to things occurring in the political arena, where her husband served in the House of Commons.
Not only is she a strong Tory, she is a prude. Her intolerance toward unfaithful wives would seem to absolve her from charges of infidelity.
Lady Shelley, who claimed close friendships with both Wellington and the Arbuthnots, said she was certain that Mrs. Arbuthnot could not have been Wellington’s mistress. “Mrs. Arbuthnot was devoid of womanly passions,” Lady Shelley is quoted in the introduction to the first volume. Lady Shelley also said Mrs. Arbuthnot was possessed of “a man-like sense.” That is clear in her journals. Why would Wellington not wish to be with a beautiful woman in possession of a man’s mind?
If one can read past her many prejudices, her high intellect shines.
© 2006 – 2011 Cheryl Bolen
This article was first published in The Quizzing Glass in December 2010.
Posted at The Beau Monde by permission of the author.
- Cheryl Bolen – Featured Beau Monde Author (main.thebeaumonde.com)