Friday, July 30, 2010

A Remarkable Regency Woman: Maria, Lady Callcott

I've just discovered a remarkable Regency lady. A year or two ago I purchased a charming children's book titled Little Arthur's History of England. I had the intention of writing this blog about that book, first published in 1835. However, I then investigated the author, Maria, Lady Callcott, and was immediately fascinated. Her life discredits all our preconceptions about the sheltered, restricted nature of the lives of Regency women

Maria Dundas was born in Cumberland, July 19, 1785, the daughter of a distinguished naval officer. As he was much at sea, she spent a great deal of her youth at the home of her uncle, Sir David Dundas, where she was exposed to a cultured society of art and literature, including the artist Thomas Lawrence who painted the portrait above of Maria in 1819.

At twenty-three she accompanied her father to India. On the trip she met Captain Thomas Graham and she married him in Bombay in 1809. Their marriage seems to have been a happy--though childless--one, encompassing great stretches of separation which Maria filled with writing, and working as an editor with publisher John Murray. Her first book Journal of a Residence in India was published in 1811.

She became one of the foremost travel writers of her day. Eventually her published travel works included: Three Months Passed in the Mountains East of Rome, Journal of a Voyage to Brazil, Journal of a Residence in Chile and A Short History of Spain. As well, she was an accomplished artist and illustrated her own books.

The illustration left, by Maria, is of Laranjeiras near
Rio de Janeiro

Widowed in 1822 on a voyage to Chile with her husband, she lived alone in Chile for a year and experienced one of the worst earthquakes in the country's history. (In later years she engaged in an argument with the Geological Society in London about the effects of the earthquake.) On leaving Chile she spent portions of the next two years in Brazil, even becoming tutor to a young princess, daughter of the new Brazilian emperor.

The Great Dragon Tree in Tenerife by Maria, Lady Callcott right

On her return to Britain she settled in Kensington and quickly became acquainted with all the London literati. Her household was a centre for their gatherings, both writers and artists--like Constable, Landseer and Turner--and her second husband Augustus Wall Callcott (later Sir Augustus). He was a respected artist, a Royal Academician, and it appears to have been a case of love at first sight. They married in 1827.

Smugglers...1822 by Augustus Wall Callcott

From 1831 Maria suffered ill health but she kept writing. Little Arthur's History of England appeared in 1835 and it was in print for the next 140 years. Her writing style was lively and chatty; it would be interesting to know the opinions of the children toward whom the book was aimed.
"I have so many things to tell you about Henry the Eighth, that I dare say I shall fill three chapters."
She duplicated its success with Historie de France du petit Louis. Many of her works are still available, as downloads from Google Books. She died in 1842 at 57 years of age.

Two happy marriages, a successful writing career, world travel and a plethora of famous friends--Maria Callcott's life was one that any modern woman would be happy to emulate. But this was a Regency lady and, when we think about Regency women, we must keep people like her in mind. All independent, creative fictional heroines, no matter of what era, have their basis in real life people like Maria, Lady Callcott. Truth, as they say, is always stranger than fiction.

'Til next time,



Phoebe's Sisters said...

Thank you for this inspiring post! I'll be sure to check her works.

You know, the more I read about Regency ladies, the more I become aware that we greatly underestimate them. There were so many wonderful women artists, writers, sculptors, historians, maybe even scientist, then and yet we only know but a handful of them.

I am curious about Mrs. Damer, for example, who was, as I understand, a famous sculptor in her time, but there is scanty information about her and I am yet to see any of her works.

Lesley-Anne McLeod said...

I have not heard of Mrs. Damer, Farida! I'll watch for details about her and let you know if I find anything.

It is wonderful to be able to bring these remarkable women back into the notice they deserve!


Phoebe's Sisters said...

Thanks! All I know about her is that she was a friend of Horace Walpole and Miss Berry. Here is the link to a small article about her: