I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel by Melvyn Bragg before, but I really enjoyed this. It’s a fascinating depiction of a true story – how Mary Robinson, the daughter of Lake District innkeepers, was so beautiful that she was mentioned in guidebooks and people came to Buttermere to see her, and how she married a tourist who was, or said that he was, a colonel, an MP, and the younger brother of an earl … only for it to turn out that he was an impostor and a bigamist.
The story went viral, to use the modern parlance. It was all over the newspapers, such a big story that people were practically fighting to get seats in court for his trials. Songs were being written about it, and being used by kids for street games. This was in 1802 – even then, an ordinary person’s wrongdoings and another ordinary person’s misfortune could somehow catch the mood of the nation, with everyone and their dog having an opinion about them, and those opinions being influenced by their positions in what we’d now call culture wars, in the febrile atmosphere following the French Revolution. And, in the middle of this very sorry tale, there are a lot of glorious descriptions of the Lake District, not only the landscape but the lifestyle and customs.
It really is a beautifully written book. We get these lovely descriptions of the Lake District and of life there, and of how Mary and her family have been affected by her unsought after fame, and how she’s still unmarried despite her great beauty and her genuinely nice personality. And, if you don’t know the story, you will at first believe everything that her admirer, the supposed Colonel August Alexander Hope says: we aren’t told that he’s an impostor. We see him courting a wealthy young woman – from Manchester 🙂 – whose guardians are delighted at the idea of her bagging an aristocrat, only for him to decide instead to make a love match with Mary.
And then we see it all come crashing down, as it turns out that he’s really John Hatfield, a man of relatively humble origins – from Mottram-in-Longdendale, as it so happens. He owes money all over the show, he’s impersonated an MP, and, horror of horrors, he’s been sending out letters without paying postage (which MPs were allowed to do). He also abandoned his first wife, who later died, and their children, remarried, and abandoned his second wife, who’s very much still alive, and their children.
Coleridge has already written an article about how romantic it is that The Buttermere Beauty has married an earl’s brother. He now writes several more articles, about how poor Mary has been cruelly taken in by this cad. Wordsworth also gets involved. And it’s all over the papers. In this era of the early Romantics, and also the Rousseau-esque Enlightenment ideas about the nobility of nature, Mary is cast as a symbol of unspoilt nature, living a simple life in the Lake District, until Hatfield came along.
And, in the tense political atmosphere – this is 1802, so we’re in the gap between the Treaty of Amiens and the start of the Napoleonic Wars, and we’ve also got the repressive Pittite legislation in force on the home front, as well as tensions over parliamentary reform, Abolitionism, Catholic emancipation and trade unions -, the upper classes are horrified that someone has dared to impersonate an MP, and an earl’s brother at that, but some members of the lower and middle classes, whilst sympathetic to Mary, quite admire him for cocking a snook at the Establishment. (The narrative does explain the historical background, for non-historians). The book was written long before the term “culture wars” was in use, but that’s what was going on.
He’s hauled up in court in London, with hordes of people turning out to watch him going in, and scrapping over seats in the courtroom. You really couldn’t make up some of the things that went on in Georgian Britain! Meanwhile, poor, poor Mary, as if she hasn’t been through enough, has a baby, who dies three weeks after birth. Then he’s brought before the Assizes in Carlisle, and by this point he’s become quite a celebrity. People go to see him in jail. Hotels fill up with people wanting a piece of the action. Again, people are scrapping over seats in court. It’s not Team John versus Team Mary: it’s whether you’re for John or against John: even some of those who are desperately sorry for Mary see him as a romantic figure who acted out of love for her. And, again, there’s this support for a man who’s known hard times and hasn’t been frightened to impersonate one of the ruling class. The one person who doesn’t seem to feature anywhere is the real Colonel Augustus Alexander Hope, who is abroad and doesn’t seem very interested in any of it!
John was hanged, for forgery. Mary did get a happy ending, marrying a nice man and having four children. Maybe if this had happened in mid-Victorian times, she’d have been expected to hide away somewhere and feel ashamed, even though she was a completely innocent party, but the Georgians were more understanding.
You do get these strange stories from time to time. Remember the man who faked his own death in a canoe in 2002, 200 years after Hatfield married Mary? And they do fascinate people. And this one’s particularly interesting because of the way it interacts with the “culture wars” of the time. Melvyn Bragg’s does an excellent job of writing about it, and it really is a very good book.