An August Family
Emily Eden[i] was born on 3rd March 1797 in Old Palace Yard in Westminster. She was the twelfth of fourteen children[ii] of William Eden, first Baron Auckland and his wife Eleanor Elliot, daughter of Sir Gilbert Elliot[iii] and sister of the future Earl of Minto,[iv]. William Eden was an influential Whig politician[v] and a friend of William Pitt the Younger. One of Emily’s uncles was the last British Governor of Maryland, Sir Robert Eden; another uncle, Morton[vi], was a diplomat.
In the year of Emily’s birth her eldest sister Eleanor[vii] was the subject of much public interest when it was rumoured that she was about to marry the younger Pitt. When the matter became public Pitt denied ever having proposed, much to Sir Gilbert’s fury. Two years later Eleanor married the Earl of Buckinghamshire[viii] as his second wife[ix]. When Emily was three her sister Elizabeth married Francis Osborne[x] and Elizabeth and her husband had five children.
Eleanor Hobart, Countess of Buckinghamshire
Emily’s childhood was spent at Eden Farm, near Beckenham in Kent. Eleanor Eden ensured that Emily was well educated and by the age of 11 Emily had read Boswell’s Life of Johnson, the memoirs of Cardinal de Retz and Shakespeare.In 1818, when their mother died, Emily and her sister Fanny set up home with their brother George, now Baron Auckland[xi]. In 1810 George was elected MP for Woodstock and Emily became accustomed to acting as a hostess at Whig events.
The Marriage Conundrum
Lady Emily Cowper
In 1828 when Lady Caroline Lamb, the wife of the leader of the Whigs Lord Melbourne, died the 31 year old Emily was seen as a potential second wife for the Whig politician. Emily occasionally stayed at Panshanger, the home of her friend Lady Emily Cowper, Melbourne’s sister; Melbourne found Emily’s company charming.Lady Cowper and her cronies soon began to discuss the prospect of marriage between the pair. Emily, as a practised Whig hostess would make the perfect wife; there would be none of the tantrums and passionate interludes that Lady Melbourne had been so fond of and had made her husband’s life so hideous.
But Emily’s first impression of Melbourne was far from favourable;
‘He bewilders me and frightens me and swears too much.’[xii]On further acquaintance Emily’s opinion changed to an affectionate respect, but as far as marriage was concerned Emily was cool;
‘I stand very low on the list of his loves and for his thinking well of my principles, it would be rather hard if he did not, considering the society he lives in.’[xiii]Emily was financially independent and was able to please herself in the matrimonial stakes. Melbourne was not very keen on the idea of matrimony with Emily either.
A cool and rational character himself, Melbourne preferred the dramatic attractions of Mrs Caroline Norton[xiv], for whom Melbourne had found her husband George a job as a police magistrate, thus setting the political world gossiping about the Home Secretary’s entanglement. Emily was not impressed by the volatile Caroline and the feeling was mutual; Caroline wrote to Melbourne in tart mode;
‘You, I suppose, will be happy at Panshanger with the virtuous Stanhope[xv] and the virgin Eden.’[xvi]
But despite this mutual disapproval between Emily and his inamorata, Emily and Melbourne stayed fast friends and correspondents, writing about politics, theology and the foibles of their acquaintances.
The First BookIn 1829 Emily wrote The Semi-Attached Couple, a light hearted look at the world she knew so well. The book owes a great deal to Jane Austen, an author to whom Emily was exceptionally partial.
The story is one of an aristocratic couple who marry, only to fall in love thereafter. Of course the husband believes that his wife has married him because he is rich. When Lord Teviot is likely to lose all he discovers his wife loves him and all ends happily.
‘But Helen wanted no assistance. The tameless energy of eighteen bore her through all the fatigues of broken nights and watchful days; and every hour her husband became dearer to her as she became more necessary to him. His eyes followed her with the tenderest gaze.’[xvii]But Helen and Teviot’s tale is not the book’s only love tangle;
‘”There were Walden and I, who both fell in love with each other at first sight, we are happy. Beaufort and Mary began by hating each other; they are happy. In Ernest’s case, the love was all on the lady’s side; and now, did anybody ever see a man in such a state of felicity as he is?”’[xviii]One of the novel’s minor protagonists bears a distinct resemblance to Mrs Bennett of Pride and Prejudice[xix] by Jane Austen. Emily’s Mrs Douglas hates to praise anyone not belonging to her own household;
‘”Oh Helen” said Mrs Douglas, and then paused. She was in imminent peril of being forced to praise, but she escaped with great adroitness. “Well, if Helen were not one of that family, I should n0t dislike her.”’[xx]Publication was to wait, until after the success of her second novel, in 1860.
Life in Political Circles
In November 1830 the Whigs returned to power under the premiership of Lord Grey. George was made President of the Board of Trade and Master of the Mint, while Melbourne was Home Secretary. George was later made First Lord of the Admiralty[xxi], a position he retained when William IV asked Melbourne to take the post of Prime Minister in July 1834 after the resignation of Lord Grey.The first Melbourne administration lasted until the November, when Earl Spencer died and his son Lord Althorp, leader of the Whigs in the Commons, was translated to the Lords. William IV ordered the Whig government to resign, informing Melbourne that he had asked the Duke of Wellington to form a ministry. Melbourne was annoyed by the king’s interference, but he declined to publicise his feelings in the matter, writing to Emily;
‘I have always considered complaints of ill-usage contemptible, whether from a seduced, disappointed girl or a turned-out Prime Minister.’[xxii]
Duke of Wellington and Sir Robert Peel
Sir Robert Peel of the Tory party replaced Melbourne as Prime Minister. The Peel administration was short lived and the Whigs returned to power in April 1835, when George once again became First Lord of the Admiralty.In September 1835 an appointment was made that was to cause Lord Melbourne some minor distress and push him into a depression;
‘In 1835 Miss Eden’s brother, Lord Auckland, was made Governor-General of India; and she went away with him. No longer could Melbourne look forward to calling on her each week, for an entertaining talk on the foibles of his colleagues or the Epistles of St Paul; no longer could he relax his taut nerves in the pleasant warmth of her kindness and good sense.’[xxiii]
Melbourne – David Cecil, The Reprint Society 1955The Semi-attached Couple and the Semi-detached House – Emily Eden, Virago 1988
Heaven’s Command – James Morris[xxiv], Penguin 1979The Age of Reform – Sir Llewellyn Woodward FBA, Oxford University Press 1997
[ii] She had seven sisters and six brothers
[iii] A Scottish politician and scholar
[iv] Governor General of India from 17807 to 1813
[vi] Morton was given the title Baron Henley in 1799 for his services to the crown
[vii] Twenty years older than Emily
[ix] His first wife, Margaretta Bourke died in 1796
[x] First Baron Godolphin; he was the second son of the Duke of Leeds and his son George inherited the Dukedom in 1859
[xi] William Eden died in 1814
[xii] Melbourne - Cecil
[xv] Earl Stanhope
[xvi] Melbourne - Cecil
[xvii] The Semi-attached Couple - Eden
[xix] First published in 1813
[xx] The Semi-attached Couple - Eden
[xxii] Melbourne - Cecil
[xxiv] This edition predates Jan Morris’s change of gender from James