412 pages, The Noonday Press, ISBN-13: 978-0374524470
Aristocrats: Caroline, Emily, Louisa, and Sarah Lennox, 1740-1832 by Stella Tillyard is a joint biography of the fabulous Lennox sisters – but the Lennox sisters aren’t just any aristocrats; oh, no, seeing as they are the great-grand daughters of Charles II and his mistress Louise Renée de Penancoët de Kérouaille, Duchess of Portsmouth, this made them the crème de la crème of aristocrats. Their story, spanning almost the whole of the 18th Century, is one of one of the noblest families in England and the changes that they see in their collected lifetime. As Tillyard demonstrates, the sisters grow up in a world of immense privilege. From childhood, they are surrounded by servants and family members; both their parents were courtiers to George II, so consequently they grew up around the Royal Family, waiting for the time with they, too, will make their debut and take their place amongst the elite of the country.
They are also brought up with the romantic story of how their parents arranged marriage turned into a love match. The girl’s father, the second Duke of Richmond, was married to Lady Sarah Cadogan to pay off a gambling debt between their fathers. Soon after the wedding, the groom, only 18-years-old at the time, took off on a grand tour of Europe, not to return for 3 years. Upon doing so, he attended the theater and was immediately taken by a beauty sitting in one of the boxes, surrounded by admirers – who turned out to be his own wife. With a story such as this swirling about in their brains, it was no wonder that each Lennox sister grew up to expect to have happy marriages and to choose their own husbands – while their parents, of course, felt that since their own marriage was arranged, they knew best for their daughters.
Caroline is the first to rebel. Unmarried at 20, and almost on the shelf, she becomes fascinated by Henry Fox, an atheist, and a former libertine, twenty years her senior, he was no one’s idea of a perfect match, certainly not Caroline’s parents. Although he was a rising politician, he was impoverished. Still, Caroline and Henry fell in love and eloped, leading her parents to refuse to see her. The next sister, Emily, the beauty of the family and the favorite daughter, is pursued by the Earl of Kildare (and future Duke of Leinster), the leading aristocrat in Ireland. He’s no more to her parents liking than Henry Fox. Their chief objection? He was Irish. However, Emily was used to getting what she wanted, and she soon managed to sway her parents to letting her marry the Earl of Kildare at the age of 15. The day after her marriage, with the consent of her husband, Emily hightails it over to her sister Caroline’s house for a reconciliation. It is only after Emily has her first child, that Caroline and her parents are reconciled, although they apparently never warm to her happy and successful marriage to Henry Fox (future Lord Holland). After bearing her first husband 19 children, Emily later scandalizes both the aristocracy and her sisters when she remarries after Leinster’s death to her children’s tutor, a younger Scotsman named William Ogilvie with whom she had been having an affair. Her youngest son, although acknowledged by Kildare, was in fact Ogilvy’s. She and Ogilvie had three children after their marriage. Lady Sarah Lennox, the second youngest, has the longest road to happiness of all the sisters. She arrives back in England at the age of 14, after having spent most of her childhood in Ireland with her sisters Louisa and Cecilia after their parents’ death. The future George III falls in love with her, and her family encourages the idea that a match might be made between the two. But after George becomes King, a more suitable match with the German princess Charlotte of the Duchy of Mecklenburg-Strelitz is arranged. Sarah feels embarrassed and humiliated at the rejection and rushes into marriage with George Bunbury, who turns out to be indifferent and boring, stumbles into a love affair with Lord William Gordon by whom she has an illegitimate child. Ostracized by society after her husband divorces her, Sarah lives in a kind of purgatory with her brother until she finally finds happiness as the wife of a career soldier, George Napier.
The heart of Tillyard’s tale is family: the Lennox family suffers from petty quarrels, jealously and heartbreak, just like any other family; it’s just they are happen to be extremely rich and privileged. The sister’s fight over their parents will, and then later Emily and Caroline are estranged for years over Lady Sarah’s scandalous behavior. Tillyard gives the reader a good idea of what it was like for a woman of that time period, especially if she transgressed the moral codes and got caught – even if she were an aristocrat.