A small group of letters thought to have been destroyed almost 200 years ago is among the many surprising finds awaiting researchers in the LSU Libraries’ Special Collections.
The eighteen letters, now part of the George De Forest Collection, were written by Louise, Countess of Albany, the widow of one of history’s most tragic yet romantic figures—Prince Charles Edward Stuart, also known as “Bonnie Prince Charlie.”
Charles’s family, the House of Stuart, had ruled Scotland from 1371 to 1603 and then all of Britain until 1714, when Queen Anne died without having produced any surviving children. Some felt that the throne should have passed to her half-brother, James. As a Catholic, however, he was barred from inheriting the crown, which went instead to Anne’s closest Protestant relative, Prince George of Hanover, a German who didn’t even speak English. James tried to reclaim the throne for his family, but it was the ill-fated effort of his son Charles, who, in 1745-46, led the Scottish clans in a last, desperate show of resistance against the English, that has become one of the most colorful stories in British history.
After his defeat, Charles went into exile in Italy, where he adopted the alias “Count of Albany.” In 1772, he married the much younger Princess Louise of Stolberg-Gedern. In the eyes of her husband’s supporters, she was now the rightful queen of England, Scotland, and Ireland. The marriage, however, was unhappy and childless, and ended in separation. Already disappointed over his military and diplomatic failures, Charles slowly drank himself to death, dying in 1788.
Louise then came into her own. She and her lover Vittorio Alfieri, one of Italy’s greatest poets, moved to Paris and established a salon where artists, writers, and philosophers could meet and share ideas. When the French Revolution broke out, they returned to Italy. For the next thirty years, until her death in 1824, Louise’s home in Florence was a center of intellectual life, as well as a place where women could participate in informal discussions of politics.
It was also a popular stop for foreign travelers in Italy. One of these was Elizabeth Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire. Many notable persons of the time befriended her, considering her not just a great beauty, but also a great thinker. (She has been the subject of several recent books, documentaries, and even a movie, The Duchess, starring Keira Knightley, Hayley Atwell, and Ralph Fiennes.) After her husband’s death in 1809, she moved to Italy to pursue her interests in history and the arts.
“Bess,” as the Duchess of Devonshire was known, found a kindred spirit in the Countess of Albany. According to Caroline Chapman’s biography of the duchess, published in 2002, most of her correspondence was burned by her daughter after her death in 1824, including all of her letters from the Countess of Albany. At least eighteen letters, however, escaped the flames and have been found in the LSU Libraries’ Special Collections.
George De Forest, a New Orleans bookseller who specialized in British materials, acquired the letters in the mid twentieth century from an unknown source. Written in French, the international language of the day, they mostly consist of updates on the Countess of Albany’s activities as a society hostess and her thoughts on current events.
Read History as It Happened
The letters help make history “come alive” by showing how great events played out in people’s everyday lives. Politics are a major topic of discussion, especially Napoleon, whom Louise criticized relentlessly. Although he had been defeated at the Battle of Waterloo not long before these letters were written (ca. 1815-20), Louise kept tabs on his life in exile. She briefly mentions the efforts of Lord Castlereagh, British Foreign Secretary, to prevent the emperor from escaping from St. Helena. In another letter, she reported: “It is also said that the English newspapers speak of an American plot to rescue the prisoner of the island of St. Helena.” (This news would have been of special interest to the Duchess of Devonshire, whose son Augustus had served as British ambassador to Washington at the time of the outbreak of the War of 1812.)
Louise commented on the political situation in the wake of Napoleon’s occupation of Italy. “Personally, I hate Naples,” she wrote; “the city always seems to me in revolution, the cries of the people, its ragged appearance, seems to me an army of sans culottes.” Several times, she refers to “La Pauline,” presumably Napoleon’s sister, Princess Pauline Borghese, whom Bess met on at least one occasion in Rome. She also mentions Cardinal Ercole Consalvi. In addition to being the pope’s right-hand man and a leading light of Italian intellectual life, he was one of the Duchess of Devonshire’s best friends.
Important literary names show up in the correspondence as well. Madame de Staël, the greatest French woman of letters of her day, was an acquaintance of both Louise and Bess. Lady Charlotte Bury, a writer of romance novels, also appears. The most famous name is Lord Byron. The eccentric poet rented property from the Duchess of Devonshire and had an affair with her close friend Caroline Lamb, who famously said he was “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” In one letter, the Countess of Albany pointed out with somewhat surprising understatement that “Lord Byron is still in Venice, where he leads a singular life.”
Also of interest are Louise’s comments on her own life. In one letter, for example, she told Bess about her attempts to contact the Prince Regent, the future King George IV, who had taken the reins of power after his father, George III, went insane. Despite old differences between their families, George III had provided Louise a large pension. She worried that the English ambassador at Paris, whom she had entrusted to deliver her letter to the Regent, might have forgotten about it or even burned it.
Fortunately, we now know for sure that her letters to the Duchess of Devonshire were not burned (or at least not all of them), as was previously thought. Students and scholars are invited to explore the letters further and discover what all they hold.
Please feel free to contact us with questions. The letters’ shelf location is George De Forest Collection (Range 77:41, Box 7).