- 'The Production of a Female Pen'. Anna Larpent's Account of the Duchess of Kingston's Bigamy Trial of 1776
This volume marks the LewisWalpole Library's revival of the Miscellaneous Antiquities series, first begun by Horace Walpole in 1772 to cater for the 'taste for anecdotes and historic papers, for ancient letters that record affairs of state, illustrate characters of remarkable persons, or preserve the memory of former manners and customs'. The two documents which form the heart of this volume are well-suited to the relaunch of this series: they are little-known and the author - Anna Porter (later Larpent) - and her subject - the bigamy trial of Elizabeth Chudleigh, duchess of Kingston in 1776 - will be of interest to historians and English scholars alike. It is indicative of our increasingly digital age, however, that the reader is left wondering why the Library has chosen to publish a facsimile edition, complete with scanned documents and transcriptions, for a project which would lend itself so well to a digital format. Given the focus on the scanned documents and their overall high quality, it is unfortunate that some of the scans cut off lines of text. Although a minor annoyance, as the transcriptions are complete, this undermines the importance accorded the documents and, given scanning technology, could surely have been rectified prior to publication.
Matthew J. Kinservik's introduction provides both an accessible narrative of the events leading up to trial and a more critical examination of Anna Porter as an eighteenth-century woman writer. Recent publications by John Brewer and others have spawned an interest in the older Anna Larpent, whose diaries, self-conscious reading strategies and activities as an unofficial censor (her husband was examiner of plays for the London stage between 1782 and 1824) enable studies of female subjectivity at the end of the eighteenth century. Kinservik uses these early sources and the much shorter account of the trial from Anna's later 'Methodized Journal' (where it occupies less than two hundred words) not only to demonstrate the extent to which Anna tailored her writing to suit her audience, but also to provide insights into how this intelligent and ambitious, yet highly conservative, woman negotiated the public/private divide.
The two documents published in this volume are the earliest-known surviving Larpent sources. They capture the responses of the 18-year-old Anna to the people and the proceedings of the trial. The first, a gossipy, vividly descriptive, six-page [End Page 420] letter-journal to an unknown friend named Gertrude, was added to daily over the course of the trial; the second, at 32 pages, is a longer and more consciously formal account of the legal proceedings. It was written shortly after the event and intended for circulation in manuscript among friends, as 'the production of a Female Pen may be most pleasing to a Female reader'. Taken together, the documents provide a fascinating introduction to a lively young woman, who, while ambivalent about advertising her understanding of the law and the arguments being made, was more than able to provide a lucid summary of the case as it progressed. Moreover, whether she is rhapsodizing over Attorney General Thurlow, 'I think of nothing else . . . He has such a Tongue! & such sensible Eyes! that he may plead any cause even to a Lady'; or complaining of the 'heat & vehemence' in the style of Mr Wallace, counsel to the duchess; or remarking upon the duchess's appearance on the first day of the trial, in a 'long Black hood . . . most becomingly put on . . . exactly the head-dress of Mary Queen of Scots in the old Pictures', she pays attention to detail and character in a way that brings the event to life.
For five days, beginning on 15 April 1776, 4,000 spectators crowded in to Westminster...