Review of Clarissa Campbell Orr’s Mrs Delany: A Life by Kristina Katherine Decker

Mrs Delany: A Life

Clarissa Campbell Orr

Yale University Press, 2019

Mrs Delany cover

Is it ever pertinent to judge a book by its cover? If so, the chosen design of Clarissa Campbell Orr’s Mrs Delany: A Life offers plenty to work with. With a detail of the ‘Rubus Odoratus’ (sweet flowering raspberry), one of Delany’s famous ‘paper mosaicks’, and shocking pink spine the design no doubt draws the eye, but begs the question as to the author’s focus. Is this going to be a work that places the emphasis on the elderly Mrs Delany of John Opie’s 1782 painting, foregrounding her later life and paper flower collages, thus letting her earlier life experience recede into the background? Fortunately the author puts any of these worries to rest, and quickly sets out her aims to investigate the many layers of Mary Granville Pendarves Delany, where the famous flowers become ‘a by-product of her life’ not the ‘central achievement’ (2).

Mary Delany (1700-1788) came from an elite family background, albeit the daughter of a younger son of a younger son, whose fortunes fluctuated due to their Jacobite and Tory politics. Delany was extremely well connected. She was close friends with the Duchess of Portland and members of the Bluestocking circle. She knew and corresponded with figures like Jonathan Swift, Samuel Richardson, Horace Walpole, and George Frideric Handel. In her final years she lived at Windsor and spent much time with the royal family. Her extensive correspondence was edited in the nineteenth-century by Lady Llanover, and, unsurprisingly, has been mined ever since for details and anecdotes of eighteenth-century life. Yet with this rich background and wealth of source material, there has been surprisingly little academic focus on Delany. The person has receded into the shadows and the resounding image of her has remained that of the old lady who spent her time making flower collages.

Orr had previously written on Delany in a chapter entitled ‘Mrs. Delany and the Court’, which appeared in the first modern academic study of Delany, the 2009 companion book to the exhibition Mrs. Delany and her Circle, which was held at the Yale Centre for British Art (New Haven) and the Sir John Soane Museum (London) and explored the life and work of Mary Delany. Orr carries on the themes that she explored there and foregrounds Delany’s position and large web of connections and position as an elite woman from a Jacobite and Tory background, as she navigates a society that has swung towards the Hanoverians and Whiggism. Her position and the role that she could play within the ‘family business’ of politics and connections is fully appreciated. Strands such as intellectual and artistic development are not left out, but woven through the narrative.

As is the case of most biographies, the work is chronological. Orr separates Delany’s life into three parts: The Early Years, A Dean’s Wife, and New Horizons. Within each of these parts are chapters that are further separated into thematic sections. These sections largely conform to the chronology. For example: the first two sections in the first chapter, ‘Miss Mary Granville’, are ‘A Wiltshire Childhood’ and ‘Under the Sign of Minerva: The Apprenticeship of a Maid of Honour’, but then Orr throws in ‘Don’t Be A Tulip: Anglican Feminism and the Granville Family’. While this section fits to the discussion of Delany’s early education and upbringing, it is much broader and more thematic, situating Delany within a larger milieu. While, occasionally the many sub-sections can seem slightly choppy, Orr’s constant effort to situate Delany within the wider eighteenth-century world is certainly one of the work’s strengths.

As is often necessary in Delany scholarship, Orr relies heavily on the 1861-2 Lady Llanover edited version of Mary Delany’s correspondence, although she notes the limitations of the source and the ‘selective’ albeit ‘rich’ (4) portrait that it paints. Orr uses primary sources, including the letters of Elizabeth Robinson Montagu, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Richardson, Horace Walpole, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and works by George Berkeley, Patrick Delany, and Mary Wortley Montagu to further contextualise and situate Mary Delany. When it comes to secondary sources, Orr is selective but thorough, including an unpublished PhD thesis by Francesca Suzanne Wilde, which discusses Delany’s mother, Mary Westcombe, and her relationship with the Duke of Ormonde (which resulted in a child) before she was married to Delany’s father, Bernard Granville; a fact little known or discussed in Delany scholarship that has been dominated by the Llanover-edited letters, which, of course, view Delany through the ever-present Victorian lens and thus shy away from anything conceivably improper.

Perhaps the main difficulty within the work is getting to grips with Delany’s large network of acquaintance, which has, of course, been whittled down to make the book a manageable 345 pages before end matter, but yet is still sometimes hard to follow (an issue also with the Llanover-edited letters!). The author often introduces someone such as ‘Great-uncle Denis’ (16) or the ‘Leveson-Gower cousins’ (20) without preamble, and relies on the reader to go to the back of the book where a handy cast of characters is provided. For the reader who wants to know how and where these characters fit in, they repeatedly find their reading interrupted by having to turn to the back in order to figure out who is who.

Due to this rather large cast stretching over the eight decades of Mary Delany’s life, it is perhaps unsurprising that there is some conflation between characters who share names. For example, the terms ‘connoisseur and aesthetician’ attached to Lord Shaftesbury are much more fitting to the third earl rather than the fourth, who must be assumed was the Lord Shaftesbury Delany mentions in 1732.  Furthermore, while the cast of characters is correct in its description of Delany’s lifelong friend Sarah (Kirkham) Chapone and her daughter Sarah (Chapone) Sandford, who lives with the Delanys for a time, they are confused in the text, with mother Sarah Chapone called Sarah Sandford (125). This is repeated in the index which lists ‘Kirkham, Sarah (later Sandford)’ and ‘Sandford, Sarah see Kirkham, Sarah’. The reader is further confused as there is an additional entry for ‘Sandford, Sarah (Sally)’. While this would be more expected for more marginal characters mentioned in passing such as Shaftesbury, it is surprising that, for characters that were Delany’s lifelong friends and appear throughout the narrative, it was not caught during the editing process. Further small errors in the text, endnotes, and index were also spotted.

Despite this, the importance of Mrs Delany: A Life cannot be underestimated. As the first academic biography of Mary Delany, all students of the eighteenth-century can benefit from Orr’s research. Here Delany finally emerges as a full person, not as someone whose words are so often mined out of context, or as the widow making her cut paper flowers. Delany is fully contextualised within her elite circles of acquaintance. She has power and agency. The many strands of her emotional, intellectual, and creative development are interwoven throughout, and the reader has a sense of the whole person, rather than the idea of a Mrs Delany.

Kristina Katherine Decker is an IRC-funded PhD student in the School of History at University College Cork. Her thesis is entitled ‘Women and Improvement in Eighteenth-Century Ireland: the Case of Mary Delany’, which focuses on Delany’s experience of the Enlightenment. She is also postgraduate representative for the Women’s History Association of Ireland.