If there is one book which can transport me back in time within reading just a few paragraphs, it is this one. When I settle down to read this book, in my minds eye, I see myself sat in front of a warm (if formidable!) lady named Mary Elizabeth. She recounts to me tales of foreign travel and grand balls, but also heartache and sad loss. I feel not only her sadness and excitement, but I learn of her home. A home which I know very well; for I spend many hours there myself! The book I love to read is the Mistress of Charlecote: Memoirs of Mary Elizabeth Lucy.
But who is Mary Elizabeth?
Mary Elizabeth married George Lucy in 1832. In doing, so she became the mistress of Charlecote Park in Warwickshire. Charlecote Estate has been carefully preserved. It is managed and cared for by the National Trust, so that you may walk in Mary’s footsteps. When I say I spend many hours there; I am one of those charged with its upkeep!
The Mistress of Charlecote: Mary Elizabeth Lucy
Mistress of Charlecote
I see the influence of Mary Elizabeth throughout the estate everyday. She is the woman behind the great renovations of the house. From bringing marble for the floor in the Great Hall from Italy to recycling the old flagstones; using them in her new kitchen! Throughout her memoir, Mary talks about the domestic staff and the gardens she loved so much. Visitors always love to peer into the little summerhouse nestled in the gardens. It was through reading the Mistress of Charlecote that I learnt this summerhouse was based on one she knew as a child, growing up in Boddlewyddan Castle, North Wales.
“Dearest Mamma once took me wit her to visit two old ladies, Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Sara Ponsonby, who lived together in a beautiful cottage at Llangollwn… The little thatched summerhouse in Charlecote’s garden by the orangery I copied from what I remembered of that visit and furnished it with child-sized tables and chairs to amuse my children and their children after them”p.19
The little stories that pepper the pages of the book really bring Charlecote alive. In fact, the book is introduced by Alice Fairfax-Lucy who was married to Brian Fairfax-Lucy; Mary Elizabeth’s great-grandson. Coincidentally, Alice once held the title ‘Mistress of Charlecote’ herself!
The beautiful thatched cottage at Charlecote.
The Acceptance of Marriage
Perhaps my favourite story in the book (although I have many) is that of Mary Elizabeth’s wedding day. She wasn’t too enamoured with Mr Lucy at first and begged her father to refuse the marriage. There is a wonderful, evocative passage where she, fearing her father, accepts an engagement ring from Mr Lucy and then runs upstairs crying to her mother …
‘She kissed me and kissed me again and again, and said all she could to comfort me, adding, ‘My sweet Mary, love will come when you know all of Mr Lucy’s good qualities’ – and it did come – but oh the sunshiny morning of youth…’ p28
On her wedding day, 2nd December 1823, she was quite melancholic at the thought of leaving her family home and those she loved. She was apprehensive about the marriage despite George’s best efforts in sending her letters and gifts of rubies and diamonds in the months since their engagement.
Nevertheless, Mary Elizabeth slowly settled into life at Charlecote and indeed grew to love George dearly. You know, they do say that ‘mother knows best’! Together they created a family home, and attended great balls – even meeting Queen Victoria – and also travelled the world.
Charlecote: Where Mary Elizabeth and George created a ‘family home’.
The saddest parts of the memoirs are when Mary Elizabeth describes the deaths of a number of her children. The most heart-wrenching tale arguably, is that of her young son, Edmund. He died, still a baby, whilst they travelled through Europe on their Grand Tour. The account brought tears to my eyes…
‘Eleven long hours I did travel with his dear lifeless body on my lap ere we reached Turin… Never, never can I forget that night of anguish, seated in the carriage with the moon shining bright through the window on that pale but beauteous face – so calm, so still, so lovely in death’ p. 62-63
I love walking in Mary Elizabeth’s footsteps as I explore Charlecote. She talks of specific views and items in the house that can still be seen. Indeed her carriages are still in the coach house and her harp stands proudly in the Drawing Room. So often grand country piles can feel a little oppressive and too huge to feel cosy inside; Charlecote is different. It retains its feel of a family home. The Fairfax-Lucy’s still live here and so the historical lineage and story continues.