Writing from Paris in 1826, Emily, Countess Cowper – later Lady Palmerston – described herself as “without fear and without reproach”: while the city is full of gossip “if you should hear anything of me you may not believe it” she assures her brother Frederick. [BR30/6/13]
At a time when government appeared ostensibly to be a male domain, Emily’s life illustrates the significant role played by women in the political arena of the nineteenth century. Beautiful, charming and intelligent and although not a political thinker, she was astutely aware of the realities of the political system and a great believer in the power of social influence. She was the première political hostess in London of her time – a leading lady in Almack’s, an upper-class social club – and anyone who was anyone attended her parties.
Emily was born to Peniston Lamb and his wife Elizabeth in 1787. She had three brothers, William (twice Prime Minister), Frederick (a diplomat) and George (a playwright). Her first marriage was to Peter Clavering-Cowper, fifth Earl Cowper. In 1839, two years after his death, she married her long-term lover Lord Palmerston. Emily had three sons and two daughters, all born during her marriage to Lord Cowper, although unlikely to all have been fathered by him: George Cowper, sixth Earl Cowper (Fordwich); William Cowper-Temple, first Baron Mount Temple; Charles; Frances (Fanny) Jocelyn, Viscountess Jocelyn and Emily (Minny), wife of Anthony Ashley-Cooper, seventh Earl of Shatesbury.
The University’s archives holds a collection of Emily’s letters; the bulk of the correspondence is to Emily’s brother, Honourable Frederick Lamb; from 1844, there is also correspondence with her second husband, Henry John Temple, third Viscount Palmerston. Emily covers a wide range of topics in her letters. In terms of political affairs, the Reform Bill and Catholic Emancipation Act feature heavily and she usually includes society gossip. As she is writing to her brother, it is natural that she should frequently discuss their parents, siblings and her children: “whatever else may be said of me nobody shall ever doubt my being a good mother and a good daughter” she comments in March 1820. [BR29/3/7]
The letters make reference to Emily’s brother William’s marriage to Caroline Lamb. Their son George Augustus was born with severe mental health problems. Unusually for an aristocratic family of the time, William and Caroline cared for their son at home; his “fits” are often mentioned.
The letters shed a little light on Emily’s first marriage to Earl Cowper. Married in 1805 aged 18, Emily is remembered as beautiful and charming, In contrast, her husband is described – in the more favourable portraits – as quiet and shy, and less sympathetically as dull and slow. When advising her brother Frederick about affairs of the heart in 1821 she comments how “at best [marriage] must always be a lottery.” She still, however, recommends that he should marry:
From a man’s comfort it is almost better to have a bad wife than to have no wife. Besides it is always a man’s own fault if his wife is very bad. [BR30/2/3]
The following year, 9 November 1822, she wrote to her friend, Fanny, Lady Burrell “I well know how unpleasant (and often hurtful to the tranquillity of a ménages) a third person is and I well know if you cannot get rid of her now you never will.” [BR2815/10]. A few years later, circa 1826, she wrote to Frederick:
Dear Ld C. in the most sheepish way asked me the other night if I had any objection to [?Lady] Sarah coming to P[anshanger] [BR30/6/18]
While Emily’s affair with Lord Palmerston was long standing, she was discrete about these matters in her correspondence. She reported to Frederick in 1825 that “Lord Palmerston went to call upon Fordwich in the course of his canvass and was quite delighted with him.” [BR30/5/14]. Being her eldest son and heir, she was anxious regarding Fordwich’s education and future prospects and expresses these concerns in February 1827:
Ld C. takes no trouble about him tho’ he is very fond of him[…] Ld Palmerston whom I have consulted for want of better advice says he might go back to Cambridge now…[BR29/13/2]
Emily lived during a time when women were not permitted to vote let alone serve in Parliament. Her social status would likely have afforded her considerable independence and influence. Despite commenting in 1822, “women in general may be wise for keeping out of politics” [BR29/7/14] that same year she was happy to intercede with the King on Frederick’s behalf: “for so shy a person as I am it is astonishing how bold and determined I can be when it is worthwhile”. [BR29/8/4]
In later letters the support Emily provided for her husband Lord Palmerston is referenced. In November 1840 she tells Frederick she has come to Brighton for the sea breeze having spent the last “two months doggedly to help fight [Palmerston’s] battles”: at this point Palmerston was Foreign Secretary. [BR29/15/3]. A few months later (February 1841) she comments how her “brilliant Saturday parties […] do much good” [BR30/13/3].
Emily refers frequently to the victor of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington; the highs and lows of his career are charted through her letters. Rather acerbically in 1821: “he is better seen at a distance when the glitter looks like gold”, with reference to his concern at his waning popularity. [BR30/2/4] She clearly has a soft spot for the Iron Duke, however, and ensures that Mrs Arbuthnot has been invited to a party in July 1825 because “there is nothing I would not do to please him, he is such a love’. [BR30/5/6]”
Emily’s correspondence, held by the University’s Special Collections, provides an insight into her life, influence and opinions. Recently listed at item level, these letter-by-letter descriptions will facilitate greater access to a resource detailing the life of this fascinating nineteenth-century aristocratic woman.