Biography

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Mary Berry (1763-1852)

This article was written by Charles Kent and was published in 1885.


Mary BerryMary Berry, authoress, was born 16 March 1763, at Kirkbridge in Yorkshire. Her younger sister, Agnes, was born there fourteen months afterwards, on 29 May 1764, and they were constantly together for nearly eighty-eight years. Their father, Robert Berry, was the nephew of a Scotch merchant, named Ferguson, who had thriven in trade in London, and by middle life had realised £300,000, besides purchasing a considerable estate at Raith in Fifeshire. Robert, elder of the two sons of Ferguson's sister, entered his uncle's counting-house in Broad Street, Austin Friars. In 1762 he married, a distant cousin, a Miss Seaton. His wife, after the birth of the two children, Mary and Agnes, died in 1767, aged 23, in childbed of a third who also died. Meanwhile Robert's younger brother, William, brought up in a mercantile house, had ingratiated himself with his uncle. Besides this, he had married a Miss Crawford, who brought him £5,000 in money and two sons in the first two years of their marriage. Robert, having, on the contrary, had a portionless wife and two daughters, had to content himself with an income of £300 a year and a dingy residence in Austin Friars. From the time of their mother's death, his infant children had been cared for by their grandmother, Mrs. Seaton, at Askham, in Yorkshire. Thence they were removed in 1770 to Chiswick, where they resided in the College House. Their governess at Chiswick was married in 1775. From that date the two girls were entirely self-educated. Their only religious instruction consisted in Mary reading aloud to her grandmother every morning one of the psalms, and every Sunday one of the Saturday papers from the ‘Spectator.’

In 1781 the uncle, Mr. Ferguson, died, aged 93, leaving to William Berry (who then took the name of Ferguson) £300,000 in the funds, and an estate worth from £4,000 to £5,000 a year in Scotland. Robert Berry had a bare legacy of £10,000. William, however, settled on Robert an annuity of £1,000 a year. In 1783 Robert Berry and his two young daughters went abroad to Holland, Switzerland, and Italy. The father, as Mary says of him, was chiefly remarkable for ‘the odd inherent easiness of his character.’ His daughter found that she must be a protecting mother to her sister, and a guide and monitor to her father. Mary Berry began at Florence, in 1783, the ‘Journals and Correspondence,’ completed seventy years later. After a long stay in Italy, her tour was completed by a return home through France to England in June 1785. Mary Berry and her sister Agnes, in the winter of 1788, first made the acquaintance of Horace Walpole, then more than seventy years of age. A letter, addressed to Lady Ossory, under date Strawberry Hill, 11 October 1788, relates how he had just then willingly yielded himself up to their witcheries on meeting them at the house of his friend Lady Herries, wife of the banker in St. James's Street. Mary he speaks of as ‘an angel both inside and out,’ adding, in regard to them both, ‘I do not know which I like best, except Mary's face, which is formed for a sentimental novel, but it is ten times fitter for a fifty times better thing — genteel comedy.’ An intimacy was then contracted between himself and the two sisters, which surpassed in tenderness on his part the most ardent affections of his youth. He lavished upon both every conceivable term of endearment, one while (17 April 1789) addressing the elder as ‘Suavissima Maria,’ and another (17 October 1793) apostrophising the younger as ‘my sweet lamb.’ Writing to his ‘twin wives,’ as he calls them, in one letter he thanks them for a double missive from ‘Dear Both,’ adding, playfully, that ‘its duplicity makes it doubly welcome;’ and at another time ending with ‘Adieu! mes Amours,’ signs himself ‘Horace Fondlewives.’ He begins on 31 October 1788 writing, solely with an eye to their amusement, his ‘Reminiscences of the Courts of George I and II,’ which he completes on 13 January 1789. To them in the same year he inscribed his ‘Catalogue of Strawberry Hill.’ He secured a house for them at Teddington in 1789.

In 1791 he prevailed upon them to take possession of Little Strawberry Hill, previously known as Cliveden from its having been the abode of his friend Kitty Clive, the famous actress. Little Strawberry Hill was for many years the favourite home of the Berrys. George, the third earl of Orford, died 5 December 1791, and the earldom devolved upon Horace Walpole. The only value of the earldom in his eyes was that it enabled him to place within reach of Mary Berry's acceptance the title of countess. ‘There is a tradition handed down by Lord Lansdowne,’ says the ‘Edinburgh Review’ (October 1865, cxxii. 298), ‘that he was ready to go through the formal ceremony of marriage with either sister, to make sure of their society, and confer rank and fortune on the family; as he had the power of charging the Orford estate with a jointure of £2,000 a year.’ Mary Berry had, in 1779, been sought in marriage by a Mr. Bowman, and wrote long afterwards that she had ‘suffered as people do’ at sixteen ‘from what, wisely disapproved of, I resisted and dropped.’ General O'Hara, governor of Gibraltar, had met Miss Berry in 1784 in Italy, and was engaged to her before leaving England in the November of 1795 for Gibraltar. Her reluctance to leave her home at once as his bride led to their gradual estrangement, and to the ultimate breaking off of the proposed marriage at the end of April 1796.

Lord Orford died on 2 March 1797. He left to each the sum of £4,000, and to Mary and Agnes jointly, for their lives, the house and garden of Little Strawberry Hill, together with the long meadow in front of it, and all the furniture. He also bequeathed to Robert, Mary, and Agnes Berry, to be divided among them, share and share alike, his printed works, and a box containing manuscripts, to be published at their discretion and for their emolument. In 1798 was published in five quarto volumes the collective edition of the ‘Works of Horace Walpole.’ Nominally edited by Mr. Berry, it was in reality all Mary Berry's doing, save only one brief passage, a reference to herself, in the preface. A comedy in five acts, written by Mary Berry, and entitled ‘Fashionable Friends,’ having been performed with some success at Strawberry Hill (among other amateurs) by Robert Berry and his two daughters, was afterwards, in May 1802, brought out at Drury Lane Theatre, where it was represented for three nights only, and then summarily withdrawn. It failed on the score of its lax morality. Pure-souled woman though she was, she had not shrunk, four years previously, from including among Horace Walpole's works the ‘Mysterious Mother.’ Oddly enough, too, she prefixed to her published play of ‘Fashionable Friends’ a note, imputing it to her dead and buried friend, Horace Walpole! Another dramatic work of her own, a farce called ‘The Martins,’ set down in a manuscript list of her writings, was never produced either in print or on the stage. Immediately before her failure at Drury Lane, Miss Berry had returned from Paris, whither she had gone on her second visit, on the occasion of the peace of Amiens. During her stay she was presented to Napoleon in the palace of the Tuileries. Returning to France 30 October with her sister and father, she went on to Nice, and thence round through Switzerland and Germany, being back again in England in September 1803.

Agnes was at this time engaged (probably) to her first cousin, Colonel Ferguson, but the engagement was broken off. In 1810 Mary Berry brought out in four volumes, annotated by herself, the letters of Mme. du Deffand to Horace Walpole between 1766 and 1780, as well as those written by her to Voltaire between 1759 and 1775, all from the French originals at Strawberry Hill. For her editorial labours on this occasion Miss Berry received £200. On 18 May 1817 Robert Berry died of old age at Genoa, and, his brother William's annuity to him of £1,000 a year then ceasing, his two daughters had thenceforth to live upon an annual income of £700. In 1819 Mary Berry brought out ‘Some Account of the Life of Rachel Wriothesley, Lady Russell, followed by a series of Letters from Lady Russell to her husband, Lord William Russell, from 1672 to 1682, together with some Miscellaneous Letters to and from Lady Russell.’ The work was published from the originals in the possession of the Duke of Devonshire. The first volume of her most ambitious work, ‘A comparative View of the Social Life of England and France from the Restoration of Charles the Second to the French Revolution,’ was published in 1828; a second appeared in March 1831, called ‘Social Life in England and France from the French Revolution in 1789 to that of July 1830.’ It was reissued as a collected whole in the complete edition of her ‘Works’ in 1844, with this new title, ‘England and France: a comparative View of the Social Condition of both Countries.’

During her whole life Mary Berry had had but one serious illness, namely, on 16 March 1825, when she was struck down by an all but fatal attack of bilious fever. Death came to her at last very gently at midnight, 20 November 1852, as the result of exhaustion from sheer old age, she being then well on in her ninetieth year. In 1865 was published ‘Extracts from the Journals and Correspondence of Miss Berry from 1783 to 1852, edited by Lady Theresa Lewis.’ Portraits of Mary Berry at different ages, from girlhood to eighty-six, enable us to realise something of her personal charm. Those who would see an effigy of her at her very best should turn to the classic bust of her in white marble sculptured by the Hon. Anne Seymour Damer for Horace Walpole, who regarded it as one of his most precious treasures.


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