When Mary Gladstone penned the following request for a consoling birthday letter upon turning twenty, she had only been a part of society for 2½ years. Yet here she is, mourning the loss of her teens and requesting sympathy for her advancing years. How funny! It's especially so because a Victorian birthday letter usually expresses the wish for many happy returns – not condolences upon the passing of yet another year!
Mary wrote this letter to her fifteen-year-old brother Harry (Henry Neville), while staying with her mother at Blythe Hall, which was the home of the Hon. Mrs Jessy Bootle-Wilbraham (1812–92). The latter was such a dear family friend that Mary’s parents had spent their newlywed night at the Cheshire home of Bootle-Wilbraham’s father, Sir Richard Brooke.
Mary records attending a ball at the mammoth Lathom House, hosted by Bootle-Wilbraham’s son, Conservative MP Lord Skelmersdale. It was Blythe Hall, however, that would go down in history for its lavish parties. During the roaring twenties, it was Ned Lathom’s home (the 3rd Earl of Lathom and Noël Coward’s first patron), where London thespians gathered for sumptuous fancy dress escapades.
Lord Skelmersdale's ball wasn't racy, but it was certainly long even by Victorian standards. Still, dancing all night didn't stop Mary from attending another ball the next day, nor her mother from traveling by train to London:
Reading this letter requires us to reexamine today's stereotypical views of Victorians as serious and staid. Sure, Mary wanted to contribute in a meaningful way to the world, but such an earnest desire was not at odds with her enjoyment of countless provincial and London balls. Mrs Gladstone loved fun, too, and probably would have enjoyed the ball even while chaperoning her young daughter. How different from the character that we assume upon seeing photos of the period, such as this carte-de-visite (right).
I imagine that Mary really did dislike entering a new decade, but there may also be a little posturing going on as seen in the over-the-top signature ('Goodbye sweet youth[,] ever yourn'). The request for her younger brother's condolences also seems incongruous alongside the energetic and even child-like activities that Mary relays. She dances 'til dawn at the Lathom House ball and reports climbing a tree at the daring of her friend Mary Herbert (later Baroness von Hügel), the daughter of Sidney Herbert and sister to Hubert Parry's future wife. That said, the bit about W.E. Gladstone sitting for his portrait in the schoolroom nicely suggests how youthfulness and serious endeavor could coexist. A schoolroom is a place where children engage in serious endeavors, and perhaps such a humorous location for an MP's portrait was also the key to Gladstone's likeness seeming not only realistic, but also alive.
[Letter transcription follows citation information]
Weliver, Phyllis. “Requesting a birthday letter upon turning twenty years old.” Gladstone's Daughter: Living Liberalism. March 19, 2015. Web log post. Date accessed (http://www.phyllisweliver.com/new-blog-1/2015/3/18/requesting-a-birthday-letter-turning-twenty-in-victorian-england ).
Weliver, P. (2015, Mar 19). Requesting a birthday letter upon turning twenty years old. Web log post. Retrieved from http://www.phyllisweliver.com/new-blog-1/2015/3/18/requesting-a-birthday-letter-turning-twenty-in-victorian-england