Lady Frances Douglas

 

Frances, Lady DouglasFrances Douglas,  Lady Douglas (1750–1817), friend of Sir Walter Scott and Lady Louisa Stuart, was born on 26 July 1750, the sixth and posthumous child of Francis Scott, earl of Dalkeith (1721–1750), eldest son of the duke of Buccleuch, and Lady Caroline Campbell (1717–1794), eldest daughter of John Campbell, duke of Argyll. She was brought up in the family's residence at Grosvenor Square, London, where she experienced a difficult childhood: her mother showed her little affection and was, according to her aunt, the redoubtable Lady Mary Coke, ‘insensible to her merits’ (Letters and Journals, vol. 1). The saving grace of her early years was her mother's second marriage in 1755 to the mercurial politician Charles Townshend (1725–1767). Recognizing her many qualities, he was the most important influence on her early education and development. Alexander Carlyle, minister at Inveresk, later a great friend and correspondent, met her at Dalkeith in 1767 and noted her good taste, knowledge of belles-lettres, and ready wit. He also saw how the stepfather, her ‘enlightened instructor’, protected her from the tyranny of her mother (Autobiography, ed. Burton, 515). The growing intimacy between Townshend and the highly strung adolescent could have developed into something more dangerous had not Lady Frances used the occasion of her brother's marriage in 1767 to escape to Scotland. Townshend's death some months later removed her protector, but Lady Frances blossomed in the literary society at Dalkeith Palace. In 1779 the death of her aunt Lady Jane Scott afforded her financial independence as well as a house at Petersham, Surrey.

In 1782 Lady Frances visited Dublin with her brother as the guests of Lady Carlow, sister of Lady Louisa Stuart, but also to sort out the finances of her stepsister Anne Townshend, who had married disastrously. For someone who in her youth had claimed to prefer the armchair to society, her stay in Ireland was the making of her. In a series of lively letters to her sister-in-law, the duchess of Buccleuch, she describes herself as ‘recherchée and fetée’, a success Lady Carlow ascribed to her having been so much ‘mortified and neglected at home’ (Stuart, Gleanings, 1.185). She stayed on to introduce her friend Lady Portland, the wife of the new lord lieutenant, into society, returning to England via Wales, where she visited the ladies of Llangollen, later petitioning successfully for royal pensions for Sarah Ponsonby. Her Irish letters, subsequently annotated by Lady Louisa, her literary executor, were, following the conventions of her circle, never published. Like the verse journals of her tour in Scotland in 1780, and of another to the Lake District in 1781 (written at the request of Queen Charlotte), they were copied or circulated among friends and family, and greatly admired.

On 13 May 1783 Lady Frances married Archibald James Edward Douglas, first Baron Douglas of Douglas (1748–1827), at her brother's London residence in Grosvenor Square. The marriage to a ‘safe … and comfortable man’ seems to have been, if not a love match, one of convenience and mutual affection. Douglas's first marriage to her friend Lady Lucy Graham, who died in 1780, had produced four children. Lady Lucy's attachment to her friend and Lady Frances's affection for her children played no small part in the union, which was itself to produce a further eight offspring. She parodied her role as ‘wicked stepmother’ in a prose and verse version of Cinderella written in 1801. At Bothwell Castle with its ruined medieval castle and ‘romantick solitudes’ she created an ‘air of ease, comfort and gaiety’ (Stuart, Memoire, 96), where the Douglases welcomed authors and poets, including Mary Berry and M. G. Lewis, and the French émigré aristocracy. It was there, in 1799, that she introduced Sir Walter Scott to her great friend and confidante Lady Louisa Stuart, who became one of his most valued critics and one of the few to share the secret of the authorship of his novels. Through their auspices Scott also met the classical scholar J. B. S. Morritt of Rokeby. She and Lady Louisa had formed a close bond through their family connections, and a shared passion for poetry and literature. Lady Douglas's early life is related in Lady Louisa's frank Memoire of Frances, Lady Douglas, written some years after her death for her daughter the novelist Lady Caroline Scott. There she encapsulated the character of this charming woman whom Jane, duchess of Gordon, described as ‘a most uncommon sort of young lady’ (NA Scot., GD1/479/15/2). Lady Louisa asked Sir Walter Scott to memorialize Frances Douglas in one of his novels, and believed he had done so in the character of Jeanie Deans in The Heart of Midlothian (1818).

Lady Douglas was small and undistinguished in appearance—even the favourably inclined Carlyle described her as ‘far from handsome’—but surviving portraits of her scarcely seem to justify Sir Walter Scott's description of her as ‘quite the ugly old woman of a fairy tale’, though, he adds, ‘still [with] the air d'une grande dame’. Although she characterized herself as a ‘weak, unsteady creature’, her strength and generosity of mind, modesty, loyalty, and wit nevertheless made her greatly admired; her only fault, mentioned by all, was her laziness. Lady Douglas was prone to nervous exhaustion; her many pregnancies took their toll on her health, and in middle age she lost the sight of one eye. But her sudden death in May 1817 at Bothwell Castle, Lanarkshire, came as a shock to her friends and family. She was buried in the Douglas aisle in Douglas parish church, Lanarkshire.

 

 

This page was last updated on 29 June 2015

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