The following forms a large part of an article I contributed for Herstoria Magazine a couple of years ago whilst promoting aspects of my doctoral research. It concerns a publication written by Isabella Carlisle of Castle Howard toward the end of the eighteenth century and serves to highlight something of her personality and beliefs as a surprisingly pragmatic woman for her time. Since I visited Castle Howard recently, I thought it would be a different take on the site than just a regular day trip report.
Portrait of Isabella, 4th Countess of Carlisle, by Thomas Gainsborough. Image from the Castle Howard Collection.
As the second wife of Henry fourth Earl of Carlisle, Isabella had represented a new hope for the household at Castle Howard. His first wife Frances (née Spencer) had died in July 1742 shortly after all but one of his five children by this marriage had predeceased him. At the age of twenty-two, Isabella was half Henry’s age and her youth was to prove dynastically beneficial – she was to bear him four daughters and one son, Frederick, the future fifth Earl of Carlisle.
Yet, before the end of the century and in her late 60s, Isabella had experienced more than most in a life which included early widowhood, a broken marriage to the antiquarian William Musgrave, scandal and self-imposed exile to Europe. Thus she made the decision to publish her experiences s under the title of Thoughts in the Form of Maxims addressed to Young Ladies on their First Establishment in the World. In contrast to more conventional manuals which typically contained strict guidelines as to general behaviour expected of young women, Isabella’s Maxims guided her readers through unexpected and complex moments of life similar to the ones she had experienced herself.
Frontispiece for Maxims. Castle Howard Collection.
Conduct books like Isabella’s had been round for centuries, but by the late eighteenth century they had evolved into genteel instruction aimed at correcting ‘insufficient’ moral accomplishment in young people – especially women.
Isabella begins her Maxims with some practical advice a woman should,
Make choice of such amusements as will attach him to your company; study such occupations as will render you of consequence to him, such as the management of his fortune, and the conduct of his house, yet, without assuming a superiority unbecoming your sex.
Isabella also commented on female networks which required alliances and sometimes provoked discord,
Female friendships are but too frequently bars to domestic peace; they are more formed by the communication of mutual errors, than the desire of amending them…Endeavour to obtain a clear insight into the character of those persons of your sex, before you engage in unlimited confidence.
She concludes Maxims with poignant thoughts on old age and mortality. ‘Let each year which shall steal a charm or grace, the companions of youth, add a virtue in return.’ In conduct books aimed at the female sex, home and domesticity were presented invariably as a vital backdrop to female existence. For an elite woman such as Isabella Carlisle, this was expressed through the roles of household manager and supportive wife and companion to a husband. Although Maxims has many other themes – including manners, conversation, religion, philanthropy and letter writing – it is household management that Isabella uses as the focus and very personal heart of her book.
Here we are able to visualise the domestic set-up of Castle Howard with greater imagination. Isabella compared the mechanisms of running a household to that of a watch or timepiece, ‘Conceal from the indifferent spectator, the secret springs, which move, regulate and perfect the arrangement of your household.’ Such an analogy was also a reflection of the architectural surroundings and the ways in which the household interacted with the fabric of the building. The ideal household manager was well educated and able to discriminate between frivolity and responsibility, indiscretion and prudence; she was also humble and restrained and never tempted to ‘boast’ of her accomplishments. A guest should remain ignorant of the hustle and bustle of the home as the ideal household mistress always ensured tranquility and good order.
The management of the household was a skill as well as an accomplishment made up of academic exercise and diplomacy to be performed within compartments of the home. Isabella defined these activities through household accounting, servant organisation, medicinal and culinary practice and some degree of hosting and entertainment. The secret springs were the order, memoranda, documents, lists and even people who represented the working pieces. Of servants she noted, ‘Be extremely cautious in the choice of those who are to be your attendants…’ and emphasised the propensity of servants for false flattery and manipulative talk. Servants could, if left unrestrained by their mistress, become ‘licentious’ and have little regard for their own responsibilities in the household. Isabella also warned against prejudice, ‘Do not suffer your partiality to one domestic…Rule as much as you are able with an even hand, and steer between pride and familiarity’. Servants in particular were to be offered ‘tender care’ in sickness and it would have been extremely remiss of any mistress if she did not allow them to perform their religious duties even if their ‘persuasion’ was different from her own.
Isabella made herself supervisor of the household accounts at Castle Howard. It was one thing to direct the morals and daily responsibilities of her servants, but having knowledge of housekeeping totals and incomings and outgoings enabled her to plan, coordinate and direct the household as a whole. ‘Observe the utmost regularity in the keeping of your household accounts; it is tranquillity to you, justice to your dependents’ noted Isabella. The family fortune depended upon minute observation and, since women were rarely taught accounting, the chatelaine had to be prepared to inspect the work of others in charge of such matters. Isabella’s own abstract and summary of accounts was therefore intended as a measure of security against the main household account books – ‘inspections, diligently and judiciously made, will maintain probity among your agents’ – so that any discrepancies could be acted upon straight away.
From matters of accounting Isabella moved swiftly onto the subject of hospitality. As a society hostess, and elite woman could delegate responsibility to an upper liveried servant, offer guests fine wines with meats provided by the estate – and draw attention proudly to her offspring as they mingled with distant relatives, family acquaintances or close political allies. Despite her own elite social status, in Maxims Isabella was careful to consider cost and warned against irresponsible display which evoked extravagance and frivolity rather than cleanliness and order, ‘Neatness and elegance should be joined to each other; ostentation and profusion are in general equally united, and equally to be avoided.’
Although she was thought an embarrassment in later life because of her rising debts and supposed dalliances with foreign noblemen, Isabella still retained something of her former disciplined and inventive self. In a letter to a friend she expressed her delight at having found a French cook who proved ‘so excellent an œconomist’ (thrifty) that it was more convenient to stay abroad than to return home.
Isabella is still very much a major presence at Castle Howard, and her impact as enthusiastic household manager lives on. In 2003 her portrait by Thomas Gainsborough was used as branding in the Castle Howard gift shop for a range of kitchen linens including tea towels and aprons. Samples of her recipes were also included in cookery books and manuals published especially for sale at the house. In the context of her own life experiences, Isabella’s publication may appear as some cautionary piece containing carefully constructed sayings and precepts dedicated to the avoidance of life’s obstacles. On the other hand, Isabella appeared to admire life and its complexities. That her household expertise is still remembered as a key aspect of her character is definitely something which Isabella would welcome.
Copy of the publication available to download through The Internet Archive https://archive.org/details/thoughtsinformm00howagoog
Maids and Mistresses exhibition (2003) across several Yorkshire country houses including Castle Howard and Isabella Carlise http://www.ychp.org.uk/exhibitions-maids-and-mistresses
18th-century conduct books http://umich.edu/~ece/student_projects/emotions/conduct_books.html