Angie Mezzetti introduces Saucy Mistress Boldface, her new Lyric Feature documentary which premieres on Easter Sunday, the 4th of April, at 6 pm - listen to Saucy Mistress Boldface above.
Saucy Mistress Boldface is a peek through a Georgian window at life for women from 1746 to 1751 through a series of 221 letters from the Bishop Of Elphin to his only teenage daughter, Alicia. We hear about music, fashions, lazy servants, exotic fruits and women's health.
'The personal letter was the first means whereby women had a virtual existence outside the home in 1700s in Ireland, and women excelled at the personal letter.'
She had me at hello.
Dr Jane Maxwell was giving a talk in Trinity in 2019 entitled ‘Dear Giddy Brat’ about a very precious collection of letters held in the college library which are a unique Georgian window into life in Ireland in the 1740s and 50s. An even more enticing fact was that these letters were written by the Church Of Ireland Bishop of Elphin, Edward Synge to his only surviving child of six children, a teenage daughter Alicia. His wife Jane Curtis had also died, so there were just the two of them when the letters were written and they chart her growth to womanhood.
This daughter was very precious and the letters illustrate a deep and affectionate relationship between father and daughter which is unexpected from a Church of Ireland high-ranking Bishop. There is much teasing and banter between them. His affection for her trips off every page. He calls he Dear Miss Slyboots, his little bee. He addresses her as Dear Giddy Brat, Boldface, Huzzy, Saucy, Mistress and Mumper when she has toothache. He is totally preoccupied with her health and that of his servants. Given the earlier deaths of his wife and five children this is understandable and also accounts for his enthusiastic involvement with Mercers’ Hospital where he was on the board.
The BAI had put out a call for radio documentaries on women’s stories so this seemed a good story fit for the Lyric Feature. Little detail is known about women’s lives in 18th century Ireland so even though we don’t have the daughter’s letters, the bishop’s give an insight into Alicia’s life throughout her adolescence. Her education, what she thinks about, the books she is reading, what she ate and wore and her various ailments are revealed through the father’s side of the correspondence. He also talks about his servants and particularly his housekeeper Mrs Heap in Roscommon "who lies about all day pretending to darn."
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Watch: Dr Jane Maxwell, Principal Curator, Manuscripts and Archives Research Library, Trinity College Dublin, on Stephen De Vere's diary
On the day of recording Dr Jane Maxwell in Trinity pre pandemic, I was led in through the huge wooden side door of Trinity’s old library and up a fabulous staircase into a boardroom. Another librarian brought in the box of letters which had been safely kept by the descendants of Alicia and later donated to the college by her descendants. Every corner of the letters was written on, afterthoughts often written into the margins. There was zero waste of paper. Recording was interrupted by noisy seagulls and students several times but Jane’s revelations were worth the wait.
Jane drew attention to the frequent corrections of spellings and grammar the bishop makes to Alicia. While pernickety, only for these, the letters probably would not have survived. Jane Maxwell explained that they were like a manual for his daughter on how to live her life, a business lesson, teaching her how to write letters, manage servants, to talk to her doctor about things like periods and how to run the house.
These letters were the Bishop’s only way of communicating with Alicia when he was living in Elphin, his diocese where he spent the summer months. We hear echoes of her voice and her opinions on things like child marriage, which was common at the time and they converse about gossip and the price of important things like chocolate. She had a live-in female companion, Blandine Jourdan, a woman from a Huguenot family, who was employed to guide her and teach her French. Blandine is frequently mentioned.
Music was an important aspect of life for the bishop in his public and private life. Dr Triona O’Hanlon, musician and musical historian, talks about this aspect in her contributions to the documentary. She discovered references to Bishop Synge in the part-books of musical concerts in the Mercer’s Hospital concert and administration records. Bishop Synge had corresponded with Handel who had spent time in Dublin and his concerts were an important source of funds for Mercers. Hospitals were always expensive to build and fund in Dublin.
In the summer of 2020, I finally got my hands on a copy of the letters printed in hardback from my local library. There are 221 letters written between 1746 and 1752 and there are almost as many orange ‘post-its’ on various pages where I discovered more quirky facts and descriptions. The biggest challenge was whittling all that down to 43 minutes. I dip into the book from time to time and never cease to discover something new. There are daily weather reports, gossip about engagements and marriages, and reports of who is ill with what and who has recovered.
At one point October 1752 the bishop writes to her a really juicy bit of gossip about an older man of fifty, running off to Bristol with a fifteen year old, leaving a first wife and several children behind who were certain to be ruined. Having learned that the man ‘is drowned and his fair one with him, I don’t find anyone sorry, ‘ he remarks.
There are also references to fashions, hairstyles and buying fabric for Alicia’s new suit. Over the course of several letters he talks about buying her a new dress but nothing too flash, she was a Church of Ireland Bishop’s daughter after all. Alex Ward of the National Museum also talks in the documentary about the new fashion of silver and gold threads in fabric.
What really brings the letters to life are the way they are read by actor Simon Coury in the role of the bishop. The words committed to the page by a feather plume in 1750 could be the sentiment of any doting dad of his girl today. The language maybe a little archaic but the sentiment is as fresh and heartfelt as it would be today. He is always encouraging her to be herself, to improve her writing, not to be a slave to fashion and work on her self-esteem although he says it in his own way.
In one of the letters, from May 29th 1752, as he draws to a close he writes:
Learn then to be a better. You have opportunitys enough: and remember my old Aphorism. Many things are not done because thought not possible to do . If I thought you incapable of improvement I would not exhort you to fruitless attempts. God Bless you, and your companions. I am my Dear Girl – Yours & c Edw:Elphin