Mary Berry, a celebrated literary figure in 19th century London, died 160 years ago today, a few months after the death of Agnes, her sister, lifelong companion and ‘only anxiety’. Mary never married, though she was courted by Horace Walpole, 50 years her senior, and was for a time engaged to a general. Her diaries, published shortly after her death, provide an engaging social record of the times, but also show she led a busy life, and had a lively self-analytical mind.
Mary Berry was born in 1763 at Stanwick, Yorkshire. The birth of her sister and lifelong companion, Agnes, followed a year later. Their mother died in childbirth along with a third daughter in 1767. Thereafter, the two sisters lived with their grandmother, first in Yorkshire then on the Thames riverside in Chiswick. In 1783, Mary and Agnes went with their father on an extended tour of the Continent - the first of many they would take.
In 1788, the family took a house at Twickenham Common and made the acquaintance of Horace Walpole, who - famously - described the daughters as ‘the best informed and the most perfect creatures I ever saw at their age’. He also wrote that they were ‘entirely natural and unaffected, frank, and, being qualified to talk on any subject, nothing is so easy and agreeable as their conversation’. By then, Walpole was in his 70s, and the Berrys were still only in their early 20s, but nevertheless a strong, almost intimate, attachment developed between him and both women.
In 1791, the sisters and their father went to live near Walpole, at his Little Strawberry Hill property. They also had a house in London, in North Audley Street. After a long courtship Mary became engaged to General Charles O’Hara, but the relationship soon broke down. After Walpole’s death, the Berrys inherited Little Strawberry Hill, and Mr Berry was assigned to prepare some of Walpole’s writings for publication. However, it was Mary who edited the five volumes of Walpole’s work published in 1798. Thereafter, her literary reputation grew, and she worked on several more biographical works and social histories. Much of the time, though, she was to be found travelling in Europe.
In 1824 the sisters took up residence in Curzon Street, where they established a salon frequented by many prominent society figures, including William Makepeace Thackeray. Agnes died early in 1852, and Mary on 21 November, just months after having been presented to Queen Victoria. There is a little more biographical information about Mary Berry on the website of The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University, and there is a good short biography at the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (login recquired, free with a UK library card).
Berry’s diary was first edited by Lady Theresa Lewis and published by Longmans & Co in 1865 in three volumes as Extracts from the journals and correspondence of Miss Berry, from the year 1783 to 1852. All three volumes are freely available at Internet Archive. The introduction to the first volume, by Lewis, explains Berry’s prominence in society: ‘Miss Berry has more than ordinary claims to live in the memory of those to whom she was personally known. For an unusually lengthened period of years she formed a centre round which beauty, rank, wealth, power, fashion, learning, and science were gathered; merit and distinction of every degree were blended by her hospitality in social ease and familiar intercourse, encouraged by her kindness, and enlivened by her presence. She was not only the friend of literature and of literary people, but she assiduously cultivated the acquaintance of intellectual excellence in whatever form it might appear, and to the close of her existence she maintained her interest in all the important affairs in life, whether social, literary, or political. Without any remarkable talent for conversation herself, she promoted conversation amongst others, and shed an air of home-like ease over the society which met under her roof, that will long be remembered by those who had the opportunity of witnessing it, and who saw the consequent readiness and frequency with which the guests of her unpremeditated parties availed themselves of her general invitation.’
Volume one is mostly letters, with the journal entries written during her Continental travels - here are the first entries from her first trip overseas.
26 May 1783.
‘Set out from Charles Street at four o’clock; slept at the Blue Posts at Witham.’
27 May 1783
‘Arrived at Harwich at four o’clock; sailed on board the Prince of Wales packet-boat, Capt. Nasson, at eight at night.’
28 May 1783
‘All day at sea with a very brisk gale; monstrously sick; came to an anchor at the mouth of the harbour at Helveot at ten o’clock at night.’
29 May 1783
‘Came on shore to the Golden Lion at Helveot between three and four in the morning; breakfasted at six with some of our fellow-travellers; at eight, went on board a yacht sent by Mr Crauford to convey us to Rotterdam. These yachts are elegantly fitted up with every convenience for eating, drinking, and sleeping, and are often hired by Dutch families for several weeks together on parties of pleasure. The passage from Helveot to Rotterdam is commonly made in four or five hours, but there being little or no wind, and the tide being against us, we were from eight in the morning till nine at night in the yacht, and were at last obliged to get into a little rowing boat, in which we arrived at Mr Crauford’s house at Rotterdam between ten and eleven o’clock, not a little delighted to find ourselves again on terra firma and in company of our friends.’
30 May 1783
‘Spent the day in visiting the principal buildings and streets of Rotterdam, which must strike all strangers with its appearance of great bustle, cheerfulness, and most remarkable cleanliness. The canals are broad with rows of trees on each side, and generally full of vessels of all sizes, which are enabled to come up to the very doors of the merchants’ and traders’ houses. The canals are crossed by drawbridges, of which there are commonly more than one in every street, and which gives them such a look of similarity that it was with difficulty I could distinguish one street from another.’
The second and third volumes are more taken up with journal entries, at home and abroad.
23 November 1807
‘A dismal, rainy, and to me melancholy day, for I was out of humour with myself. A number of little circumstances lately have served to convince me that my manner is often tranchante, my voice often too loud, and my way of meeting opposition unconciliating. All these circumstances are exactly the contrary from what they ought to be, to make me what I wish, and what alone I can be, at my time of life. It is odd that I, who have been always thinking of growing old, and have such clear ideas of what alone can make a woman loved and amiable after her youth is past, what her views and manners should be, and what can ensure her any degree of consideration - it is odd, I say, that I should fall into the very faults I am the most aware of, and put myself into the situation I have always deprecated; but it is not too late, and at least I am not too old to mend.
In Madame Neckar’s ridiculous Remains, published by her husband, are some of the very best rules and advice for the manners and conduct of a woman no longer young in society. I will read them again. They always strike me as most justly conceived.’
26 November 1807
‘Walked about the garden at Little Strawberry Hill. My greenhouse looks well. Read Madame du Deffand’s letters in the evening.’ [Berry edited four volumes of Deffand’s letters to Walpole.]
27 November 1807
‘Spent a part of the morning at Little Strawberry Hill in my greenhouse. Read Madame du Deffand in the evening.’
1 December 1807
‘Left Strawberry Hill, after spending five weeks there very comfortably and quietly. North Audley Street for the first time felt cold after the great logs and extreme warmth of Strawberry.’
15 November 1810
‘Accepted Mr Hope’s proposal of going with him to Brighton.’
17 November 1810
‘Mr Hope came soon after eleven. It was a fine sunny day, well calculated to raise one’s spirits when travelling comfortably in a chaise and four. But I was out of spirits with myself. My companion, always acute and intelligent in a tete-a-tete, was another circumstance in my favour; but all did not do. We arrived at Brighton in the dark and the rain at half-past five.’
20 November 1810
‘We drove to the West Cliff. The extent of Brighton along the cliff to the Crescent, the furthest houses on the East Cliff, cannot be much less than two miles. Went to the play (‘The Rivals,’ and the ‘Agreeable Surprise’), which had been bespoken. The house was more than three parts empty; and the company in the Prince’s box, which is always given to the lady who bespeaks the play, talked so loud by way of being so very genteel, that one could hardly hear the players.’
23 November 1810
‘Walked with Mr Ward; his observations are always acute, often droll. But there is nil grande in that man; and with a keen and too accurate observation of the littlenesses and vanities of others, he is, if I am not much mistaken, overcharged with both himself.’
25 November 1810
‘In the evening had some conversation with Mr Grattan. His manner is singular, with much action, and his pronunciation, without being Irish, so very foreign that nobody at first could possibly take him for a native of these islands; his language is good, however, and his choice of words figurative, and out of the common way; but his manner upon the whole in society is much more odd than pleasant.’
26 November 1810
‘Went with Mrs Hope to the church on the hill above the town. It is crowded with tablets and monuments within, and tombstones without; in short, the town and its inhabitants have fairly outgrown their church, for there is but one here.’
13 December 1811
‘Went with Lady Charlotte to hear the military band in the Prince’s Pavilion. Luckily, we only heard two pieces, for the noise of so many loud instruments in a room (the dining-room) which could hardly hold them, was not a remedy for my headache. After the music, having an order, we saw the apartments of the Pavilion. All is Chinese, quite overloaded with china of all sorts and of all possible forms, many beautiful in themselves, but so overloaded one upon another, that the effect is more like a china shop baroquement arranged, than the abode of a Prince. All is gaudy, without looking gay; and all is crowded with ornaments, without being magnificent. The interior of the stables is imposing, though badly arranged for the comfort of the horses, and will only accommodate sixty beneath this large building. The riding house, which is attached to it, perfectly suits its purpose, and is, I think, likely not to be finished, though it is the only part of the habitation of the Prince which deserves preservation. He ought to have a tennis court of the same size, making a pendant to the riding house.’
31 March 1814
‘Went, in the Duke of Devonshire’s box, to see Kean in ‘Hamlet’. I must confess I am disappointed in his talent. To my mind he is without grace and without elevation of mind, because he never seems to rise with the poet in those sublime passages which abound in ‘Hamlet’, and for what is called recitation of verse he understands nothing.’
20 April 1814
‘I went this evening to see Lady H. Leveson, to arrange our going to her sister’s empty house to see the entry of the King of France [Louis XVIII had taken over as de facto ruler of France on 11 April after Napoleon’s defeat]. The streets and the park were, before twelve o’clock, filled with people and carriages; the latter were not allowed to enter the park. At five o’clock we saw seven carriages of the Prince Regent’s pass, drawn by six horses, in dress livery, preceded by several hundreds of gentlemen on horseback, and accompanied and followed by a detachment of Light Horse and the Blues; but that was all we saw, because from Park Street the distance was too great to see well into the carriages, and, if we could have seen so far, the people on foot, and the crowd on the rails and walls of the park, would have prevented our doing so. The people took off their hats and saluted the carriages as they passed with much goodwill, but without the least enthusiasm.’
21 April 1814
‘Everybody who wished to see the King of France went to Grillon’s, in Albemarle Street, where he lodged. I was not amongst the number, but during all the day one could hardly pass through the streets, there were so many carriages and people on foot. He went to see the Prince, and in the evening there were a great many people at Carlton House. All who were not there went to Lady Jersey’s, where there was a very agreeable, and not too numerous a society.’
23 April 1814
‘The King of France left London at nine o’clock this morning. If about the same interval elapses between the visits of the Kings of France to London, we shall not see another for 500 years.’
12 December 1843
‘I have an internal sentiment that I cannot count on myself for a single day. I am therefore most anxious - indeed it is the only thing about which I am anxious - to have all ready, to give as little trouble and hurry at the last as possible. I am very anxious our intimate friends should support poor Agnes, if I leave her behind me. Jane, I hope, will do much for her. I swore her, before she went to Scotland, if I dropped off during her absence, to come immediately up to Agnes. I knew nobody else that could fill her place on that occasion for dear Agnes.’
27 December 1843
‘I have had a severe fit of illness in the form of influenza. Repose, solitude, and a book are all I can attempt. I still make an effort to gather together some sparks of life for my sister’s sake. My only anxiety! my only one! is thinking what I can do to secure her some comfort of society after I am gone. I think of this without ceasing.’