Thursday, March 7, 2013

A Young Lady's Life in 1764

Last week my parents visited me in Chicago and as we usually do, we spent a couple of days wandering the local antique stores. My Dad found a book for $5.00 that is a glimpse into the life of a privileged young woman in the 18th century. The Diary of a Young Lady of Fashion in the Year 1764-5 by Cleone Knox, edited by her kinsmen Alexander Blacker Kerr was published in London in 1925. The editor's forward reads, "Miss Cleone Elizabeth Knox the writer of this journal and an ancestress of my mother's, was born on May 12, 1744, at Castle Kearney, Co. Down, Ireland. Her diary, written in a fine Italian hand, in four leather-bound notebooks, was first shown to me by one of her direct descendants in the summer of 1904. I read it with interest, but it was only this year that I decided to edit it and offer it to the public." The editor goes on to explain the history of Cleone's family and describes her as such, "Miss Knox was not a stylist, and her grammar and spelling were poor, like those of many 18th century ladies. She had however, a strong sense of the dramatic and the picturesque, and her journal makes amusing reading, affording as it does a vivid picture of the gay society in which she moved". And so begins her diary, an intimate look into the life of a young woman as she falls in love, attends balls and parties, gossips about servants and friends and travels through Ireland, England, France and Italy with her brother Ned for a year nearly 250 years ago.

A few highlights:

  • Ireland, March 15, 1764: "To my vast amazement I am still here unwedded and unseduced."
  • March 22, 1764: "My father called me to his study this morning, and communicated to me a most amazing piece of intelligence. We are to set off next month for a Grand Tour of Europe, visiting my sister Foley and her husband in Derbyshire, proceeding from thence to London and the Continent. I realized that poor Mr. A. would most certainly not be permitted to accompany me on this journey, and my eyes filled with tears."
  • London, May 22, 1764. "Carrots and Turnips Ho! This cry yelled in a hoarse voice wakes me every morning. My father complains of the noise in London and indeed 'tis something prodigious. The watchmen are calling out the time and weather all night long, and when they have stopped the vendors or oranges, brooms, matches, rat traps Lord knows what else begin. I am amazed at the vastness of this town and the bustle of coaches and chairs in the streets. Never have I seen so many pretty women in so short a time. Pray Heaven Ned will not lose his head."
  • Paris, France, September 11, 1764. "The streets of this town are vile and dirty after London and monstrously narrow for the crowd of noblemens coaches and chairs that throng them. The Palais de Justice and Opera House fine, but most of the town stinks vilely, though to hear the french talk you would think t'was Paradise itself. The poor people here attire themselves in black and Lady H. says 'tis account of the mud splashed up by the coaches."
  • September 14th, 1764. "Today was presented to their Majesties the King and Queen at Versaille. I attired myself in white satin and wore my diamonds, yet was not utterly satisfied with my looks, for I have grown thin of late. 

Seriously a fascinating and at times a hysterical read. Her brother attempts to run off with an Italian nun who is also an heiress but her inheritance will go to the convent, he ends up in jail briefly and the journal ends abruptly soon after. The best part, her ancestor, the editor ends the journal with an epilogue on what happens to Cleone, her mysterious Mr. A, her brother and others mentioned in her travels. Want to know what happens, I'll loan you this fragile, rare and wonderful little book.

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