• Categories: 17th Century, 18th Century

Ruth tells us that the play didn’t do very well and in her (Mrs Manley’s) typically straightforward way she said that it ‘was damned’ because it was by a woman and its actual merit was immaterial.

Delarivier Manley – a journalist in the making

By Ruth Herman

There are many women who seem to have been born before their time and this heroine is no exception. This lady, born (possibly) in 1663 (she was suspiciously cagey about her birth date) would have felt at home with the full range of modern journalists. I’m sure she would have enthusiastically adopted phone hacking, belligerent Paxman interviewing techniques and satirical quiz shows. Her sojourn in Hertfordshire was brief but her tale is so entertaining that she deserves to be better known and with your permission, dear reader, we will make her an honorary, if temporary, resident.
She lived a colourful life, having been born to a former Cavalier soldier on Guernsey where he had been appointed governor. Her unusual name is probably a compliment to the wife of one of her father’s sometime senior officers as he had spent much of the Commonwealth in what we would now call Belgium, marrying a French speaking Walloon.
Much of what we have to go on with Delarivier is her own carefully constructed autobiography. There is no contemporary portrait but she describes herself in the following terms:
Her Person is neither tall nor short; from her Youth she was inclined to Fat; whence I have often heard her Flatterers liken her to the Grecian Venus. It is certain, considering that Disadvantage, she has the most easy Air that one can have her Hair is of a pale Ash-colour, fine, and in a large Quantity. I have heard her friends lament the Disaster of her having had the Small-pox in such an Injurious manner, being a beautiful Child before that Distemper; but as that Disease has now left her Face, she has scarce any Pretence to it.
She also, with great honesty, laments that she “had the misfortune to be born with an indifferent beauty, between two Sisters perfectly handsome”. In another autobiographical intervention, she says she spent time with an “old out of fashion Aunt, full of the Heroick Stiffness of her own Time” who would “read Books of Chivalry and Romances” which is where she claims she got her romantic fantasies of love and passion. She blamed these airy notions on her subsequent bigamous marriage to her cousin, the MP John Manley. Sir John had a wife already packed away in the West Country, a fact which he omitted to tell Delarivier. They had a son who does not seem to figure in her story so there is some mystery as to his fate. With this unfortunate background not, surprisingly Delarivier considered herself ruined and took herself to the capital.
Once there she found herself a place with the notorious Barbara Castlemaine, the long term mistress of Charles II, who kept the young woman by her side as a lucky mascot at the gaming table. She was dismissed after 6 months when Barbara protested that the young woman was hankering after the older woman’s son.
At this time, with severe need for money, she discovered she had a talent for writing and began to wield her pen to good effect, going from editing a book of poetry with some female contemporaries to producing entertaining tales of her travels around the country. Her creativity extended to the stage with two plays produced in the late 1690s. She now became involved in a round of gaiety and was involved with some of the liveliest young bucks of the day. She probably took Sir Richard Steele, the Whig MP and author, as a lover; a relationship which went horribly wrong and gave rise to an acrimonious public exchange which lasted 20 years. She also became acquainted with the highly politicised Tory Henry St. John, a notorious rake, and in this way her already strong political leanings became formalised. Her new high flying network stood her in good stead later in her career.
She disappears from the scene for a few years at the turn of the century and the 1700s find her the mistress of the devious, dishonest (and married) governor of the Fleet Prison. Delarivier also got herself involved in an inheritance scam somehow involving both her ‘husband’ and her lover. The wife of her bankrupt boyfriend now died and he subsequently found himself a rich widow to marry. Delarivier claimed that the marriage took place with her blessing, knowing that she had nothing financial to offer him. The next we hear of her she is taking possible first steps into the realm of political writing, the field she is now principally known for. She may (or may not) be the author of the anonymous Queen Zarah and the Zarazians, a truly scabrous attack on the Whig Duchess of Marlborough the bête noir of the Tories. Delarivier remained implacably an enemy of all things Whig and the Duke and Duchess in particular.
She next comes into the spotlight with her most famous work, popularly called New Atalantis which was a full-on satirical take on the sexual, financial and behavioural oddities, misdemeanours and general bad practice of notable Whig politicians and frankly, anyone Manley had taken a dislike to. It was salacious, outrageous, libellous and thoroughly entertaining. Accuracy and fairness were not her strong points and she had no interest in doing anything but promulgating Tory propaganda. Therefore her political allies, the Tories (including Queen Anne) were painted in a saintly light, while the Whigs were the devils incarnate.
The effect of this scandal fiction (the characters in the text are thinly disguised with extraordinary names) was instantaneous. It was of course a best seller and the secretary of state put out a warrant for the arrest of the printer and bookseller. Delarivier, the anonymous author, to stop the incarceration of the printer, claims she stepped up to the mark and admitted she had written it. (There is some dispute on the facts here). She was subsequently put into the Tower for a brief period.
Miraculously, the government changed from Whig to Tory at this point (1710) and she published a sequel to the New Atalantis, called Memoirs of Europe. This time however she proudly signed her name in the newly opened registry of authors at the Stationers Office. She basked in her success, and it influenced the leader of the ministry, Robert Harley to see the value of her talents, bringing her on board as a political journalist and pamphleteer. Since she received money from Harley for this we could argue that she is the first professional female political writer. Whatever the truth of this she proved a useful asset to the party and actually took over the authorship of the Examiner, the semi-official organ of the Tory party. Since her predecessor was the esteemed Jonathon Swift this was a truly prestigious appointment.
Her love life was also doing well, and she was living with the printer she claims to have saved from prison. Delarivier flourished with John Barber, her printer, although in her carefully written autobiography, Rivella, she claims that she only stayed with him in order to oversee her publications. It may be significant that in his biography she is said to refer to him as ‘the Tyrant’. In fact she died in his house in London. Her professional life was also good, the Tories were in power and Delarivier was a working journalist, hobnobbing with the great and the good. She was making money and may have enjoyed a little more comfort than she had been used to.
After the death of Queen Anne in 1714 our hidden heroine more or less retired from the political hurley burley. This was possibly because her former political masters were either being impeached by the new Whig government or because they were rapidly becoming unacceptably Jacobite (supporters of the Catholic succession which had been over-ruled by the Act of Settlement and the subsequent enthronement of the Protestant Hanoverians). While she seems to have been somewhat impecunious at around this time, eventually she eventually made enough money to retire to a small estate in an Oxford village. In fact there is some evidence that Richard Steele, now a theatrical manager, paid her six hundred guineas for her final play (worth a useful £54,000 in today’s money). Her printer/lover also happened to be the official printer for the South Sea company and as Manley left shares in her will, and Barber apparently profited from the whole debacle, it seems reasonable to suppose that Manley had some insider information and also made some money. In her new abode she gathered about her the young undergraduates who delighted in her former notoriety and enjoyed her hospitality. She was still on the suspect list but she was more or less left in peace to write romantic novels and another stage play which did particularly well. She also made friends with her old enemy, Richard Steele. However, she would never do the same with the Marlboroughs, and she was probably pleased to see that the Duke and Duchess never again held any kind of office.
So you may ask why she is a Hertfordshire hidden heroine? Well, firstly she is a fascinating and controversial character. And she did spend some time in Hertfordshire, with a Mr Partridge who lived near Totteridge Common, then within the County. From here we have a letter, slightly heart-breaking to read that she could not come to town (i.e. court) on Queen Anne’s death because she could not afford to clothe herself in a mourning outfit. She died in 1724; we are not sure of the ailment except that she was in ‘exquisite pain’.
This has been a whistle stop tour of a complex and subtle writer who was mistress of the scandal genre and enjoyed an understanding of the power of satire. I am pleased to say that she is not neglected by the academic community who include her variously as an early novelist and an early modern woman writer. She is not forgotten but she has been hidden behind her better known (male) contemporaries such as Swift, Pope and her ex-lover Steele.