Monday, September 12, 2016

It helps to be very very wealthy and well-born

The line between eccentricity and insanity in the English aristocracy has always been hard to draw, and perhaps never more so than in the case of John Charles Wallop, third Earl of Portsmouth. Born in 1767 at the family’s Hampshire residence of Hurstbourne Park, Wallop grew into a child who betrayed signs of being what his contemporaries would have called a simpleton. He was sent to be tutored by the Rev. George Austen, father of Jane, but proved a slow learner and had a serious stammer. Jane was still to be born at the time he lived in her home, but she encountered Wallop at a ball in later life and thought him presentable enough. Nothing this keen-eyed observer of humanity says of him would suggest that she found him in any way odd. She was, however, less impressed by his dim-witted younger brother Coulson, whom she regarded as a cad given to drunken habits and indelicate language. He could easily be a minor character in one of her novels. Brains were not the Portsmouth family’s strong point. Wallop’s uncle had been elected master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, but according to one contemporary observer was completely illiterate...

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