by Julia Gasper
Elizabeth Craven (1750-1828) is a writer who is remembered today for her travelogue, an account of a protracted tour of Europe and the Levant made in 1785-6, and her Memoirs written in later life. (1) What the travelogue does not mention is that she was making her journey in the company of a lover, and in her Memoirs she was careful to avoid mentioning him or any of the others who had earned her a scandalous reputation.
However, she wrote far more than is generally known – poems, plays, stories and letters – and some of her most important works are overlooked. When we factor these back in we get a very different picture, and find that Craven was actually one of the most outspoken contemporaries of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Robinson. In 1784, having been driven from England by scandal, after a marital break-up and many much-talked-about love-affairs, she wrote a remarkable book called Letters to Her Son, in which she denounced the laws of marriage, as they were at that time, as unjust and oppressive to women. “Matrimony,” she wrote, “in this country, is less calculated to make people happy than any other institution human or divine”. And why? Because of the laws whereby husbands held power over their wives.
In forthright way, she listed the legal inequities of marriage as it then existed, first among them being the requirement for a woman to promise to obey her husband. She protested that a husband could legally beat his wife, lock her up, give her no money, be unfaithful with prostitutes or mistresses, or squander his money and her own, while she had no legal redress. If she sought a divorce or separation, she would be disgraced and deprived of her own children. These laws, with their injustice and double standards, were made, she says, by men, and were frankly just a form of “tyranny.” She had experienced this tyranny for herself during her marriage to Lord Craven, in the course of which she had seven children, and had witnessed it in the marriages she observed around her. In many of her other works, the same ideas are found expressed in a variety of ways.
In Letters to Her Son, she advised her son to forget all the oppressive legislation that made him the master and owner of his wife, and seek only an affectionate, equal companionship. Under those conditions, she said, marriage would be far happier for both. Her book was published in both English and French, and virtually ignored. It met with only a very few, brief and dismissive reviews. If read at all, it would have faced the objection that it was written by a woman who had contravened moral standards – a bad woman, in short. It has never been edited or re-issued until now. (2)
Several of Craven’s plays were written in French, which to some extent explains their neglect, particularly since they were published in Germany when she was living there as the mistress – later the second wife – of the Margrave of Ansbach. Together they visited Paris at the height of the turmoil of 1789, and travelled back from Spain through France to England in 1792. Craven’s main impulse was as a comic writer, and even when writing about the ideas of the French Revolution, she preferred to present them in a comical form. Her play, The Modern Philosopher, is a satire about an intellectual who is happy to lecture his domestic servants about the absolute equality of all mankind, until they rebel and take over. The upper classes are issued with a strong warning about these ideas which will “overturn the universe”. She sent a copy to William Beckford, who was another of the numerous lovers she carefully avoided mentioning at all in her Memoirs. (3)
Her comic impulse is well displayed in her poem about the Siege of Gibraltar, a satire that reveals what a very sharp interest she took in all current events, including military and political matters that were not considered to be within the sphere of a woman. (4)
Her links to the Romantic movement are found in her serious poems, her plays on Oriental subjects, and her novel The Soldier of Dierenstein, written after a journey down the Danube had stirred her imagination about its castles and bygone heroes.
This story was greeted by a review in the periodical The Monthly Mirror so scathing it might have driven a lesser woman to suicide. (5) But Craven carried on braving social disapproval and prejudice all her life, mounting productions of her own and other plays at her private theatre in Hammersmith and at her country home in Benham in Berkshire. Often these plays touched on the theme of women’s status in marriage or the oppressive custom of arranged marriage. She and her circle of unconventional friends, artists, musicians, writers, French emigrés, wits and wags, created a high-spirited atmosphere and a riot of amusement, adding of course to the widespread feeling (detectable in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park) that private theatricals were immoral and led people astray. However, they included a lot of talented actors – such as her own son, Keppel, whom she had kept charge of in defiance of the law after her marital break-up. A lively cartoon by John Nixon depicts one of these productions. (6)
A prominent member of her social circle was Anne Damer, the sculptor and writer, who portrayed Elizabeth Craven as the heroine of a novel. (7)
Craven was not left nearly as rich as people supposed when her second husband died – I am still learning more now about her financial affairs – but when she had money, she was extremely generous. She sheltered many refugees in her house, and others who had simply been, for some reason, unfortunate, such as General Madden, who lived there for over a year when he had nowhere else to go. She paid for her nieces to go to a boarding school in Reading (perhaps the same one that Jane Austen attended), and she was paying a pension in 1802-1807 to a former French maid of hers who had returned to France. (8)
Money was one reason why she eventually left England and spent her last years in Posillipo, near Naples. But she had always been a cosmopolitan person, loved the climate and culture of Italy, and transplanted easily. She created a wonderful fantasy garden around her little villa overlooking the Bay of Naples, and mixed with the Neapolitan intellectuals and other English exiles such as the novelist Lady Blessington. Turner went there at this time and painted a view that might have been taken from her garden. Shelley also turned up in Naples, disconsolate, and it is nice to imagine that the three of them might have bumped into each other by accident.
When Craven died in 1828, she was buried in the English cemetery at Naples, a spot she would have enjoyed describing in one of her own vivid travelogues.
1. Elizabeth Craven, A Journey Through the Crimea to Constantinople: In a Series of Letters from the Right Honourable Elizabeth Lady Craven, to His Serene Highness the Margrave of Brandenbourg, Anspach, and Bareith (London: G.G. and J Robinson, 1789).
2. Elizabeth Craven, Memoirs of the Margravine of Anspach, Written by Herself (London: H. Colburn, 1826).
3. The Modern Philosopher and Other Works by Elizabeth Craven, translated and edited by Julia Gasper, Cambridge Scholars Press, 2017.
4, Julia Gasper, Elizabeth Craven, Writer, Feminist and European (Wilmington, Delaware: Vernon Press, 2017).
5. An annotated version is included in The Modern Philosopher and Other Works by Elizabeth Craven, translated and edited by Julia Gasper, Cambridge Scholars Press, 2017.
6. The Monthly Mirror – Vol. XIV, 1802, page 249-250. https://elizabethberkeleycraven.blogspot.co.uk/2017/10/a-production-of-beggars-opera-at-benham.html
7. Julia Gasper, Elizabeth Craven, Writer, Feminist and European (Wilmington, Delaware: Vernon Press, 2017).
8. The Collection of Autograph Letters and Historical Documents of Alfred Morrison, 1821-1897 (1893) v 1:57-58.
Julia Gasper did a DPhil in English Literature at Somerville
College, Oxford, and went on to teach Eng Lit. for Stanford University in Oxford, the Open University and the University of Roehampton at Surrey. She is the author of several books including Theodore von Neuhoff, King of Corsica, (University of Delaware Press 2012), The Marquis d’Argens, a Philosophical Life (Lexington Books, 2014), and Elizabeth Craven, Writer, Feminist and European (Vernon Press 2017). She is the editor of the Modern Philosopher and Other Works by Elizabeth Craven (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2017). She is now retired and enjoying writing books, and reviewing opera in her spare time.