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An Interview with Stella Tillyard [imagemap with 5 links]

An Interview with Stella Tillyard
author of Aristocrats: Caroline, Emily, Louisa and Sarah Lennox, 1740-1832

Published in 1994, Stella Tillyard's Aristocrats draws on an immensely rich archive of letters to paint the interior portrait of an epoch through the eyes of four sisters. The time: 1740 to 1832. The place: the drawing rooms, royal palaces, and country houses of England and Ireland. The sisters: Caroline, Emily, Louisa, and Sarah Lennox -- great-granddaughters of a king, daughters of a cabinet minister, and wives of politicians and peers.

Aristocrats was hailed as "compulsively readable" (New York Times Book Review), "singular and remarkable" (Washington Post Book World), "Enthralling" (Newsday), and "a work of ...surpassing brilliance" (Boston Sunday Globe). It has since been followed by Citizen Lord, about the life and death of Irish revolutionary Edward Fitzgerald, son of Emily Lennox. Tillyard is now at work on a third book about the family.

She talked about Aristocrats from her home in London, while preparing for a move to the United States, where her husband has been appointed to the faculty of the University of Chicago.



How did you get the idea for Aristocrats?

I was teaching at UCLA and I was casting around for an interesting story to tell. I had a friend who was researching the experience of being ill in the eighteenth century, and she was telling me about some of the published letters from Caroline to Emily, which talked about all the horrible cures used to treat Caroline's son Stephen Fox. I was fascinated. Then she said that Caroline's more famous son was Charles James Fox and that Caroline's sister was Sarah Lennox, whom King George III fell in love with. And I said, "Well, what happened next?" And she said, "Oh, I'm not interested in anything else, because I'm researching medical history."

When I got to London that summer I went to the British Library and ordered up the three volumes of published letters, which are a slice of Emily's correspondence. Within half an hour of starting, I thought, this is incredible, unbelievable material.

The centerpiece of my book is the sisters' relationship with one another. It's a book about sisterliness really. Given their proximity to the great, important events of the eighteenth century, it became a way of telling the history of the century from inside out, from the women's point of view.

I've always thought that one of the reasons why people read biography is to find out ordinary things. We tend to read the lives of extraordinary people in order to find out details of ordinary life.

Once I'd finished the book, a friend pointed out something I hadn't really thought about -- that I'm one of three sisters. So I guess there was some sort of personal relevance that I didn't realize at the time.


Aside from the letters, did materials such as the many portraits from the period help you to understand the sisters?

I think so. I'm trained as an art historian, so I was interested both in how these women chose to be portrayed as well as just what they looked like. It was very moving to see all the paintings, and of course the family commissioned the most famous artists of their day to paint them and their relatives.


Are any of their houses used in the film?

Yes, Carton House, which is Emily's big country house outside Dublin. There's a scene in the film where they arrange shells in her own shell cottage, which until recently was Marianne Faithfull's home. She doesn't live there anymore, but when I went to see it she was living there. It is the most amazing little building. And then they filmed the ball scene in the ballroom of Carton House, so you have the actress who plays Emily dancing up and down, and behind her is the painting of Emily which was done by Allan Ramsay in the 1760s. They also filmed her in her own day room, the India Paper Room, they called it.

There were many other locations. It was all filmed in Ireland, so the English houses are represented by Irish houses, which meant they had to do things like take down the green. It was very wet in Ireland (the summer before the film was shot), so the grass was incredibly lush in an Irish way. In order to make it look like the south of England they took down the color to make it all less green outside the windows.


Could you give a brief psychological sketch of each of the sisters?

Caroline is the intellectual of the family. She likes to discuss ideas. She's the most accomplished letter writer. She's also the most hot-headed, so when she has a quarrel she doesn't get made up for years and years. So she's a rather difficult character. On the page I find her very sympathetic. Whether I would in life or not, I don't know. In a way she's the grandest. Although she elopes with Henry Fox and that's very subversive, she lives a rather conventional life and wants her sisters to have arranged marriages.

Emily has the arranged marriage, and she accepts it. But when she then falls in love with William Ogilvie, she is prepared to break the conventions in a way that even Caroline would never have dreamt of. It's one thing to have an affair with a schoolmaster, which is beyond the limit really of their social circle. But then to marry him is even more extraordinary. It's a tribute to her skill that he's accepted at all in polite society. She passes on to her son Lord Edward Fitzgerald a political legacy which is far too radical for the time she lives in. We don't really know very much about her political opinions, but we do know she is reading radical pamphlets, which you would not expect. So she's very good at keeping her secrets.

Louisa is cast as the good angel of the family. Her wish to see the good in everybody survives, despite discovering after her husband's death that he had a mistress. She doesn't mind that he's stupid, but she wants him to be faithful. She forgives him and says they'll talk about it in heaven. She does all these philanthropic works later in life. She says things about the inequalities of wealth which are extremely surprising for someone of her position. After all, she's married to the richest man in Ireland.

And then Sarah is the most dramatic, the most extreme. She'd be the most at home in the twentieth century. She'd be a Hollywood actress or something like that. She's very sexy when she's young. She doesn't really understand how to inhabit that role. It's only much later when she's the mother to all these military heroes and a sort of pre-Victorian widow that she comes into her own. She has a very happy second half of her life. The first half is blighted by the unfortunate romance with George III and the subsequent disasters.


Do you think Sarah brings the disasters on herself, as a kind of reaction to the failed romance with the King?

You could put it like that. She has this theatrical manner, but underneath it is a great sense of insecurity. Maybe this thing about the King is something that makes it all worse, but you can imagine that it would have happened anyway. Once she has decided that she's going to be a bad person, she just plays it all the way.


In the preface you write: "The Lennox sisters (with the possible exception of Louisa) thought their lives 'through' novels and other literary forms." Could you comment on that?

Lives have plots. We narrate them over the telephone and over e-mail. The sisters narrate them in letters. These women are great readers of all kinds of novels, and they see plot lines in their own lives.

If you take the case of Emily, for instance, she reads Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Then she writes to Rousseau and asks him to come be the tutor for her children. He doesn't come, so she hires Mr. Ogilvie to create the school after the fashion of Rousseau and educate the children in this way. Then what she does is take the plot of La Nouvelle Héloïse, Rousseau's story in which the tutor falls in love with a pupil, and she runs it through her own life by falling in love with the tutor. In La Nouvelle Héloïse, it's all a disaster and the heroine dies, but Emily says, "I'm not going to have the tragic ending. I'm going to have the ending I want. I'm going to marry him!" It's almost as if she decides to plot her life as her favorite book is plotted.


Was it typical of women of their class to lead a rich interior life through literature?

We don't know the answer to that. I think these women are unusually intelligent and unusually well-educated even for their class. Also they are bilingual, so they can read whatever comes out in French, when it comes out. They have access to all this continental philosophy in a way that other of their contemporaries might not have. But until we have many more studies of aristocratic women, we don't know the answer to that.


What was the case for aristocratic men? What kind of interior lives were they leading?

We don't know that either. Now that is an interesting question. What I'm writing now is going to be about the interior lives of aristocratic men between 1750 and 1850.


What book is that?

It will be the third book of this trilogy. It has a working title of Soldiers. It will be hooked around the Napier brothers, Sarah Lennox's sons. I started asking the question: How was it that men were trained to go out and conquer the world for Britain? What psychological changes did there have to be after the French Revolution to enable these men to do this, to be absent for so many years, to live a kind of battlefield existence? Instead of looking for personal advantage, they have to think of duty, country, king, and all the rest of it. How were these men made?

In a way, it's a kind of complement to Aristocrats. That one was about sisterliness. This is going to be about brotherliness. The character of British men changed very much after the French Revolution. I want to know what they're doing, what they're thinking, what they're reading, what motivates them.


How did things change for aristocratic women during this period?

There's a debate about whether women's lives got better, worse, or just remained terrible. My feeling is that from our point of view, things got much worse in the nineteenth century. There's a wonderful letter from Emily where as an old lady she looks back to her youth in the 1740s. She says that in those days women could lie on the couch and tell dirty jokes; women aren't allowed to do that any more. Even in her own lifetime she can chart a constriction on what is possible in female behavior.


What brought about these types of changes?

I think it's the French Revolution. People in Britain became very frightened about where license led you, where liberalism led you, where attending to radical French philosophy led you. Those things are to do with Frenchness, not Britishness, and they must never be allowed to happen. So the short answer is that the French Revolution happened.


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