The Circus

The Circus

Pp. 140 - 148

21st C
Had to get out my little bottle of Tippex yesterday and used it to cover tiny chips in paintwork on the stairs. Not quite what it is supposed to be used for (correcting fluid for paper documents) but effective in the short term.

Made a casserole of cubed lamb, diced oinions (I am delighted to find that Waitrose sells them already cut up for lazy cooks like me) mixed root vegetables and I tossed in a few Victoria plums for good measure, then , slow-cooked everything in the oven for three hours. Delicious.

Today I am staying at a strange hybrid of a place on the seafront at Lyme Regis in Dorset, an attractive seaside town made famous by writers like Jane Austen and John Fowles. The best-selling title in the bookshops here is said to be Fowle's THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT'S WOMAN.

I have a "suite" on the second floor commanding a fine view of the sea from windows in kitchen, sitting room and bedroom. At night the sound of the sea swishing over the pebbled beach lulls me to sleep. Although the establishment is called The Bay Hotel there are no public rooms, only a restaurant at ground floor level with a sunny outdoor cafe offering a superb view of the sea-front. The accommodation consists of a few well-furnished self-catering suites with no public amenities but excellent access to the sea-front and gorgeous views.

Lyme Regis is two hours away by car from Bath. It is a delightfully unspoiled place but extremely popular and overcrowded in summer. Late September is an ideal time to visit. I have the avantage of fine sunny weather and a full moon shining over the bay at night, a scene romantic enough to satisfy any of Jane Austen's lovelorn heroines.

18th C

Perhaps Margaret Gainsborough moved to Bath with some misgivings. The family's decision had been prompted by her worst enemy if we are to believe Philip Thickness's account of it. Margaret had no affection for the man who was constantly claiming influence over Gainsborough, saying she preferred Mephisto the Devil to Thickness because Mephisto at least had a sense of humour. Privately, between themselves, Thomas and Margaret often referred to him as "Thickhead."

Thickness claimed all credit for persuading Gainsborough to settle in Bath, reassuring him that he would undoubtedly achieve fame as a portait painter in the wealthy spa town.Margaret seems to have had a sufficiently arrogant belief in her ancestry to give her confidence to operate as the partner of a talented artist who was not averse to using his wife's connections to advantage. Thickness had always disliked Margaret and he made no effort to hide his feelings. Margaret's haughty and often critical attitude towards her husband's male companions left her vulnerable to critical comment in surviving letters and memoirs. To date there appears to be very little remaining documentation revealing the identity of Margaret's closest female friends or their attitude towards her. Consequently the evidence of her charcter is unbalanced, leaning heavily towards the unfavourable view of Gainsborough's male friends.

Mary (known as Molly to her affectionate father) was now nine years old and Margaret (nicknamed Captain by Gainsborough) was eight. The move from a small country town to the sophisticated and often wanton pleasures of the fashionable spa town was both an exciting adventure for them and possibly a more difficult time for their mother. Gainsborough finally settled on living in the centre of the town in Abbey House, a large impressive building easily capable of meeting the artist's needs for work and family accommodation. From the moment he took out a seven year lease on the house in June 1760 Gainsborough made a habit of increasing his income by letting out rooms to lodgers. He followed this practice throughout his life.

By moving into Abbey House he placed Margaret and the little girls exactly in the middle of social and commercial life in Bath, in the busy, noisy and smoke-filled centre of the town. The handsome building (since demolished) lay between the Pump Room and the Abbey, and was so close to the King's and Queen's Baths that, according to Susan Sloman's book, GAINSBOROUGH IN BATH, a public passage-way for bathers was incorporated in the building.

From contemporary accounts it appears that views of the Roman Baths from the windows of Abbey House were not always suitable for the eyes of the innocent young Gainsborough girls who gazed down upon them, as we shall see.

Meanwhile, family ties were so strong within the Gainsborough clan at Sudbury that no fewer than ten of Thomas's relatives eventually followed him to live in Bath. His sister Mary Gibbon the milliner was among the first, arriving in 1762 to set up shop in Abbey House itself, an excellent commercial site standing in the shadow of the Abbey. Here Mrs Gibbon soon made a name for heself as a most fashionable shop-keeper dealing in expensive small items such as perfumes and gifts as well as millinery. Later she became known as a leading lodging-housekeeper in Bath, or a lodging-house "cat" as Gainsboroughd described her to a friend.

He was fond of his sister to the point where he shared his secret life with her to some extent. He confided to her some of the problems he faced in his relationships with his wife and daughters and later with his son-in-law. Mrs Gibbon was a staunch supporter of the Methodist Chapel and appears to have lived a rigidly disciplined life. However, that did not stop Gainsborough from revealing his sexual exploits to her, or from borrowing money from her to help women he had been involved with. He freely admitted that he wasted far too much time running after pleasurable pursuits while Margaret constantly nagged him to get back to his easel to earn more money.

He was especially tempted by the pleasures of life, particularly when he was away from home. London offered him not only endless delights but, in those days of leisurely communication, a certain freedom from restraint in the form of his wife. His letters are often frank and revealing. Writing to a friend shortly after moving to Bath he described how he had been dangerously ill. He was suffering from venereal disease but, he wrote, he was on the mend and praised his "Dear Good Wife" who sat up every night to care for him.

Bearing in mind his shameful behaviour in London a few weeks earlier he wrote that he would never be a good enough soul for his wife, no matter how he might try to mend his wicked ways. However much Margaret must have loathed his infidelity and the consequences of his cavorting with prostitutes, there was nothing she could do about it. Her own father's sensational divorce had set the gossips' tongues wagging when she was a girl, but divorce was not an option open to women in her situation. Georgian men had undisputed control not only over the family's finances, but also over the lives of their wives and children. If a woman did take the shocking decision to leave her home, she had to kiss goodbye to her children as well as her husband and her home. There was simply no future in life for a married woman who abandoned her family. She was, in turn, abandoned by society.

A week or two before the Gainsboroughs arrived in town Samuel Symmonds's advertisement appeared in THE BATH JOURNAL warning the public that his wife, Hanmnah, had eloped five days earlier "without cause or provocation." He would no longer be responsible for any debts she might incur from that day forward. And unless she was unusually lucky in her admirer's intent, Hannah's future looked grim indeed.

In the 187 years from 1670 to 1857 there were only 325 divorces registered in England, all but four of them obtained by men according to Amanda Vickery's book A GENTLEMAN'S DAUGHTER, P 73. Forced marriages were occasionally wrecked by an unwilling bride. Lady Mary Coke scandalized society by refusing to consummate her marriage and as a result her embarrassed husband kept her a virtual prisoner at Holkham Hall in Norfolk for a year before she was humiliated by a public annulment.