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Old Lady Cork

British Isles Genealogy | Chapters From the Family Chest

     Somewhat less than half-a-century ago there were three titled ladies who reigned with almost undisputed sway over West-End society in London---Lady Blessington Lady Charleville, and ‘old' Lady Cork, as she was called during the last two or three decades of a life which, in the end, was prolonged far beyond the period allowed by David. She had been an early riser all her childhood, youth, and middle age, and, till a few days before her death, she rose regularly at six; so it is no wonder that she had a narrow escape of becoming a veritable centenarian, though she liked the pleasures of the table, and made it a point to the last always to dine out if she had not company at home. Her ladyship was by birth the Honorable Mary Monckton, daughter of the first Viscount Galway in the Peerage of Ireland. She was born about the years 1739-40, and as soon as she first 'came out' was appointed a maid-of-honor to Queen Charlotte. In. 1768 she married Edmund, seventh Earl of Cork and Orrery; and before the end of the century she had assembled at her table half the lions of the time-young Arthur Wellesley and Burke, and Charles James Fox and the younger Pitt, and the still more youthful Samuel Ropers, and bars. Montagu. Indeed, she was stated by a writer in the New Monthly to have had among her frequent guests both Dr. Johnson and Sir Joshua Reynolds; and in early life, as a child at her parents' house, she sat to Reynolds for her portrait.
     Lady Cork has been credited, or rather she used to credit herself, with having first brought Sheridan into public notice. 'There was Sheridan,' she said at one of her soirees; “I was his first friend-in London, at least; I used to invite him to Burlington Street, and to introduce him to people who were likely to be useful to him. The seat for which he sat at Stafford was put in his way by me. My brother, Edward Monekton you know, was life colleague for a long time. In society his object at first was to get his wife invited to West-End parties-that charming Miss Linley, you know; she sang so well. Nobody at that time knew what her husband was destined to turn out, either in Parliament or in dramatic literature. Lady - said to me, " Oh, I should like to have Mrs. Sheridan at my musical party next week, but then there's that drag of a husband. "In two years' time that "drag of a husband" was the pet of the House of Commons, the Mr. Sheridan of Canton House and of everywhere, the observed of all observers, and the idol of society.'
      The Prince Regent and Sheridan were frequent diners at her mansion in New Burlington Street; and so also were Canning and Castlereagh, Mrs. Siddons and John Kemble, Lord Byron and Six Walter Scott occasionally. She lilted, above everything, to entertain at her table anyone and everyone who was likely to become a 'lion' of the day; and some people think that Charles Dickens drew upon her for some of the features of ‘Mrs. Leo Hunter.'
     A writer in the New Monthly observes: When we first saw Lady Cork, her lionizing mania had reached to fever point. At which time, when visiting her friends, she perceived any strangers, her first question was, not " who, or what are they?" but 'what can they do?" Yet, with all Lady Cork's admitted taste in the selection of her evening "stars;' she was unacquainted with that skill and delicacy of polish requisite to make them shine with full effect. Her ladyship was unpracticed in the nice tact and finesse which draws forward, imperceptibly to the possessor, the amusive powers of the gifted. On the contrary, she would stir up the reposing faculties of her “lions " somewhat too mach in the fashion of a hackneyed show-beast, and by using the long pole too briskly, sometimes fight the more “delicate monsters," the morn timid animals, into silence, or exasperate the more savage into defiance-thus, by her premature or ill-timed jokings and ticklings, defeating her own intent, and not infrequently some "lion-rough," who otherwise had "roared as gently as any sucking dove "-or “an 't were any nightingale," whose humor she had turned "the seamy side without," would show his claws, in effect saying, “If you think that I have come hither as a lion,, it is really a pity; no, I am no such thing; I am no such thing; I am a man as other men are."'
     Lady Cork had to complain of Dr. Johnson's rudeness, if there be truth in the following story, which has been told over and over again about that eccentric prodigy of learning, You knew Dr. Johnson?' said a gentleman to her. 'Knew Dr. Johnson!' answered she; ‘ why, he was my bosom friend. I'll tell you a story of him. He was sitting by me, and, in the heat of his conversation, began pinching my knee I was young then. I bore it a little while, and then remonstrated. "Madam," said the philosopher, “I beg your pardon-but one must leave a quieting motion: " One would willingly have gone far to see in the flesh a lady who had thus 'quieted' the old bear who frequented the Bluestocking Club.
        Among those who were invited to her ladyship's salons were Charles Matthews and Theodore Hook; but both of those worthies resented the idea of being exiled to ' show off' or to be 'shown off’ and very amusing is Theodore Hook's account of the way in which he defeated the designs of his hostess and enemy in this direction. In spite, however, of such little occasional contretemps, Lady Cork's parties were rendered agreeable by her piquancy and wit; and to the very last her memory was prodigious. She could repeat the longest passages of Shakespeare, and Milton, and Byron, and even of Dryden's 'Virgil' and Pope's ‘Homer.' One evening at Lady Combermere's house, when she was approaching her eightieth year, whilst waiting for her carriage or sedan chair, she sat down in the hall in the midst of several of the gentlemen who dangled about her, and recited with great animation half of a book of homer's ‘Iliad.'
     When she grew old, if the truth must be told -though she had the character of being wise as well as witty-she grew rather despotic as well, and would say sometimes very cross and ill-natured things of and to her best friends. She also indulged in the peculiarity of what is called ‘kleptomania;' and it was no uncommon thing for the host and hostess of the house at which she dined to lease a stray pewter fork or spoon in the hall for her to carry off in her muff. Once, indeed, she carried her propensity in this direction so far as to walk into the garden of Samuel Rogers's house in St. James's Place, and to rob it of a quantity of flowers. A wit of the fashionable world, either Jekyll or Luttrell, remarked, à propos of this theft, that it was ‘no wonder that the poet looked so pale, since Lady Cork had stolen all his roses.' Indeed, all sorts of good stories are told about her ladyship; here, for instance, is one: ' Old Lady Cork,' writes Sydney Smith, ‘was once so moved by a charity sermon that she begged me to lend her a sovereign as a contribution to put into the plate. I did so. But she never repaid me, and I believe she spent the sovereign on herself.’
     Lady Cork had long passed King David's allotted age when she died, on Saturday, May 30th, 1840; but until a very few days before her end she paid and received visits as usual. Being asked bow it was that she enjoyed such good health through her long life, she said that she ascribed it to the fact that she always got up at six o'clock in winter, as well as in summer, and that she dined out regularly whenever she had no company at home. ' Man,' writes Aristotle, ‘is a social animal'; and verily woman would seem to be so equally. 

Chapters From the Family Chests, 1887

Chapters From the Family Chest

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