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Putting ‘The Sylph’ into context

Susan Fitzmaurice visits Chatsworth House to give an introduction to the Duchess's novel, 'The Sylph'
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We are in the sketch gallery of Chatsworth House. This house is very different from Nostell Priory, which was a party house. By the end of the 18th century, the country house owners of places like Chatsworth were spending less and less time at their estates. In 1778, it was said that the Duke of Devonshire’s grandfather would spend nine months a year at Chatsworth; his father spent about six months a year at Chatsworth, whereas, he only spent about three months a year at Chatsworth. Now, in 1772 the Duke of Devonshire married Georgiana Spencer. And in this sketch gallery there are a number of pictures of her. She’s gorgeous.
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Now, the new Duchess of Devonshire found herself alone at Chatsworth for quite a lot of the time in the early years of her marriage. And while she was here, it is believed she wrote a novel, a novel entitled ‘The Sylph’. Now this novel is quite conventional by 18th-century standards. It’s a novel in letters, and it’s modelled in part on ‘Clarissa’, Samuel Richardson’s novel, which was written around the middle of the century. ‘The Sylph’ is about a young girl called Julia. She’s well brought up, she’s a countryside person, but she’s rather innocent. And the story goes like this. She falls madly in love with a city rake whose name is Sir William.
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And he sweeps her off her feet, and he takes her off to London. And he begins to educate her in the wicked ways of polite society in London. She soon discovers that he’s one of the worst possible examples of late 18th-century polite manhood. He spends his time frittering away money, he gambles, he drinks to excess, he fancies himself a sportsman and a ladies man. She finds that he pays increasingly little attention to her. The Duchess of Devonshire’s novel was published anonymously in 1779. And it scandalised the critics, as it criticised the aristocracy, casting its members as drunkards, as con men, as wife beaters, as rakes. Now ‘The Sylph’ explores a form of politeness.
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Sir William’s notion of politeness was really associated with a model of behaviour that seemed to have been advanced by Philip Dormer Stanhope, the Fourth Earl of Chesterfield. His letters to his son, written between about 1748 and 1753, were published in 1774. And these letters made a massive impact on the public’s understanding of the ways in which polite society behaved. The letters were attacked quite viciously, because it was believed that they represented a system of politeness that really was a matter of self-promotion. By the second half of the 18th century then, we see that politeness has changed.
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No longer is it a model of behaviour which eased the interaction and sociability among people - that kind of politeness that was so championed by Addison in ‘The Spectator’.
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No: instead now it is a mode of self-promotion at the expense of everybody else. And so I’d like us to look at an extract from the Duchess of Devonshire’s novel, ‘The Sylph’, to explore this association between Chesterfieldian politeness, and the dissolute aristocracy at the end of the period.

In this video, Susan visits the Sketch Gallery at Chatsworth House to give an introduction to the Duchess of Devonshire’s novel, ‘The Sylph’.

In the next step, we’ll be looking at an extract from this novel.

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Literature of the English Country House

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