First page of Barbara Buller's Devon diary circa 1820
The Devon Heritage Centre holds a file of a diary kept by Barbara Isabella Buller, nee Kirkpatrick, its provenance attributed to South Molton (fl 1820). It’s listed on Discovery. When I first noticed the file something prompted me to take a second look. A diary kept two hundred years ago by a woman whose name was unfamiliar sounded intriguing. I assumed Barbara to be a woman from the Devon locality, but (although aware of Buller family links with Kingsnympton), was puzzled by the apparent connection of someone from the family with South Molton. I began to google the diarist’s name, not really expecting to find much information about her. I was surprised to find that Barbara came from one of the topmost privileged and colorful families of her time, the Kirkpatricks, many of whose menfolk had prestigious careers in the Colonial Service, in India. My curiosity grew. What connection did Barbara Buller have with this north Devon town? Why was she keeping a diary - why indeed, was she there?
Coincidentally, around this time I'd come upon a commentary about another journal centred on north Devon, also written by a woman and featured in the anthology Devon Documents (Ed. Todd Gray). This was The Travel Documents of Elizabeth Ernst North Devon in the 1840's, with commentary by Sue Berry of the Somerset Heritage Trust. Although as yet I have not had a chance to look at Ernst's journals in detail and although there is a difference of some twenty years between the diaries, I now believe there was a social or/and family link between the two 'diarists' (which I'll note below when I comment on the diaries themselves); this suggests to me that travel journals written about and during holidays in Devon, during this period of the early C19, may well have been a popular literary activity for women travelling in the westcountry, especially perhaps those who had connections with the upper, educated class. There may well be other similarly neglected and unpublished journals lurking out there in various archives.
I have to confess, initially I quickly gave up with Barbara’s diary. Trying to scan the words quickly to work out a resume of their content initially proved impossible. Although archivists have managed to get a sense of their content, I'm not accustomed to dealing with unruly handwriting from the past. I'm not sure that anyone has wrestled with Barbara’s atrocious handwriting to enable thorough comprehension of the pages’ content (and no, I don’t think that can be explained away by assuming written letters of the early C19 would be penned in chaotic script), which may explain why there is no summary of their content on the archive listing. Anyway, not having hours of spare time and assuming I’d never be able to make sense of this erratic handwriting, I put the copies aside, in my iPhone Collect app.
More recently, I decided I must have another go. Specifically, I wanted to find out if there was a connection between these two Buller family women – Charlotte whose letters I looked at in the previous blog, and Barbara, who, like Charlotte had married into the Buller family. After all the two women were living within coexisting time spans, though Barbara lived a little earlier than Charlotte.
Who Was Barbara?
One of four girls, Barbara Isabella (who was just over twenty years older than Charlotte, some of whose letters I discussed in the previous post) was daughter of Major General William Kirkpatrick, the Orientalist, whose career was spent in Calcutta where he worked for the East India Company; Kirkpatrick retired to Exeter in Devon, where in 1805 (when Barbara was about 17 and apparently the same year in which she married), he acquired Southernhay House, which became his home until his death. Now a hotel, Southernhay House, is near the Cathedral Close. According to Wikipedia, other than his connections with a couple of local men, Kirkpatrick’s reasons for settling in Devon are unknown, (but as I've gradually explored his daughter's journals, which frequently mention names of people she knows or is familiar with in the Exeter locality, it seems to me that the family had longstanding and close connections with the place).
Research re genealogy sites shows that Barbara Kirkpatrick and Charles Buller married in Calcutta in 1785, but split up only three years later (when their mother returned to England), in 1788, the year of Barbara’s birth. The couple finally separated in 1797 (Barbara was 9), and the children were put into the care of their paternal grandfather, Major General James Kirkpatrick (who was nicknamed ‘The Handsome Colonel’), who had retired to Kent. It seems the children had an erratic upbringing; their mother eventually returned to India with her lover. Presumably the children remained with their grandfather, who according to various online sources was ‘never one to take the business of parenthood too seriously’ (erenow.net) Barbara and her sisters also had two older half-siblings, as their father had a long standing and legalised relationship with an Indian woman called Dhoolaury Bibi; the couple’s two children were Robert and Cecilia. Meanwhile, William’s half brother James (also a colonel in the British East India Company in Hyderabad), who converted to Islam and was a double agent, became engulfed in a liaison with an Muslim noblewoman called Khair un-Nissa, which caused widespread scandal. James died suddenly in 1805 and two children from the relationship followed the other Kirkpatrick children, their half cousins, back to the UK to be cared for by grandfather James, ‘The Handsome’. Following a severe accident, the son became a recluse and died at an early age, but the daughter, KatherineAurora, (Kitty), born 1802, apparently spent some of her life with her half cousins, 'diarist' Barbara and her younger sister Julia Woodburn Kirpatrick Later on, upon marriage to Captain James Winslow Phillips, Kitty, herself a wealthy woman, lived at Villa Sorento, in Torquay. She died there, in 1889. Kitty features in several books, including William Dalrymple’s White Mughals, which relates the story of her parents’ affair and Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, in which Kitty is Bluemene, Rose goddess, the heroine; Carlyle is said to have fallen in love with Kitty. But Kitty isn’t the only Kirkpatrick to be embodied in literature, for I found somewhere that Barbara Kirkpatrick Buller, writer of the journals and her son Charles reportedly also feature in Sartor Resartus - he as 'Toughgut' and his mother as 'Grafin Zahdaum'; According to one source, Barbara has also been immortalised in fictional form, as the model for Thackerary’s Blanche Amory, in Pendennis.
Nor indeed was Kitty the only member of the family who was acquainted with top literary figures of their time. For many of the Kirkpatrick– Buller family appear to have been at the forefront of leading intellectual and writerly circles. It was, I understand, Barbara’s grandfather James, the ‘Handsome’) who had brought her up when she and her siblings were sent back to England) who authored the poem Sea-Piece (1750), whilst her father, on retirement to Exeter, translated over 400 letters of Tipu Sultan (1811). Barbara must have been well acquainted with Thackeray who apparently exchanged letters with her. She also features in some critical texts about him.
Barbara Kirkpatrick Buller’s sons, who were both educated at Cambridge and both later became M.P.’s in the Westcountry, also authored books and were closely connected and corresponded with several renowned writersand /or patrons from the literary establishment, including Thomas Carlyle, Monckton Miles, Lady Asburton, John Sterling, John Stuart Mills Thackerary and his daughter Anne Thackeray (who sometimes stayed in Devon). According to Carlyle, Charles Buller, a ‘vigorous reformer’, was ‘the genialist radical I ever met’. It is thought that Charles was father of Theresa Reviss, who entered fiction as Becky Sharp of Vanity Fair. Theresa (nicknamed Tizzy), was adopted by Barbara, the diarist. (However other sources suggest that Theresa was Arthur’s child). It is thought that one of the brothers wrote the verse play Galopades in Revenge (1836).
The foregoing is only a quick resume gleaned from several googling sessions - each one deserving far more research than I've had time to give - noting some of the literary links with which the Kirkpatricks and Bullers were linked. Anyone who’s interested and googles the family background will find a fascinating trail of interlocking familial and acquaintance networks, which include various individuals from the extended family circles, but here, my focus onward is on Barbara Barbara and the journals themselves.
There are portraits of members of Barbara's family online. I don't think that this one at the Portrait Gallery can be her, because of the date, which is after her death (but on the other hand I am unable to find any other Charles Bullers than her husband and son of that name who apparently did not get married); this memorial (with her son at Kensal cemetery also names her, whilst one or two comments that surface on the web present a cameo or personality profile, albeit a somewhat mixed one. Thomas Carlyle, who Barbara employed for a while as tutor to her sons, said of her that she was ‘a capricious cold woman’ (See Carlyle and "Irving's London Circle": Some Unpublished Letters by Thomas Carlyle and Mrs. Edward Strachey, by Grace J. Calder). Carlyle is also reported to have described the Buller couple as ‘strolling in strenuous idleness to compress their tinselly enjoyments, conversant alone with the most shallow feelings, aiming at little higher than dining or being dined.’ Yet, even this assessment is unreliable, because another source says Carlyle also described Barbara as a ‘once very beautiful graceful, airy and ingeniously intelligent woman of the gossamer kind’. John Sterling, writing in 1829 (see The Works of Thomas Carlyle) was very complimentary about Barbara. Describing her husband Charles as ‘a rather clever man of sense, good natured and gentlemanly’, he went on to sum up Charles’ wife as ‘once a renowned beauty and ‘Queen of Calcutta’, a brilliant conversationalist who presided over a radical salon centred on her son.’ Yet another commentator remarks she was ‘a restless itinerant’.
The Journal ***
It is now ten days my ever dearest husband since I sent you the thin(?) book of my adventures and I have not till now attempted to resume my daily intercourse with you …’
Emphasising again that communication between the couple whilst apart was frequent, the diarist continues, ‘this (chasm) in my history has, however been filled up … by the letters I wrote you a few days ago’. My assumption is that Charles was in India during the time his wife was writing the diary, and that she was on holiday in Devon. Indeed, there are several references to ‘my ‘holiday’ within the pages and others soon confirm that she was indeed in Devon.
It soon becomes evident that Barbara Buller was more than a little familiar with Devon places, and especially informed about its local gentry; she frequently intersperses her diary entries with comments alluding to a prior knowledge of the place or/and of its geographical location, suggesting that she has already at some previous time stayed in the county, perhaps when her father lived at Exeter, or/and during the time of her courtship with Charles, who was a westcountry man. The entries often recount travel expeditions, including several trips to Devon places; Barbara occasionally gives a description of the place and her own opinion of it, and as well, writes with obvious knowledge of and familiarity with the people who she encounters during her travels.
Often Barbara seems overly preoccupied with her health and is updating Charles, not only concerning certain physical ailments but also about her apparently vulnerable emotional state. Later comments in the diary suggest to to me that Barbara was recuperating after undergoing a period of illness and that, perhaps, her holiday in (coastal) Devon was arranged for her to regain her physical strength; several entries note her food requirements and suggest a preoccupation with her diet and with sleeping patterns. She is also often concerned about her appearance, possibly this is a common womanly trait of her time, or perhaps her apparent vanity is more because she has reason to inform her husband of the improvement in her 'looks'.
As she writes, it’s very clear that the couple’s relationship is such that she feels quite able to inform Charles about her personal concerns in some detail, including her walking routines and the regimes of her daily food (which often are fascinating and include references to weighed out - not calorie controlled (!) food; but as the diary develops, the topics open out; it's soon clear that Barbara is not staying at South Molton, but is instead near the sea: ‘I do not go out again till two o clock when I stroll about on the Beach for an hour or so.’ Reading on, it’s soon apparent that she is holidaying in Ilfracombe, has been there three weeks, but that, due to not fully revealed health concerns (‘I have already mentioned a longer residence would I think be ? to my health’), including it seems lack of company (‘I should be satisfied … but the ?? of society for so long … is a trial to my spirits…)’ is making plans to leave the town and travel on to Exeter, where she believes ‘many of your relations or friends will invite me’ and that her intention is to remain there ‘till the 19th when the holiday will be over’.
Although I’d love to do so I cannot here follow the progress of Barbara Buller’s diaries through in detail; if I did rather than blogpost this would become long academic paper, or even dare I suggest thesis! . However I hope that if I trace a few of the journal’s themes and include some longer extracts from it that someone out there will be curious and decide to take a look themselves...
Barbara's day-trip to Barricane Beach
'I must now my best love give you an account of our adventure which occurred to me the day before yesterday from which you may form some idea of my improved strength although I hope never again to experience such a painful trial.' (From F1 4)
Well, before I follow Barbara’s journey from Ilfracombe - a place she was not keen on - on towards Exeter, I'm going to share at length much of her entry about a bizarre day trip, which she took with her sons to a local coastal beauty spot. On the advice of their cook (who’d informed the boys that Barricane beach, ‘a place by the seaside’, ‘famous for its fine beach and beautiful shells’ and was ‘only three miles away’). Barbara decided the ‘distance was so trifling that I thought we could easily accomplish it before breakfast and after spending a few hours in picking shells intended returning to Ilfracombe for dinner’. Little did she know what kind of day was before her.
I doubt that Barbara intended her account of the trip to be hilarious, even farcical - though she does briefly show awareness of the humour of the situation - but I couldn’t stop smiling as I read on, although I'm aware of the pitfalls that accompanied local travel back in the 1820’s - a totally different affair than now - even apparently, for gentry looking for accommodation. I'll include a long section from the journal to give anyone reading this a good idea of how the story of the disastrous outing to Ballicane builds up.
We got three very quiet ponies from the Butcher who lets them out one of them carried Charles and James a very nice boy of about 14 ... who officiates as my footman, the other Arthur rode and I mounted on the third. As (?) is so good ... I didn't like to leave (him)? ... but Grace who liked the idea of the ? volunteered to take charge of him and she accordingly set off on the donkeys. I usually ride with ? before her. The cook understood to be our guide walked (?) with drinks and bread and butter and a couple of mutton chops for me .... (F1 4)
... I found that we had only proceeded three miles and I began to feel very tired. I proposed we go into a Farm House which was luckily close by, in which to to try (?) some breakfast - the people were luckily not unaccustomed to similar applications & we therefore succeeded in getting some very nice comfortable Breakfast. At 12 oclock we proceeded on our journey, but we had by this time (determined)? that the distance from Ilfracombe was by the very shortest road five miles. After we had got to the top of a very steep hill our guide the Cook, was so hot & tired that there seemed little chance of her being able to walk all the way. Therefore I got off from the Donkey, Charles, James & ? rode one horse Arthur the other & Grace took my pony with the Cook mounted behind & found being very fat & the pony small she was literally seated on the tail, nothing could be more ridiculous than the appearance of the whole cavalcade. I think if you could have seen us without anticipating the ? you would have laughed as much as I did. We soon found that our guide was perfectly ignorant of the Road. Every ? lane we were desired to enter but as soon as we came to a House - which was but too rarely the case - we were sure to be directed back again & in this way we proceeded till two o clock. I had frequently got off my donkey to walk as I found it relieved me but by this time I was so fatigued that I was obliged to go into a Hay field, spread my cloak on the ground & lye down (F1-5)...
for half an hour - Having then received ample directions from a man who was mowing in the field, we set out again, but again got out of our road at a place where four roads crossed each other & unfortunately the next person we applied to, although he directed us to the place it was by a circuitous road of at least three miles - I was by this time really quite knocked up but the hopes of reaching at last a decent public house where I might continue to sleep for one night, supported me & gave me strength to get on to Bellicane. When we arrived at 5 o clock ? however my dismay when I saw the place where I had proposed resting after all my fatigue. It was ? dirtier than the worst Ale house in the smallest village in Cornwall without any place to sit in or sleep a miserable room infinitely less comfortable than Mrs Pincombe's (?) kitchen nor had they any thing to give us to eat except Barley bread. Tired as I was, I left it in disgust, but should probably have been driven back to it by necessity had not a woman in a Cottage opposite begged me to come in to her and ? me that her house was frequently revisited by the Gentry who came to Barricane - I looked into it & seeing that it was much cleaner & nicer looking than the public house I accepted her invitation, but when we came to enquiring (?) into her stores we found that she had ?? ? of any kind but salt pork but she proposed killing some chickens & boiling them which was accordingly done & ?? us in getting a Lobster & some eggs. Whilst the Dinner was preparing I went up into a ??? & had a look at the woman's bed, being thankful for any place to rest my wearied limbs but the noise of the children completely prevented ? sleeping. I sent Grace to her to see if it was possible (F1 - 6)
to get a Bed any where, where I could at least could have remained for the night, but she was unable to succeed in getting anything better than the Cottage I was already in which was too c? to give me any hope of being able to sleep in it. We had therefore no alternative but sending someone back James ? ? practicable dispatched to Ilfracombe to desire that a Post Chaise might be sent for us as soon as possible. He went off about 6 o'clock & we sat down to our Dinner ? which turned out to be rather a miserable concern... (from F1 - 7)
... Then, just at the height of her description about her discomfort and angst about the outing - when, objecting to the ‘miserable’ and ‘tough’ ‘fowls’ the cottager had presented the party for a meal - she‘was obliged to make my dinner principally of bread and butter’, Barbara's narrative mode changes abruptly and there follows a passage which focuses on the scenic beauty of her surroundings at Barricane: she ‘strolled out to the top of the hill near the cottage and 'though I wasn't much in the mood to be pleased with anything' ... ‘could not be struck with the extreme beauty of the surrounding scene’. There follows a rapturous description of the scene, perhaps Barbara was influenced by earlier readings of the Romantic poets and their notion of the sublime in nature and landscape. Barbara's beleaguered spirits were evidently soon restored! (I'm still struggling with several words from this passage, but you can get the general gist of it):
... The coast ? at this place forms a beautiful Bay, with the finest sandy beach I have seen in any part of Devonshire an island in the middle of the Channel called Lundy Island seems almost to touch (?) one extremity of the Bay although it is probably some miles distant and & beyond this Island the Welsh Coast was perfectly visible. The character of the Country which Barricane is I think particularly pleasing. The Cliffs if indeed they can be called such are not at all abrupt but ??? places of a easy descent to the the scar (?) & form ?? like Vallies covered with turf and fern - which gives them ? enough to be pleasing to the eye & to admit of this variety of light & shade which is so ? to the Beauty of a Landscape. (f1 - 7)...
I could not have chosen a happier ? for seeing Barricane to advantage than the one I happened to fix upon. The evening was uncommonly mild & the sky almost without a cloud. On one side the sun was just setting with the sea & the moon had just appeared in all her silent splendour on the other - From the hill on which I was standing I had a complete view of the Bay & the Welsh (?) Coast. The sea was scarcely ruffled although there was enough to ? the sails of numbers of little Fishing Boats which added in no slight degree to the beauty of the scene - ?? it was altogether so lovely that it made me forget all I had undergone to view it, & if you had only been with me my dearest Husband to have partaken of my admiration I think I should have been induced to ? it the ? it or at least the most pleasing prospect I have seen since I have been in England. For a watering place the situation & bathing are incomparably superior to any I have seen (f1 - 8).
Reproduced by kind permission of Devon Archives & Local Studies, DHC 5870M/F/1-5870M/F/2.
Then, taking leave of the beautiful vista before her (and it seems her considerably mellowed mood) Barbara returns to the 'miserable cottage which the woman endeavored to make as cheerful as she could by lighting a rush light, & making the hearth blaze with bundles of ferns'. The party waited for their transport back to Ilfracombe, her sons 'amusing themselves with ? out every moment to look for the Carriage', whilst 'Grace was nodding in a corner & I was lying on a bench, half dead with fatigue & impatience'. Even when the carriage arrived the party's troubles were not over; the return journey was as eventful as that of the arrival in Barricane. Barbara's 'joy' at hearing the vehicle outside was short-lived, for
'instead of a Chaise, an Open car (something like a double Gigg) without Springs had been sent for us ... This miserable conveyance was drawn by one Horse & our driver was a boy about Charles' size & age. I had no alternative but going in the wretched thing or sleeping in the same ? with the Cottager's children & so therefore got in the Gig, James following with a Horse & Donkey which was to be taken back to Ilfracombe. The moon had disappeared but there was light enough to show (?) us our road although not sufficient to keep us out of the rucks which were very deep, & jolted us to such a degree that even Grace found it almost insufferable - After we had proceeded a little way we heard James calling to us to stop for he could neither get on the Horse or Donkey - I desired him to let the Donkey go on as it ??? & this proved good? (from f -10).
'we immediately ran all over the house, Grace following & telling us to what use each room had been appropriated - at last we came to a room next to the nursery with two Green beds in it & in this room Grace told us Master Charles & his Brother used to sleep when they came hone for the Holidays. (F1 -20)
I need not tell you, the diary continues 'that the room interested me more than any of the others & before I left the House I went up to it again & kissed both the Curtains although not the very cleanest, thinking that you had slept within one of them.'
The house is in a very good repair in at least only requiring painting to make it so, but there is a still far greater scarity of furniture than at Morval - ? excepting the Library or beautiful Parlour there is no sitting room with anything in it - the Bedrooms were as they were in your time & although old fashioned both very comfortable with the help of a little money the House might be made a very handsome as well as ? one but the addition of a couple of wings as was originally intended would leave nothing to desire - After peeping into every nook & corner, we went in spite of the wind (the rain had ceased) to look at the Gardens which have the remains of very excellent ones, but now they are a perfect wilderness, over grown with grass & weeds & vegetables & fruit trees all growing together in terrible confusion. In spite however of its ? unprepossessing ? appearance a good gardener would I have no doubt soon make it a most excellent Garden (f1 21)
John Buller continued to develop the landscape, constructing in 1769 a picturesque thatched barn, known as Snydles Barn, to be seen as an eyecatcher from the Great Terrace (CRO: DD/BU135). In 1776 John Buller was appointed Commissioner of Excise in London, and New Place or King's Nympton Barton was let; the terms of the lease reserved to Buller the 'great House, the Walled Gardens, the Whole [Home] Close, the park, the little new stable, the Coach House stable, the House & Garden at Jewells & Jewells Marsh', together with rights to the timber on the estate. The lease was renewed in 1795, and by 1818 the farm was let to Robert Tanner, whose son, James, purchased the estate from John Buller in October 1843. (See King's Nympton Park)
'might have shown me greater attention considering how I was situated - I mean that as she was going everywhere to the Play & the Castle & everything that was to be seen she might have asked me if I should like to have gone with her. Instead of this she has never asked me to go anywhere (An I proposed the Ball myself) nor did she call for me till finding that I was going to leave Exeter - but of course this may have been accidental. (f1 30)
after chatting with them for sometime I went to call on Lady Buller who was at ?? in the Circus. She looks as fat & blooming as ever but I believe is again suffering from the complaint in her back ..... Anna Marie Buller' is amazingly ? both in figure & manners & is a ? pretty - she is to come out next winter which will be a grand event for Lady Buller. They were all very much struck with the improvement in my looks, & my apparent (?) strength of ? so that I suspect I was looking even better than I had an idea of ... (f1 -35)
My understanding of this passage is that these Bullers are all from the same family, and that Barbara has gone to call on Lady Buller at the suggestion of Sir Edward and his 'companion' (whose name I can not decipher). This family I believe to be yet another branch of the Morval Bullers, possibly descended from (or a brother of) James Buller of Downes and King's Nympton and thus more distant cousins of Barbara's husband. Sir Edward Buller is probably Edward Vice Admiral Buller (1764-1827). His wife (who Barbara says is suffering from the back problem) is Gertrude Van Cortlandt; their daughter Anna Maria Buller married James Drummond Buller Elphinstone. Perhaps the other person in the party was Edward's son - though I think not as apparently he died as a child
'went with the children to the Quay & although I am not very fond of water exhorted (?) myself in order to please them'. I called a Boat & we took a row on the Canal for an hour & a half - the day was very fine, the water very smooth & the Banks of the Canal very pretty. I therefore found our expedition less disagreeable than I expected'.
****Leavetaking & The Last Ball
Barbara Buller's Devon diary-letter is comparable with a cluster of letters written by her sister Julia Strachey, circa 1824, which coalesce around the latter's friendship with Thomas Carlyle (who was as mentioned above a tutor for Barbara's sons). In her paper 'Carlyle and "Irving's London Circle"; Some Unpublished Letters by Thomas Carlyle and Mrs Edward Strachey' Grace Calder notes that Julia's letters
'help round out the picture of friendships formed during Carlyle's absence from Scotland ... and are the only extant letters so far as I know from the woman whom Carlyle considered his chief favourite - they show how Carlyle was making his mark on the influential people of the day'. (See Carlyle and "Irving's London Circle": Some Unpublished Letters by Thomas Carlyle and Mrs. Edward Strachey, by Grace J. Calder)
Fair enough, Barbara's journals may not provide rich insights about notable male literary figures of the time, but they are written by a woman who like her sister (who appears in her sibling's diary - see below) happened to live her life in the midst of interlocking circles of influential gentry, and literary, political and intellectual giants of the period; the diaries revivify a period of Devon’s past - its remote rural landscapes, its social etiquette, its travelling modes. Read in this context I believe they are invaluable Devonshire documents. I'm glad that I didn't give up in my battle to make some sense of them! However, having been immersed within their pages for several months off and on, I am left with many questions about Barbara Buller and her journals: for instance I'd like to know the identity of the child (or person) she names 'Peggy' or 'Reggy' who is also with her during her Devon holiday. I'm wondering now if it is possibly Reggy short for Reginald Buller (born 1813), whose name appears as a third son of the couple on one ancestral website and on the Peerage website, but is not mentioned in other sources; if so, he would have been under ten and thus would fit the descriptions of him in the diary. I'd also love to have time to explore the identities of some of the individuals she mentions in the diary and I'm also curious to find more about Barbara's maternal heritage in Scotland.
However, these questions will need to wait, for, having captivated me, and helped to keep me sane during some of the hardest winter weeks of Lockdown during early 2021, Barbara Buller's diary has led me to write up a seriously long post, and although there remain many omissions in my commentary, rather reluctantly - and fondly - I must soon leave the diarist as she writes her last entry; it's an intriguing one chronicling her visit to Ston Easton, the then home of Sir John Hippisley, where she and others in her party have ended up, following their attendance at the last ball she leaves an account of, for us, in the future. (There are pages missing here which confirm the note form the Heritage Centre that 'we do not have it in its entirety'; one or two of these final pages are blotchy, so it is possible that some pages were damaged).
On the page archived as F1 -36 - and following her meeting with Sir Edward Buller and his family, we find Barbara telling her husband that
Seeing (?) as I ? to the end of my Book I must think of finishing & dispatching it which I shall accordingly do tomorrow - when I endeavour to inform you of my plans, as far as they are known to myself (F1 -36)
Then, in a new entry dated August (I think 18 but may be 16th) she continues
Although I had intended to finish my journal (?) on the 13th I have been unable to resume it my dearest husband (?) until today, when as it is Sunday, I expect to be sufficiently free from other plans (?) to be able to devote a few hours to you... (f1-36)
I can not yet quite make sense of the last couple of lines on this page but think Barbara is mentioning visits to a few acquaintances in Exeter. Then on the next page (F2) we are plunged into the story of her arrival 'somewhere' with others in her party (who include her sister Julia Kirkpatrick Strachey - see paper on unpublished letters here).
There is apparently no description of Barbara's journey from Exeter, but the reference to the name Lady Hippisley and later naming of travel to Ston Easton following the ball confirms that greeted with a 'blazing fire in a very pretty draping room', she has just arrived at that house, then the home of her hosts the diplomat Sir John Hippisley and his wife Lady Hippesley (apparently Elizabeth Ann Horner daughter of Thomas Horner, of Mells). Julia Strachey's home at Sutton Court, was only six miles from Ston Easton). (It was incidentally through the Stracheys of Sutton Court, Julia's husband's family, that the other North Devon diarist Elizabeth Ernst, who I mentioned above, was linked to the Kirkpatricks; Elizabeth is said to have been a cousin of Henry Strachey of Sutton Court. I'm not yet certain which Henry, but hope to return to investigate Ernst's life and diary in a later blog post.)
We soon find that everyone is making preparation to go on to a ball, and where they are going:
About ? o'clock the Carriages were all ordered & in the midst of snow & tempest (! - really, it's only August!) we set off to Old Down' ... even Julia, Barbara notes, 'you will be not a little surprised at learning, actually forming one of the party' (f2 -1)
Although apparently a small ball ('only seven or eight couples'), the diarist has left a detailed description, naming and providing cameos of its attendees, of their appearance, of who danced with whom, of the food, surroundings, weather and travel arrangements. I can't do her account justice here so a few extracts, plus copies of relevant pages will have to suffice. This is a set-piece sketch for anyone who's researching the conventions of the time involving societal balls.
With evident pride Barbara declares that 'I opened the Ball with Sir John Hippisley, adding, 'you would have been quite astonished at seeing how well I acquitted myself'.
Not for the first time in her diary we find that Barbara enjoys boasting (teasing?) her husband with the success of her coquetry skills!
'I danced three dances with Mr Barnard who seemed so completely charmed with me that I shall begin to think my conquests are not confined to Old men'. There is certainly something much more delightful & sentimental in the admiration of young ones. My present admirer was too young rather, but well informed, by no means insipid. I did not perceive any thing ? conceit in him, except his devoting himself to me, & not speaking to anyone else,
'which' she adds, with sisterly rivalry and a degree of vanity, 'might be owing to my being (excepting Julia) the only pretty woman in the room'. Mr Barnard, she has already noted, is 'a 'very interesting young Clergyman, a gentleman of the Cloth & a nephew of the Bishop's - I suppose the Bishop of Bath.' (He may have been Revd. H W Barnard mentioned for the church of Easton, here) Incidentally, we find that Julia does not have sufficient stamina to dance much; she'd danced a little with Mr Barnard, the Austenian hero, but 'not having any strength she was obliged to sit down at the end of the dance'. We get a sense that the two sisters are opposites - though Barbara's words about her younger sister suggest her sororal care; Barbara's vivacity comes across in her diary, whilst according to Scott Lewis (see paper 'A Thousand Things to Say; Unpublished Letters of Thomas Carlyle to Julia Strachey'), Julia was 'impressionable and deeply spiritual'.
Julia is mentioned again in the closing pages of the journal as Barbara tells her husband, and us, two hundred years later, that as the ball ended 'Lady Hippisley had ordered the carriage at one oc'clock ... I felt so little fatigued that I did not mind it but poor Julia complained bitterly & declared she had had enough of Balls for the rest of her life'. 'Between one & two, we got back to Ston Easton, Barbara continues, '& found a very elegant supper had been laid out. I was very glad to eat some cold fowl & jelly, but did not partake in the Punch which the rest of the company drunk, although the smell was particularly tempting.' She is chuffed that 'my Beau' is still 'by me' though 'he was also tired', and concludes her story of the ball noting that 'I was not in bed till 3 o'clock but I slept very soundly till 9 when I got up quite brisk.'
We don't learn where the journalist actually is when she pens this final entry, but it finishes with fascinating descriptions of the interior of Ston Easton house ('a very handsome one') as the hostess Lady Hippesley, who is apparently something of a scientist), takes the party on a tour around the rooms. Just as during her visit to New Place back at King's Nympton, Barbara scrutinizes and is beguiled with everything she sees and is later impelled to share it all with her husband:
.. a comfortably fine drawing-room & dining room, then she took us into a Room containing a very fine collection of shells, curious ?, Corals, marine curiosities & in short something of every thing that is wonderful or rare in Natural History - These were all arranged by Lady H herself in a scientific ? & explained to us in a way equally so. (F2 - 3)
We afterwards went to see her collection of minerals which is considered the best private one in England after Mr Rashleighs - she has also a complete Laboratory, done(?) up with every thing requisite (?) for making all sorts of chemical experiments, which she is in the constant habit of doing herself - About 12 0'clock we left Ston Easton & at Clutter (?) I parted with the Stracheys & went on to Clifton to Sir Edward & Lady Buller, with whom I staid for a couple of days'.
As I prepare to press return and publish this post, one or two tantalising snippets about Barbara Isabella Buller years after her Devon holiday are beginning to surface. One, from the 1840s, in which she is mentioned by Jane Carlyle, contains indispensible information. Thomas' wife mentions the Buller's youngest son Reginald, thus confirming the probably identity of 'Reggy' in her diaries; he is now a clergyman and his now reunited parents are 'rusticating' in Troston Suffolk. See Letters & Memorials.
There are other letters from the same series providing an even richer portrait of the couple and their sons during this period. Here is one passage:
Mr. and Mrs. Charles Buller, senior, who now led a somewhat nomadic life, in the manner of ex-Indians of distinction, were superior people both; persons of sound judgment, of considerable culture and experience, of thoroughly polite manners (Madam considerably in the Indian style, as ex-'queen of Calcutta,' which she was, with a great deal of sheet-lightning in her ways). Charles, senior, was considerably deaf, a real sorrow to one so fond of listening to people of sense; for the rest, like his wife, a person of perfect probity, politeness, truthfulness, and of a more solid type than she; he read (idly, when he must), rode for exercise, was, above all, fond of chess, in which game he rarely found his superior. Intrinsically these excellent people had from the first, and all along, been very good to me; never boggled at my rustic [Page 154] outside or melancholic dyspeptic ways, but took, with ardent welcome, whatever of best they could discern within - over-estimating all, not under-estimating - especially not 'the benefit,' &c. Charles, junior, was getting of me. Indeed, talent of all real kinds was dear to them (to the lady especially); and at bottom the measure of human worth to both. Nobody in London, accordingly, read sooner what my rural Jeannie intrinsically was; discerned better what graces and social resources might lie under that modest veiling; or took more eagerly to profiting by these capabilities whenever possible. Mrs. Buller was, by maiden name, Kirkpatrick, a scion of the Closeburn (Dumfriesshire) people, which, in its sort, formed another little tie. - T. C.
Then, fittingly, I came across more from The Life of John Sterling and again noticed references to 'Mrs Buller' from 1829, several years after she'd written the diary. It seems at that time she was spending time in Cornwall, near Looe, probably at Polvellan Manor, which was the Buller's Cornwall home. In one letter Sterling says of Barbara: 'her conversation is more pleasant and brilliant than any one I know; and at all events I am bound to admire her for the kindness with which she patronises me. I hope that one day or other, you may be acquainted with her.'
Having stumbled my way through the adventures recounted in her Devon diary - and even one night having dreamt about her - I feel we have indeed 'met'.
I'd like to thank the staff at The Devon Heritage Centre - especially Scott Pettitt and James Ward - for their generous help with information about Barbara Buller's diaries and for giving me permission to publish images from the diary on this blog