Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Beauty of Buttermere

My marriage of convenience regency, Ruined by Rumor, arrives May 21. In it, the heroine and her best friend discuss a young lady who's been (to use the regency term) "ruined." My heroine mentions the Beauty of Buttermere—a real-life regency celebrity, famous for having been the victim of a heartless seducer.

Mary Robinson was the pretty daughter of an innkeeper, so pretty that when she was fifteen, she caught the eye of a travel writer who was visiting her village in the Lake District. He described her in such glowing terms in his guidebook that she became something of a tourist attraction, earning the nickname “the Maid of Buttermere.”

Ten years later, in 1802, Mary met a smooth-talking man more than twice her age. He claimed to be the Honourable Alexander Augustus Hope, officer, gentleman, member of Parliament and younger brother of the Earl of Hopetoun. He was actually a con man named John Hatfield. He'd been married twice and was already engaged to a third woman, though the second of his two wives was still living.

Mary Robinson, drawn from life by James Gillray.

Hatfield was staying at an inn in nearby Keswick, where some denizens of the town were inclined to doubt he was really the brother of an earl, since he was given to occasional vulgarities and questionable grammar. But he also had a fine carriage, and he franked his letters—meaning instead of paying for postage, he merely signed his name, a privilege accorded to members of Parliament. Since doing so under false pretenses qualified as a capital offense—it was not merely forgery, but treason—people were inclined to take his claims at face value. And since the relatively cosmopolitan citizens of Keswick accepted Hatfield as the brother of an earl, the humble villagers of Buttermere never doubted him for an instant. He wooed and won Mary Robinson, and the two were married in a church wedding on October 2, 1802.

The marriage of a nobleman’s brother to an innkeeper’s beautiful daughter was the kind of storybook romance beloved by newspaper editors, and the news soon made its way to Scotland, where acquaintances of the real brother of the Earl of Hopetoun realized that an imposter was posing as Colonel Hope. Meanwhile, the people of Keswick had learned of the wedding, too, and since Hatfield had been drawing spurious bank drafts there and was supposed to be engaged to a young lady of their town, they realized he was (at the very least) a scoundrel and not to be trusted. One of the spurned young lady’s friends immediately wrote to the Earl of Hopetoun. Hatfield's lies were about to catch up to him.

Mary began to suspect—too late—that something about her new husband was not entirely on the up and up. Soon afterward, a warrant was issued for his arrest. Hatfield was taken into custody, but he escaped and bolted for the coast, then to a hotel in Cheshire. He left behind a dressing-case, and beneath its false bottom poor Mary discovered letters from his wife and children, addressed to him under his real name.

Hatfield was eventually caught in South Wales, questioned in London, and sent to the Cumberland assizes to be tried for forgery. Mary wrote the magistrate who questioned him in London, “The man whom I had the misfortune to marry and who has ruined me and my aged parents, always told me he was the Hon. Colonel Hope, the next brother of the Earl of Hopetoun. Your grateful and unfortunate servant, Mary Robinson.”

At Hatfield’s trial, witnesses included respectable citizens who knew the real Colonel Hope and those who had known Hatfield under his real name. A letter was produced, written by Hatfield and endorsed in lieu of postage Free, A. Hope. The jury returned a verdict of guilty. Hatfield was hanged in Carlisle on Saturday, September 3, 1803. The jurymen later admitted that they had been reluctant to see Hatfield condemned merely for franking a letter, but they overcame their scruples because of the heartless way Hatfield had seduced and betrayed poor Mary Robinson.

In the end, the public’s sympathy was entirely with Mary, and despite the scandal of her invalid marriage, fortunately she was seen as more innocent victim than damaged goods. In 1807 she married a respectable farmer named Richard Harrison, and they went on to have four children together. Still, she remained famous both for her artless beauty and for her victimization, with William Wordsworth calling her in his poem The Prelude, “Unspoiled by commendation and the excess/Of public notice—an offensive light/To a meek spirit suffering inwardly.” To the newspaper-buying public of the regency, the beauty of Buttermere was the epitome of virtue seduced and betrayed.

Ruined by Rumor, Alyssa Everett's regency romance, will be published by Carina Press on May 21 and is currently available for reviewers on Netgalley here. She hopes you'll visit her website and follow her on Twitter and Facebook, where she promises not to spam you relentlessly.


Ella Quinn said...

Great story. Thank you for researching and posting it.

Alyssa Everett said...

Thanks, Ella! Hatfield was really a cad. His first wife was the natural daughter of Lord Robert Manners, younger son of the Duke of Rutland. Hatfield married the girl for her dowry, spent the money, ran out on her and their three daughters, and then presumed on the duke for money to get out of prison--twice. He wooed his second wife during a lengthier prison stint, but likewise abandoned her and their two infant children.

Vonnie said...

Interesting story, Alyssa, not one I'd heard about. I hope the deserted wives managed to survive satisfactorily since Mary seems to have done just fine!

Alyssa Everett said...

I wish I knew more about the deserted wives, Vonnie. The first one died before Hatfield married the second, and the second was a Devonshire girl who bailed him out of jail in order to marry her. He certainly wasn't a very grateful sort.

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