Review: The Angel and the Cad, by Geraldine Roberts

IMG_5109Yesterday (24 June) Daunt’s bookshop in Marylebone provided an fine setting for the launch of Geraldine Roberts’ eagerly awaited new book, The Angel and the Cad. Many of us think we know the story of the heiress to the Wanstead estate, her profligate husband, and the destruction of Wanstead House. However, Gerry Roberts’ account not only puts flesh on the bones but contains many details that are completely new.

At the outset, I must declare an interest: I first met Gerry at primary school, more than four decades ago. After losing touch for many years, we made contact again due to an extraordinary coincidence - we discovered we were both engaged in researching aspects of the history of Wanstead Park. Fortunately, there was no rivalry, as our interests didn't overlap!

Although I am probably best known locally for my monthly series of articles on the owners of Wanstead Park, published 2012-4 in the Wanstead Village Directory, my primary concern has always been the archaeology of the park and the development of the landscape. By contrast, Gerry and her husband, Greg, have focused more narrowly on the story of Catherine Tylney-Long and William Long-Wellesley, their disastrous marriage, and the light this sheds on wider Regency society.

The Angel and the Cad has had a gestation of more than a decade, and I have been an interested spectator of the later stages of its development. Although the manuscript has been subject to major re-writes, the author always had a very clear underlying idea of what she wanted to achieve. Gerry aimed to write an account of Catherine Tylney-Long’s life which would appeal to the general reader and, in particular, the female general reader. However, she was also determined to produce a work which was academically rigorous. This is a difficult tightrope to walk, but my judgment is that The Angel and the Cad has succeeded both in realising the author’s objectives, and in its own terms as a book.

Gerry has described her work on Catherine Tylney-Long as “a labour of love”. Together with Greg, who has both helped with her research and engaged in complementary work of his own, Gerry has ploughed through vast amounts of archive material. In addition, they have acquired privileged access to collections of letters and other documents from the protagonists in the story, their families and wider circle. The result is that her account is supported by a very strong framework derived from primary sources, some of it unique and unseen by any previous researcher.

Let us now turn to the book itself.

The introduction sets out the author’s stall: Catherine Tylney-Long was a less passive and more interesting person than she has often been given credit for, and her story sheds light on wider Regency society, a period of changing attitudes in which women began to claim a greater degree of control over their own lives. Moreover, Catherine herself was to become an active agent in this, through the precedent created by her willingness to challenge her husband through the courts.

A short prologue whets the reader’s appetite with a dramatic excerpt from Chapter 40. Catherine’s family background and upbringing are dealt with briskly in the early chapters, though with one or two eye-openers along the way (for example, that Catherine’s mother, hitherto mainly remembered for her piety and charitable activities, was being blackmailed for some unidentified indiscretion). Thereafter the story unfolds broadly chronologically until Catherine’s death in 1825 and its aftermath.

Catherine’s refurbishment of Wanstead House and its park are dealt with briefly. An interesting revelation is that it was she, rather than her later husband,  who first identified unfettered public access to the park as a problem. This was both on account of visitors’ impact on the gardens and her personal concern for privacy. The latter consideration also led her to evict tenants from peripheral properties such as Lake House and Highlands. At the time this would not have been considered unusual: garden historians such as Tom Williamson point out that landed estates became more inward-looking from the second half of the eighteenth century onward, with “landscapes of exclusion” becoming increasingly common  (See his Polite Landscapes pp100-108). Greg Roberts has extensively researched the closure of Wanstead Park in 1813, which led to a celebrated court case. Though commonly attributed to William Long-Wellesley, The Angel and the Cad makes it clear that the closure was neither a sudden whim nor his decision alone.

Following Catherine Tylney-Long’s attainment of her majority and launch into London society, she was besieged by would-be suitors; most attracted more by her wealth than her personal qualities. Only two appear to have received serious consideration – the Prince Regent’s younger brother the Duke of Clarence and Hon. William Wellesley-Pole. Both had obvious drawbacks as well as perceived advantages, and the process by which Catherine came to decide in favour of the latter is described clearly and convincingly.

A fifth of the way through the book, Catherine is married, and for a while all seems to be going well. Children arrive, and William occupies himself expensively but relatively harmlessly with further lavish embellishment of Wanstead House and its gardens. However, within a few years clouds begin to appear. As early as 1815 William’s absences, infidelities and uncontrolled expenditure are affecting the couple’s relationship, and when Catherine attempts to restrain him he begins to display a darker and more domineering side to his personality, bullying his wife until he gets his way.

By 1820, William’s financial problems had become acute, and the loss of his parliamentary seat - and the immunity from arrest for debt that went with it - led him to flee with Catherine to the continent. There they were to spend most of the next few years. It was during the couple’s period of exile that they took the decision to sacrifice the Wanstead estate to appease their creditors. First, the contents of Wanstead House were disposed of (in a sale which was ill-timed and badly handled), and then the fabric of the building itself and much of the timber in the park. To add credibility to his financial retrenchment, William placed his financial affairs in the hands of trustees, headed by his father, Lord Maryborough. After a couple of years, Lord Maryborough’s energetic actions offered the prospect of restoring his son’s finances sufficiently to permit his return home within the foreseeable future.

Unfortunately, there was to be no happy ending. For all her troubles, Catherine remained committed to her marriage, and seems to have been at least intermittently happy. However, in 1823, William embarked on an affair with one Helena Bligh, a young woman with an older, invalid, husband, whom he and Catherine had met while travelling in Italy. For a time, Catherine remained blissfully unaware of what was happening, due to her husband’s active deception, but also perhaps a degree of naivety or self-delusion on her own part. Eventually, however, the increasingly shameless behaviour of William and Helena forced Catherine to confront the reality of their adulterous relationship. After failed attempts to persuade William to abandon Helena, involving William’s parents, Catherine left him and returned to England. Repelled by the evidence of his dishonesty, she abandoned any desire for a reconciliation.

That much is well known, but the latter parts of the book also contain much new information about what happened after William and Catherine fled into exile. I think there will be surprises even for those who consider themselves well versed in the story of Wanstead House and its residents.

Gerry Roberts argues that Catherine and William Long-Wellesley should not be seen merely as a squabbling pair of very rich people, but that their story both exemplifies and sheds light on wider social trends. Also, the couple’s “celebrity” status meant that Catherine's struggles were well documented in the press, contributing in time to major changes in the law. I think these points are well made, and Gerry Roberts has succeeded not merely in producing a psychologically convincing account of an individual and an interesting work of local and social history, but something of more general significance.

Reviews of The Angel and the Cad have already appeared in the press, and it has received the accolade of being named “book of the week” in The Times. Reader reviews on Amazon are all broadly positive, with the most significant reservation being that the presentation of the book has been somewhat “novelised”. The author's response is that this is much less true than might at first appear. For example, the vivid scene in the prologue where Catherine's estranged husband bursts into her sisters' house is largely stitched together from primary sources - it consists of elements of three sworn statements from the under-butler, a police officer and Dora Long. It may be that the author sometimes makes inferences about the characters’ states of mind which go beyond the direct evidence of surviving sources such as correspondence and court transcripts. However, as with the “dramatized reconstructions” familar from television, it is arguable that this helps sustain the pace of the narrative and makes it more accessible to a non-specialist readership.

IMG_5122In conclusion, I have no hesitation in saying that I regard The Angel and the Cad as one of the most significant fruits of the recent renaissance of interest in the heritage of Wanstead Park. Other local historians at yesterday’s book launch took the same view. Anyone who is interested in Wanstead, the Regency period or social history would profit from reading this important, well-constructed and entertaining book. Geraldine Roberts is to be congratulated on her fascinating retelling of an old story in terms which have made it seem fresh, original and relevant.

Richard Arnopp

IMG_5145IMG_5106Newham Bookshop is holding a book-signing event at 7:00pm on 3 July at Wanstead Library.

Gerry and Greg Roberts have their own websites.