Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Monckton, Mary

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MONCKTON, MARY, afterwards Countess of Cork and Orrery (1746–1840), born on 21 May 1746, was the youngest child and only surviving daughter of John Monckton, first viscount Galway (1695-1751), by his second wife, Jane, fourth daughter of Henry Warner Westenra, esq., of Rathleagh, Queen's County, Ireland. From an early age she interested herself in literature and learning, and as a young woman became known as a 'blue-stocking.' During the whole of her long life she was renowned for her vivacity, sparkling wit, and great conversational powers. While young she made her mother's house in Charles Street, Berkeley Square, London, the rendezvous of persons of genius and talent. Dr. Johnson was often her guest, and Boswell describes her in 1781 as 'the lively Miss Monckton who used to have the finest bit of blue at her house. 'Her vivacity,' he goes on, 'enchanted the sage, and they used to talk together with all imaginable ease.' On one occasion when Johnson denied that Sterne's writings were pathetic, Miss Monckton declared that they certainly affected her. 'That is,' said Johnson, 'because, dearest, you're a dunce.' When she reminded him of this some time afterwards, Johnson said, 'Madam, if I had thought so I certainly should not have said it' (Boswell, Life, ed. Hill, iv. 108, passim). After Johnson became too ill to go into society Miss Monckton visited him at his house. Hannah More, writing to her sister in April 1784, says : 'Did I tell you I went to see Dr. Johnson ? Miss Monckton carried me, and we paid him a very long visit.' Frances Burney describes Miss Monckton in 1782 as 'one of those who stand foremost in collecting all extraordinary or curious people to her London conversaziones, which like those of Mrs. Vesey mix the rank and the literature, and exclude all besides. . . . She is between thirty and forty, very short, very fat, but handsome, splendidly and fantastically dressed, rouged not unbecomingly, yet evidently and palpably desirous of gaining notice and admiration. She has an easy levity in her air, manner, voice, and discourse.' According to Miss Burney the guests at Miss Monckton's parties were not announced, and the hostess received them seated. They were never allowed to sit in a circle, since such an arrangement impeded conversation, which was as a rule the only amusement (Diary of Mme. d'Arblay, ii. 179, passim). Miss Monckton, like Mrs. Elizabeth Montagu [q. v.], deprecated card-playing at private parties. Among her guests when Miss Burney knew her were, besides Johnson, Burke, Reynolds, Sheridan (then only regarded as the beautiful Miss Linley's 'drag of a husband'), Horace Walpole, Mrs. Thrale, and Mrs. Siddons,who was Miss Monckton's intimate friend.

In June 1786 Miss Monckton married Edmund Boyle, seventh earl of Cork and Orrery, who died in 1798. She was his second wife. There were no children of the marriage.

As Lady Cork her passion for entertaining persons of note increased. Lady Charleville, writing to Mrs. Opie in 1809, says : 'Lady Cork's activity in pursuit of amusement is a pleasant proof of vivacity and spirit surviving youth' (Brightwell, Memorials of Mrs. Opie, p. 139). In her journal for 1811 Miss Mary Berry [q. v.] describes one party as 'curious,' and another as 'a great assembly. The prince was there and all the world.' Mrs. Opie, whose friendship with Lady Cork was of long standing, mentions a reception at Lady Cork's at which she was present in 1814, when General Bliicher was expected, but did not come (ib. p. 101). Mrs. Opie gives also an amusing account of Lady Cork's patronage of James Hogg [q. v.], the Ettrick shepherd (ib. pp. 349-52). The advance of age did not diminish Lady Cork's love of society. C. R. Leslie, writing in 1834, says: ' Lady Cork is very old, infirm, and diminutive . . . her features are delicate and her skin fair, and notwithstanding her great age she is very animated. . . . The old lady, who was a lion hunter in her youth, is as much one now as ever' (Autobiography, i. 136, 243). To her dinners and receptions in her last years came, among others, the prince regent, Canning, Castlereagh, Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott, Sheridan, Lord John Russell, Sir Robert Peel, Theodore Hook, Samuel Rogers, and Sydney Smith. Her bias was whig, but ability and distinction insured a welcome to members of all parties.

Of her many peculiarities and eccentricities in her old age numerous anecdotes are told. It is said that she suffered from kleptomania, and that when she dined out her host would leave a pewter fork or spoon in the hall for her to carry off in her muff. On one occasion when leaving a breakfast party, she coolly took a friend's carriage without permission, and kept it out the whole afternoon. On meeting the owner Lady Cork merely complained that the high steps of the carriage did not suit her short legs. Her memory was extraordinary. One evening, when past eighty, she recited, at a friend's house, half a book of Pope's 'Iliad' while waiting for her carriage. Until a few days before her death she rose at six in the morning, and dined out when she had not company at home. When out of London she spent much time at Fineshade Abbey, Northamptonshire, with her brother, Colonel the Hon. John Monckton. She died in London at her house in New Burlington Street on 30 May 1840, at the age of ninety-four, and was buried at Brewood, Staffordshire. In the church is a tablet to her memory.

Lord Beaconsfield knew Lady Cork well, and is said to have described her accurately as 'Lady Bellair' in 'Henrietta Temple,' and it is thought that Dickens drew on her for some of the features of 'Mrs. Leo Hunter' in 'Pickwick.'

In 1779 Miss Monckton sat to Sir Joshua Reynolds (Leslie, Life of Reynolds, ii. 278). The portrait, a full-length seated, is in the possession of Mr. Edward P. Monckton of Fineshade Abbey, Northamptonshire. It is a very fine picture, and was engraved in mezzo-tint by John Jacobe in 1779. A painting by H. P. Briggs, R.A., a three-quarter length, seated, is in the possession of Viscount Galway of Serlby Hall, Nottinghamshire. Miss Anna Maria Monckton of Somerford, a niece of Lady Cork, made a sketch of her which still exists, and there is written beneath it,

Look at me,
I'm 93,
And all my faculties I keep;
Eat, drink, and laugh, and soundly sleep.

[A Genealogical Hist. of the Family of Monckton by David Henry Monckton, M.D., pp. 135, 136, 139-47; Annual Register, 1840, p. 166; Bentley's Miscellany, xix. 293; information supplied by Mr. Edward P. Monckton.]

E. L.