Hidden histories and family drama: a review of Loves, Lives, and Letters

[This story was published on July 24, 2018, on the BAVS Neo-Victorian blog. Read the original story at victorianist.wordpress.com/2018/07/24/hidden-histories-and-family-drama-review-of-lives-loves-and-letters.]

Lives, Loves and Letters: The Goring Family of Wiston, Sussex, 1743-1905 is a book with a peculiar origin story.

The publication came about following the discovery of a wooden box, labelled Wiston Estate, containing nearly 400 letters, mostly written between 1745 and 1905, wrapped in bundles with pink ribbon.

Along with personal diaries, watercolour paintings, portraits, photographs, and family trees, the letters – which had not been seen since the time they were originally received by estate owners the Goring family – interweave true tales of travel, romance, adventure and family drama.

A1b Back cover

In 2004, the archival treasure trove was passed by estate owner Harry Goring onto his sister Jane, both direct descendants of the Gorings of Wiston. It was clear that the project to unravel the story told by these documents – which leads the reader from the reign of King George III, through the Victorian age, and into Edwardian times – would need a team of people to piece together the family’s history. Jane bought three friends, Joyce Slight, Jill Turner, and Janet Pennington, on board to take on the task. Jill was Wiston Estate secretary for many years, and Joyce and Janet are both qualified historians with skills in palaeography. Typist Janine Harvey later came on board to produce and edit the project’s outcome: a book which revealed the hidden histories of Wiston House and its owners.

Known collectively as the ‘FiveJays’, the co-authors spent 13 years researching and writing Lives, Loves and Letters, uncovering the house’s fascinating past through the found archive of letters and other ephemera.

FiveJays photo

A family chronicle told through letters, family paraphernalia, wider archival material such as newspapers, and the authors’ commentary, the book creates a colourful history of the Goring family and their home. From the visit of Queen Emma of Hawaii in the 1860s to a visiting artist’s account of his interaction with a spectral knight, there are plenty of fascinating stories which characterise the estate, as well as exploring the histories of its inhabitants.

Located under Chanctonbury Ring and currently leased to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Wiston House is a site with a fascinating history, dating back to 1086 when the manor appeared in the Domesday book.

A new house, which started construction in 1573, was occupied during the English Civil War and was later remodelled by a fashionable architect during the nineteenth century.

The FiveJays have been focusing on the more recent era of the house’s past, looking in depth at the lives of members of the Goring family of Wiston House throughout the late eighteenth and nineteenth century.

Lives, Loves and Letters is clearly the result of extensive and committed research, and the figures at the centre of the story have been rendered with clarity and sincerity, illustrating family members’ positive and negative traits with evidence from the archive.

The inclusion of the transcribed letters makes for engaging reading (parts read much like Fanny Burney’s entertaining novel of society life Evelina) and provides a useful insight into the character and temperament of members of the family, presenting a direct window into their daily lives. The individuals who comprise the network at the centre of Lives, Loves and Letters feel fully-formed as biographical subjects. They are humanised in the authors’ retelling of the family tale, partly by the inclusion of anecdotes such as the young John Goring’s reputation for being adamant that no-one uses the word ‘dog’ around him, due to his inability, as a stammerer, to pronounce the word himself.

50 An original lette with envelope

Many of the letters had traveled by ship to Wiston from Malta; some show holes where the ink has run through the paper, other are criss-crossed with lines of writing.

During the hours spent transcribing the documents and unravelling the stories that the letters reveal, the FiveJays followed the conversations between generations of the family, and their relationships to their friends and servants. Mostly written by Jane’s great-great-grandfather Charles Goring, his family and their descendants, the letters tell of Mediterranean voyages, wild boar hunting in Morocco, railway journeys in Scotland, celebrations, courtships, marriages, births of children, ailments, tragedies and romance.

Chapters are divided into biographical histories of key family members. Chapter One looks at Charles Goring, while Chapter Two looks closely at Mary Goring (née Ballard). Chapter Three examines Elizabeth and Walter Trower, while Cousin John Ballard is the subject of Chapter Four. The final chapter pieces together a concluding history of Isabella and John Goring.

Mary Goring (1783-1845) was connected to the Austen family and made extensive alterations to Wiston House, and was also the third wife of Charles Goring (1744-1829). Charles is known for planting the beech trees on the prehistoric earthwork as a young man, and identified as ‘Ring Planter’ in the book. ‘Ring Planter’ was a classical scholar and MP for Shoreham, and after his death, Mary worked hard to continue running the estate.

Several of the tissue-thin paper letters in the collection were written by Elizabeth née Goring (1799-1876), Charles’s eldest daughter and later wife of Walter Trower, Bishop of Gibraltar, the biographical subjects of Chapter Three. In the course of his duties Walter Trower undertook many sea journeys, sailing in the ships of Queen Victoria’s navy around his extensive diocese. He made annual visitation tours and was keen to foster friendly relations with the heads of the Eastern Orthodox Church.  Elizabeth and Walter’s three daughters give wonderfully descriptive accounts of travels and social lives around the Mediterranean, including the several years which they spent in Malta.

Nephew of Mary Goring, Chapter Four examines the life of John Ballard (1815-1875), who wrote from ships off Lisbon and Spain with vivid descriptions of his visit to Tangier, including the Sultan, the buildings, horses and hunting of wild boar.

There are letters from Elizabeth’s sister-in-law, Isabella Goring (1842-1885) at Wiston House, lovingly written to her husband Revd John Goring (1824-1905) and her son Charles at Oxford. Diaries detail the wedding and honeymoon of John Goring – the younger brother of Elizabeth – and the much younger Isabella, who originally hoped to marry a dashing army captain.

A particular favourite aspect of the book is the oft-recurring family lady’s maid Snape, who accompanies the family on trips – an unfortunate role for someone who seems to be perpetually sea-sick.

It is a visually rich book, including many illustrations such as family trees, maps, portraits, watercolours of plants and landscape, and, later, photographs.

The particular strength of Lives, Loves and Letters is the authors’ continual contextualisation of the family’s microhistory with wider historical happenings. Political turbulence and literary developments are artfully weaved into the Gorings’ tale beyond the references made in their letters to favoured writers and recent speeches: the authors explore how the changing times impacted on Sussex and by extent, the Wiston Estate.

Lives, Loves and Letters is also a biography of landscape. Not only surroundings recognisable to those from Sussex – the Chanctonbury trees, old chapels – but of the places that the family visited during their travels. The letters written during these trips are wonderfully evocative, and their inclusion in the book means that they retain their vividity. Family members travel through Lisbon and Malta, and also indulge in national adventures, spending time exploring the Scottish Highlands. Much time is spent by the authors in exploring the political and geographic conditions of their travels, which is useful in providing international context for the Victorians ‘away from home’.

Religion is another theme which runs throughout the book, with several family members being clergymen and a strong ecclesiastical theme evolving throughout the letters. This is linked by the authors to a wider national discussion about the established Church of England and concerns regarding Roman Catholic rhetoric in schools.

wiston book cover Lucida.indd

As an independently published book, there are some minor typographical and grammatical errors, but these are negligible. There is also some repetition of content, although different sections have been produced by different authors.

However, this is a good read for Victorianists with an interest in travel writing, the material lives of nineteenth century families, medical/health discourses, relationship to landscape, and religion.

For more information, visit http://www.liveslovesandletters.co.uk. The book contains more than 100 illustrations, including portraits, watercolour paintings – two of which are in Tate Britain – pencil sketches, and photographs. Lives, Loves and Letters costs £20 (postage and packaging is £3.40), and is available for order on the website via PayPal.

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