Oct. 17, 2023

Episode 44: I Am An Idiot About Play

Lady Georgiana Spencer and Caroline Howe, a series of correspondences. In which they discuss Lady Spencer’s gambling problem. Kathryn Gehred is joined by early American historian and Fellow of the Royal Historical Society of Scotland Dr. Julie...

Lady Georgiana Spencer and Caroline Howe, a series of correspondences. In which they discuss Lady Spencer’s gambling problem. Kathryn Gehred is joined by early American historian and Fellow of the Royal Historical Society of Scotland Dr. Julie Flavell. 



Lady Georgiana Spencer to Caroline Howe, 24 December 1779, Additional manuscripts 75610-75667: Correspondence of Land Spencer with Carolien Howe, 1759-1814, British Library, London. http://searcharchives.bl.uk/permalink/f/79qrt5/IAMS037-001970220.  

Lady Spencer to Caroline Howe, Bath, 6 June 1780, Additional manuscripts 75610-75667: Correspondence of Land Spencer with Carolien Howe, 1759-1814, British Library, London. http://searcharchives.bl.uk/permalink/f/79qrt5/IAMS037-001970220.  

Caroline Howe to Lady Georgiana Spencer, 29 December 1781, Additional manuscripts 75610-75667: Correspondence of Land Spencer with Carolien Howe, 1759-1814, British Library, London. http://searcharchives.bl.uk/permalink/f/79qrt5/IAMS037-001970220.  

Julie Flavell, The Howe Dynasty: The Untold Story of a Military Family and the Women Behind Britain's Wars for America, Liveright Publishing, 2021,  https://wwnorton.com/books/9781631490613 

Julie Flavell, When London Was Capital of America, Yale University Press, 2011, https://yalebooks.yale.edu/book/9780300178135 


Your Most Obedient & Humble Servant
Episode 44: “I Am An Idiot About Play”
Published on October 17, 2023

Note: This transcript was generated by Otter.ai with light human correction


Kathryn Gehred  00:01 Just a note, there is a discussion of suicide in this episode.

Kathryn Gehred  00:11 Hello, and welcome to Your Most Obedient and Humble Servant. This is women's history podcast where we feature 18th and early 19th century women's letters that don't get as much attention as we think they should. I'm your host, Kathryn Gehred. This episode is part of our season on wit, which we are defining as an 18th or early 19th Century woman, either trying to be particularly funny or clever or teach a lesson. It's a little broad, but I think that this episode is a very nice fit for that theme. This week, I'm joined by the wonderful early American historian and fellow of the Royal Historical Society of Scotland, Dr. Julie Flavelle. She is the author of When London was Capital of America, and The Howe Dynasty: The Untold Story of a Military Family and the Women Behind Britain's Wars for America. The Howe Dynasty came out last year and it is excellent. It is a great fit for this podcast. If you want your Revolutionary War history, from the perspective of the women that had affected as well it is just very excellent for that. Welcome to the podcast, Julie.

Julie Flavell  01:19 Thank you very much. Thanks for inviting me very happy to be here.

Kathryn Gehred  01:22 So before we dive into the letters, for our listeners who might not be familiar with them, can you give a brief introduction to the male Howes?

Julie Flavell  01:32 In the United States the best known male Howes are General Sir William Howe and Admiral Lord Howe. And they were the joint commander in chiefs of the British armed forces in the first years of the American War of Independence. But actually both had served with distinction in the Seven Years' War, William Howe had been under General Wolf taking Quebec, Richard Howe was famous for raiding the French coast. Some of the Hornblower fictional exploits are based on some of his Derring do when he was a younger man. They had a joint command. It was unusual to have two brothers as Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy forces for the first three years of the revolution. And obviously, they didn't succeed and that Admiral Howe remains the best known how brother in Britain because he's still considered a hero. He was Britain's first naval hero of what would become the Napoleonic Wars. When in his 60s, he was the hero of the glorious first of June sea battle in 1794. If you ask a British person if they've heard of the Howes, some people who are Napoleonic War enthusiasts, especially naval history enthusiasts will know about Admiral Howe General Howe they seem to have totally forgotten especially is connection with the War of Independence, which is not very popular topic with the British public.

Kathryn Gehred  02:51 I used to work at the Papers of George Washington, so I really only know that town.

Julie Flavell  02:57 Yes, General Howe Yeah. And

Kathryn Gehred  02:59 That's hilarious that inspired the Hornblower series. I used to watch that series. Horatio Hornblower I love that.

Julie Flavell  03:05 I think the author copied some of Richard Howe, you know, exploits when he was a young commodore, and, you know, put them into hornblower's life, some of his the daring things he did as a ship captain.

Kathryn Gehred  03:17 What inspired you to write this book?

Julie Flavell  03:20 Well, the Howe brothers have always been considered mysterious, mainly because they failed to end the American rebellion. Obviously, the British public expected it to be a walkover, they expected it to be an easy win. So when the Howe brothers came home several years later, without having ended the war, conspiracy theories started up, they actually started up during their command to when it was flagging. And so they've always been considered a kind of a mysterious pair. And the conspiracy theories have never been entirely dismissed. You know, they're things like that they secretly sympathized with the Americans, so they were soft on them, or they prolonged the war to make money, things like that. And the fact that their private family papers were destroyed in an accidental fire in the early 19th century is just added to the sense of mystery about them. But I discovered that their oldest sister Caroline, how left a huge amount of letters that have been almost untouched by military historians. They will dip in on key dates, like battles and things to see if she had anything to say. But that's it. And it's, frankly, because she was a woman. And they reveal a great deal about the family. So I decided to write the first ever biography of the Howe family.

Kathryn Gehred  04:31 For historical figures that are sort of well known because they were brothers working together. It's just so glaring that nobody checked the letters of the sister.

Julie Flavell  04:39 That's right. Yeah, that's a good point. And they're all siblings. Yeah. And they were very close family.

Kathryn Gehred  04:45 So tell me more about these letters.

Julie Flavell  04:46 Well the letters are correspondence between Caroline how she was the oldest of the house children. She was older than the admiral in the general. And her very closest friend was Lady Georgiana Spencer who was married to John Spencer, First Earl Spencer, he was one of the wealthiest men in Britain. And she's probably best known to any listeners who like reading historical biography, she was the mother of the Duchess of Devonshire, who has by now there's even been a movie about her starring Keira Knightley called the Duchess if people seen that. And the two women, Lady Georgiana Spencer, and Caroline, who were extremely close friends. And they kept a correspondence that went on for almost 50 years, they wrote about all kinds of things, politics, family matters, anything you can think of. It's really colorful correspondence. And it's actually the longest set of private personal correspondence in the British Library. It's reckoned to be it's never been counted, it was hard work to use it because the letters aren't even foliated. They're just in boxes box after box after box after box. And so you just have to go through every single letter. They really have been underused.

Kathryn Gehred  05:58 Wow. Were you sort of in the archives, like transcribing as you go? Did you like take pictures and work on them at home? What was your process like?

Julie Flavell  06:05 Well, when I started, the British Library didn't allow photographs they do now. So that you would have to pay them to make scans, I guess they were worried about the documents getting damaged or something. So I'd have to take notes, rough notes, and then go home and then put in an order for PDFs to be made. I think it would have been impossible to use them as effectively as I did, without modern means of copying them, just because of the sheer volume of them. And even at that, I mean, there's a huge amount of material that you know, I couldn't fit into the book.

Kathryn Gehred  06:39 Well, that's that I'm hoping this podcast is a way to talk about some of these letters that are just fun and interesting. And as I said, don't always find the way into the history books. So after all of your research and reading so many of these letters that it seems like have been very underused. My impression just from this letter is that this is like a loving communication between very good friends who are sort of sharing their intimate feelings, does that align with the rest of their relationship?

Julie Flavell  07:04 They were actually related in that Caroline had an aunt Georgiana had an uncle who married and so they had cousins in common. And so they known each other probably all their lives, but they were 15 years apart in age. And they seem to become friends and about the 1750s, which is when Lady Spencer really, you know, got married and came into society. And I think that Caroline was like a big sister to her. Caroline was somebody very stiff upper lip. But she was very, very sympathetic. And as you can tell from these letters, she had a certain wisdom about her. And that was just what Lady Spencer needed because she was kind of confessional. You know, she liked to gush. And you can tell from the letters, you know, admit how she felt and everything. But you know, you need a safe space to do that. And what's interesting is the Duchess of Devonshire was just the same. She gushed to people as well. So the Spencer ladies seemed to have that. But Caroline was a very good big sister figure. And which was good for Lady Spencer, because her siblings were kind of needy people. So I think Caroline fulfilled a very important role in her life. And she never got tired of all the confessing, she always said, Just tell me whatever you want, I'm sure it's going to do good. Maybe she'd be a counselor now? I don't know.

Kathryn Gehred  08:21 But they both seem to be drawing these psychological conclusions about things. They're very thoughtful people.

Julie Flavell  08:26 Yeah, that's right

Kathryn Gehred  08:28 You introduced Lady Georgiana and Mrs. Caroline, how a little bit. Can you tell me for this specific exchange? What is going on and each of their lives sort of to set the context of what's going on at this moment?

Julie Flavell  08:42 Okay, yeah, Caroline Howe, who I mentioned some I should say, there were some dynastic families in the 18th century, where the women had a tradition of using what was called drawing room influence to assist the careers of the men. Any woman might use her influence if she was close to a powerful man, but some families actually had traditions of it, and the Howes were like that. She had friends at court. She was friends with most of the prominent wig magnates. So she was very involved in her brother's careers. And she was also somebody who was very comfortable about entering men spaces. Like she was the only woman who's listed as a member of the Duke of Rutland beaver fox hunt in the 18th century. I know people frown on foxhunting now, but in the 18th century, it was the only genteel way for a woman to take serious exercise. But, she's the only one listed some women did run along with the hunt. Sometimes they write along with the hunt, but she was actually a member, which was highly unusual.

Julie Flavell  09:43 She was a very interesting person. And in 1779, her brothers had come home the previous year from the War of Independence, obviously, having not prevailed over the American rebellion. There had been a Parliamentary inquiry in early 1779 on the conduct of the war with the Howe's Whig allies taking the view that they had an impossible task and the war couldn't be won. And of course, the government supporters saying no, it was their ineptitude. And we have to go on and we'll still win. I mean, sometimes the American Revolution is called Britain's Vietnam. So there's certain similarities, arguments back and forth about whether we should just go a little bit longer. And, you know, maybe it'll all fall together and work. There were also newspaper attacks on the Howes, you know, massive newspaper attacks on the Howe brothers. So she'd been going through all that that year. Lady Spencer had a very different private kind of problem. Her daughter, the Duchess was a compulsive gambler. She'd married the Duke in 1774, when she was only 17. And this meant that she could obtain almost endless credit. So she could, you know, gambling, gambling, gamble, but it kind of snowballed. She'd been married for almost four years, by the time this letter was written, and the gambling had gotten to be a bigger and bigger problem. And it was actually becoming a source of marital conflict with the Duke. So Lady Spencer had always actually gambled herself. Now I have to say listening to the letter, they referred to gambling as play. They use the word play, and she felt responsible for her daughter's problem. So at Christmas 1779, she decided to give up play, and she hoped that she'd be a good example and it would help her daughter and her plan that Christmas was to stay in the countryside. They were at the Spencer seat of Althorp. So if you Google Althorp and look at it, it's huge palace. It's Lady Diana Spencer grew up there. And she thought she'd be far away from the gambling salons of London. And that's the immediate context for her letter of Christmas Eve 1779. To Caroline. And I have to say it opens with a friendly complaint that was common between the two women that Caroline wasn't writing frequently enough. For listening, you should know that her nickname for Caroline was Howey we should I go ahead and read it?

Kathryn Gehred  11:58 Go right ahead.

Julie Flavell  12:05

Lady Georgiana Spencer to Caroline Howe, Dec. 24, 1779
Well my dear Howey I cannot help it if you will not write to me you must let it alone, as soon as you leave off I shall, & till then if I can find leisure I shall continue to write especially now that I can do it more au coeur ouvert than I could while I was apprehensive you might shew any part of my letters for supposing any body you shew them to to be as partial to me as
yourself. Yet they might not comprehend some things that I am thoroughly convinc’d of and shall make no scruple of owning to you tho’ I should not care to publish them to the world, the principal of them is concerning what you say of my seeming to Judge it necessary to be out of the way of temptation to go on right_I should be very sorry to find that I could never be right without this precaution & yet I think the safest way is to suppose it, I should have examin’d my heart & conduct often to very little purpose if I had not found out that I am the weakest of all Creatures. You must have seen it forever at play_how often do I make resolutions & break them & shall I presume after such daily such hourly instances of folly to aver that I can resist temptation. I know of no good purpose that could be answer’d by boasting but of many that may arise from doubting my own strength. It keeps me humble & in spite of Vanity itself makes me feel what an insignificant wretch I am_it teaches me to
make allowances for others, by shewing me how despicable I might have been had my temptations been of the same nature with theirs; & lastly (for this is very sermon-like) it inspires me with continual Gratitude to that Providence which amongst innumerable other blessings has by uniting me to the Man my heart doats upon kept me out of the Worst  scrapes, & made even my inclinations my Guard.

You are my Dr. Howey & I make no doubt with very good reason sure of yourself_ by what I have said above, you plainly see I am not, I must therefore have assistance & this in my opinion Religion only can give me,_If I had none I should be like the Man who hang’d himself only because he grew tir’d of pulling off his Shoes & stockings every night to put them on in the Morning_I should be forever trying to mend & finding I did not I should lose all Patience, but far different is the Case where there is true Religion the endeavour to mend is in itself delightful because it is attended with an humble confidence that that endeavour alone is acceptable how much higher then must the enjoyment be if it is attended with success._I really feel a great deal & Consequently should like to say more on this subject, but I fancy you will have had enough of it, & Chappel bell rings, & the double number of Christmas poor are come for bread & meat so I must have done. God bless you.


Lady Spencer to Caroline Howe, Bath, June 6, 1780
In response to something CH said in a previous letter: ‘Lady Barrymore knows nothing of me but that I am an Idiot about play, & make what amends I can for that Vice – by being something of a Lady Bountiful to the poor. I believe these two qualities hang by some whimsical Connection together, for since I have left off the one I think I am grown more Callous to the other & turn a Case inside out ten times over, before I open my purse to it.’

Caroline Howe to Lady Georgiana Spencer, Dec. 29, 1781

Perhaps you will suppose I am in a disputative humour, when you find me animadverting  also upon your next paragraph.  I agree in the first part that it is infinitely easier to refuse sitting down to play, than it is to stop at certain periods, when spirits & hopes of winning back, eggs one on, but I cannot believe it is a careless indifference of money that prevents your calling in prudence or avarice to your aid, on the contrary, my opinion is that a desire to win has very often if not always the cause of high play, & that avarice is generally already with you at that time aiding & abetting; tho’ I acknowledge when applied to you avarice is not quite the thing, for your wish to gain is on somewhat a different principle, from that of most others, what you pick up over night you frequently give away next morning.

I am not satisfied with what I have said, on the other side, it is something like but not quite my meaning. But I do not know how to mend it & shall bid you farewell for this day.

Kathryn Gehred  17:25 That's fantastic.

Julie Flavell  17:26 Yeah, they're really interesting. What I found really striking about them now, of course, they're written in the context of all sorts of other correspondents over a period of a couple of years, between these women. And I think it's interesting that despite the fact that gambling was widespread in Georgian society and elite women gambled almost as much as the men, the psychology of what today we know can become an addiction was totally unexplored. Now, of course, modern psychology wouldn't be born until more than 100 years later, in the 19th century, but gambling addiction, and its counterpart suicide had become widespread in Georgia and England by this time. So for example, and damer was a close friend of the young Duchess of Devonshire and her son John Damer, gambled away his fortune and shot himself in an in in 1776. So the actual addictive behavior, and these desperate measures people sometimes took in response to it were being seen, but there was no real understanding of the psychology behind it at all. Now, Lady Spencer was well known. She mentioned charities in her letters, she was well known for her charity giving, and she was also known for having an active religious life. People might know that in the 18th century, it was rather stylish for the aristocracy to be a negligent of religious duties. So Lady Spencer was a little bit unusual in that she was actively religious. And she mentions both of these things. In her first letter, she always gave her tenants at Althorp, at Christmas time, charitable donations, not only the bread and meat that she mentioned, do you remember at the end of the letter, she said, The chapel bells ringing and I have twice as many people waiting for bread and meat, she also gave them coats, new coats for the women at Christmas time. And she founded an organization called the ladies charitable society. And this society actually had an historical importance because it was run by women, administered by women. It was the first society ever to use means testing in the city in London. Of course, anybody who was wealthy had a lot of beggars coming to them, and there was no longer any way to tell who was genuine and who is perhaps a confidence trickster or a thief, because they weren't living in their own little neighborhood the way they did in the country. So Lady Spencer introduced the idea of questioning these people, and even having people visit their homes to see if they were for real. So it was me means tested charity. And this became a model for other charities in the future. And she's known for these things for her religious life and our charity. So it always comes as rather a surprise when people are reading biographies usually of the Duchess, that Lady Spencer gambled herself. That, in fact, she is what we would call a problem gambler in the sense that in these letters, she's obviously trying to give it up. She thinks it's harming her daughter, but she can't give it up. She's struggling. She actually grew up in a household where her mother gambled regularly. Her mother was a lady in waiting to Queen Caroline. So that gives you an idea of how common gambling was at that time. So on Christmas Eve, in the original letter that I read, she's experimenting with staying in the countryside. The whole Spencer family was there that Christmas as usual, together with the Devonshire, the Duke and the Duchess. Now, Caroline was skeptical about this and she'd written a few days earlier. I don't think being in the countryside is going to make any difference because when I'm in the countryside, I gamble as much as I do in London. But of course, at Althorp Lady Spencer, as the hostess had more control. So she was determined to stop the rampant card playing and she was encouraging ice skating and all kinds of things like that, in hopes that people would be doing something healthier. She opened her letter, as you might notice, chiding Caroline, because Caroline had been showing her letters to other people, notably to her brother, William General Howe of Bunker Hill fame. And they both like to tease Lady Spencer, there's definitely a big sister relationship, big sister, little sister there. Like Caroline's promised, okay, I won't show the letters. So once the confidentiality is assured, Lady Spencer opened up about her struggle. And she admits that she tried over and over to stop what she had originally tried before this Christmas was okay, I'll tell myself, I'll only gamble till I've lost so much, and then I'll stop. And then I'll walk away from the table. And anybody with an addiction will know, this pattern of trying and failing repeatedly is just a fact of trying to give up. And Lady Spencer in her letter where she talks about humility and being humbled to the dust, she's very open about the loss of self esteem that's causing her by the fact that, you know, she simply can't give this up. And what I found interesting was that she expressed these problems in religious terms. You know, she said, If I had no religion, I'd be like the man who hanged himself, because he got tired of pulling off his shoes and stockings every night and putting them on it again in the morning, that may be a reference to a well known suicide of a member of the nobility that occurred at that time. And the person said, he was sick to death of the elaborate dressing for dinner every night. I mean, I can't believe that's really why he killed himself. But that's what he left people with, you know, there'd be this army of servants helping you to put this elaborate clothing on and then take it off at night. What she's evoking hear, of course, is the idea of doing the same thing over and over and over, till you just lose heart.

Kathryn Gehred  23:07 Well, that line struck me because it's sort of like, I mean, obviously, I'm living a very different lifestyle than they are. But, you know, the banality of life does sort of drag on. And something like gambling is something that adds a little bit of excitement to that. And she's also talking about religion. So I thought that was interesting is that she said she would be like the man who killed himself for that reason, if it weren't for religion, but is that sort of her technique without, you know, things like studying human behavior and psychology and all these things that haven't come around yet? She's turning to religion as something that can possibly help.

Julie Flavell  23:44 I think that's right. Because the psychological reality in this is, everybody knows, even if you try to quit something like smoking, you're gonna fail. And one of the problems people have coaching people like that is they say, you have to realize that you're going to fail before you succeed, because often people fail once or twice. And then they think, Well, I can't do this, and I give up. And so she's actually coming at that problem from a different angle. She's saying, I know there's a benign Providence who appreciates my just trying. So she's given herself a reward for just trying. She's actually done with the self help manual suggest, and I thought that was quite interesting that she's kind of hit upon some of the psychology of the whole problem. So far, so good. But then when we look at later excerpts, we realize she still hasn't succeeded. And the comments she made six months later, where she thinks there's a relationship somehow, psychologically between her charitable giving and the guilt over the gambling, she says, I've started to notice that when I gamble less, I become more careful about the charitable giving. I start looking much more closely at these cases and thinking do these people really deserve this? She says, so she actually accused herself of just the charitable giving being nothing but a guilty compensation for the gambling, she's being very unfair to herself. Because if you read her letters, she felt very strongly about the suffering of the poor in Georgian England, in a way that really is a credit to her. And many of her peers, you know, just walked on by because people were used to the side of beggars in the streets, starving children and so forth. But Lady Spencer, actually felt very strongly about it. But there's no doubt some truth also on what she's saying.

Kathryn Gehred  25:31 And the fact that she's making a tie between she says, I'm an idiot about play, she says things like I'm wretched and things like that. I imagine that gives you a little bit more empathy of somebody who might like if she wasn't as fortunate to have access to this bountiful wealth, she could be in big trouble. The way some of these people who are begging are, I think it sort of adds a you know, there but for the grace of God, go I type situation.

Julie Flavell  25:55 Yeah. Oh, yeah. She was an interesting character. The reason I thought they belong together, because I see it as over a period of two years, these women who were very busy with other things, and as I say, there were no self health books on Amazon for how to get gambling.

Kathryn Gehred  26:10 It's just the Bible. That's all you got.

Julie Flavell  26:12 They were trying to discuss what it is that drives people to gamble on and on. And Caroline, how comes closest to putting a finger on what keeps gamblers at the table after losing over and over in a letter again, that hasn't survived? Lady Spencer seems to have said, it must be that the reason I go on gambling is because somehow I'm indifferent to the value of money. I don't appreciate the value of money. And Caroline disagrees. She's actually sharper about motivation. And she's more self aware than Lady Spencer. And she gives her opinion that it's much easier not to play at all, then to try to break off after losing a certain amount. Yes, you puts it when spirits and hopes of winning back eggs one on. And of course, she's exactly right. Because today anybody reading a basic advice book on problem gambling, Caroline wouldn't have known any of this. But she was self aware enough to realize how it all function that there was something in the brain that she put egging you on to keep going. And it's really interesting that although these women and the high society they mixed in, gambled frequently, and it really had become a problem. There's apparently from what they're saying there's very little exploration on people's part of why they were doing this and what the draw was.

Kathryn Gehred  27:27 You mentioned in your book that Caroline is a sort of a competitive person when it comes to games. And she played chess with Benjamin Franklin and she played to win.

Julie Flavell  27:37 I think it's too bad that she and Franklin didn't leave a record of who won the most. And I can never decide whether that means one, one or the other, because they both bragged a bit about Come to think of it. I suppose Caroline wasn't going to leave any written records of the meetings are not many.

Kathryn Gehred  27:54 Oh right, yeah.

Julie Flavell  27:56 So maybe he lost.

Kathryn Gehred  27:57 That's how I'll take it. I guess sort of to add more to the context. You said, gambling is a huge problem in sort of this class. But what role did gambling and card playing have in female social life in this tier of society? You mentioned how Caroline was part of, you know, hunting clubs, it seems like women were sort of allowed to participate in more public life through these sorts of social avenues was gambling and card playing a way to sort of have political influence.

Julie Flavell  28:26 It certainly could be I mean, card playing was pretty much universal as a social activity. And anybody who reads Jane Austen novels will know that, you know, at a ball, there'd be a room set aside for card playing. It was just absolutely universal. And in aristocratic private settings, men and women gambled in mixed company, and that certainly brought female wigs society leaders like Lady Spencer and the Duchess of Devonshire into company with powerful political figures like Charles James Fox, and it was a sphere that attracted the leading Whig politicians, many of them not all, and the women could join them there and, you know, have even more contact with them. In terms of attitudes about genteel gambling, whist, of course was highly popular. That's what people are normally playing in Jane Austen novels. whist often involves gambling, but it was also social, it was like an approved form of gambling. Because you played whist with a partner. It usually was played in a private quiet environment because of course whist involves a lot of concentration and card counting. So it requires some skill that requires some quiet, and of course drunkenness detracted from the play. So this was considered a much more genteel sort of game. By contrast, another game faro that was the most notorious gambling game of the era. And that was a banking game, where individual players pit themselves against a banker who dealt the cards so in that sense, I think it's a bit more like blackjack, and the banker controlled the game and redistributed the winnings. Bankers could make make a profit if there was a tie or an unusual outcome. So for example, the politician Charles James Fox operated a faro bank at his private club of Brooks in London in 1781. And it said that over three months, he made a profit of 30,000 pounds, which, of course, is a huge amount of money, then, men like Fox and the Duchess's husband, the Duke of Devonshire belong to these exclusive all male clubs. Now, one of the advantages of these clubs is that the membership was limited. So professional games tourists couldn't get in, then the only people who'd be there would be other wealthy members of the aristocracy. Now the Duchess, I've said she began gambling and losing it to greater rate early in our marriage. And just to give an idea, she had 4000 pounds a year as pin money. That's money she could spend on whatever she wanted nothing to do with food, photos, whatever, which is a huge amount of money in those days, and a couple of years into our marriage. She had spent most of that by April of that year, she was chewing her nails with fear. She was afraid to tell the Duke she went to her parents. And Lady Spencer was constantly sending her letters saying, just put a certain amount of money in your purse, and don't spend any more than that. And she tried to tell her which games to play the ones that were a little bit less compulsive. And it said that by 1779, the Duchess was in a constant state of fear about our gambling debts, and that kind of remained with her for the rest of her life. That's the lead up to when Lady Spencer thought maybe if I can quit, I can lead my daughter right. And in fact, just to tell the listeners the denouement to all this, the Duchess didn't recover at all, May 1781. So that's a couple of years after Lady Spencer's effort. The Duchess actually had her drawing room in Devonshire house in London, remade into a casino, it was set up exactly like a casino so that it was just like the private clubs, the men were going to she hired professional faro dealers, and there was a commercial fair row bank. She was almost moving into being a professional gambler. She was always terrible at gambling. I mean, she did not win. And at these events, some of these shady games tourists could get in, you know, because you could make a huge sums of money off these wealthy people who were just gambling and gambling away if you knew how to play the game, right. And there was one game store in particular named Martindale that diarist wrote this said he talked the Duchess into an agreement that whatever they won from each other would be doubled or trebled. So for example, if she lost 500 pounds, it would be 1000, or 1500. And this man recorded that she ended up losing 1500 pounds, and she was crying uncontrollably. This is clearly somebody with a big personal problem. And sadly, Lady Spencer was seen at this very same event, gambling and throwing her rings on the table. But she was never quite in the grip of it the way her daughter was, I mean, she was able to stop. I don't fully understand the psychology of that. But the crucial difference, the Duchess just went right off the rails. I mean, she was borrowing money from servants, bankers, hiding amounts of debt from her husband, and so on and so forth. For most of our married life.

Kathryn Gehred  33:23 Was there any like moral judgment? Was there any sort of, like, exclusion from society? Or was everybody just sort of egging them on? And everybody was sort of all in this game together? Because it seems like it could turn on a dime of like, well, now you're gambling too much. And now this is a moral failing? Or is this just something that they were of a level of society where that didn't really matter?

Julie Flavell  33:42 There was a huge amount of public criticism of it. And there were of course, there were aristocrats who didn't gamble, who sharply disapproved of it. Some of the Duchess's closest friends who accompany they're in all sorts of, you know, not very clever escapades didn't gamble as it happens, they were able to control themselves, the public, there were pamphlets and all sorts of writings about aristocratic gambling and how corrupt it was, obviously, an incredible waste of money when they were all these four around, but it was also seen as kind of strikingly unChristian, and self centered. And there was actually an equation between faro gambling that kind of gambling and suicide, because both of them were seen as having nothing to do with anything but the person involved. So people were seen as being completely antisocial, just totally subsumed and betting at the Pharaoh table, and or killing themselves, because the two things were kind of connected morally at the time.

Kathryn Gehred  34:43 The last letter seems to be Lady Spencer trying to figure out why samples as much were diagnosing people 200 years after the fact but do you have any theories as to why she enjoyed gambling so much?

Julie Flavell  34:55 In a way, I am always reluctant to use psycho animals I think it's a bit dodgy to do that. But you can see in both Lady Spencer and the Duchess, these issues with what we would call impulse control. Because both women were obsessive about the eating. Lady Spencer ate, what would be considered at the time a very eccentric diet, lots of vegetables, root vegetables, eggs, milk. She wasn't a vegetarian, but she tended to avoid meat. This is when you know, people would eat a steak for breakfast and things like that. And in fact, one of our guests parodied the meal she served, saying, the dinners consisted of egg shells and turn it tops. I think that was a joke. But I think it's what today people refer to as rabbit food.

Kathryn Gehred  35:40 Yeah.

Julie Flavell  35:42 But I think the Duchess really did have some kind of eating disorder, it's difficult to tell, she'd gain weight, and then lose weight. She also showed this extreme mood swing behavior. For example, she'd party literally party until five in the morning, when society gossip described her going out to Vauxhall, the entertainment park with a boatload of people and staying there until four or five in the morning and paying the orchestra to keep playing three nights in a row. And then she'd just disappear. I mean, she basically just go into her bedroom and pull the shades and disappear for days on end, you could guess that both women had these impulse control related issues, and that somehow lady Spencer had more of a grip on it. And her daughter, I don't know whether it was because she had such unlimited credit with the dude. But somehow the daughter seemed unable to control it. And actually, although a lot of her problems are attributed to her unhappy marriage, looking at her stuff, I think it's a little unfair to do. But he was a pretty strange person, but she seems to have come with this. She had a lot of problems. And you know, she was only 17 when she got married. Oftentimes, problems people have manifest themselves nowadays, when they go away to college, because they leave home, same age, you know, they leave home. And suddenly, people who hovered around the making things work are gone. And it seems to me that that's closer to how things seem to have gone. I guess maybe lady Spencer had problems like that. It's also true that gambling was just regarded as fun. And aristocratic women were not insofar as they might like to be risk takers, they didn't have many opportunities to do it. They didn't go away to war, or, you know, sail ships or even hunt too much, and so forth. And gambling could be very exciting. And I think that's why Caroline I liked it. She was very like her brother's, you know, liked excitement. I would not describe her as a problem gambler, she seemed completely sensible. She had a budget. That was it. But she still liked to gamble for high stakes. And some people complained about it. But she didn't seem to be driven by her habit or anything.

Kathryn Gehred  37:57 I come from a big card playing family, not so much gambling, but just competitive just to when reading your books and reading this letter, I sort of got a little bit of that vibe from Caroline, it's fun to play and adding a little bit to something does add that little extra excitement to just about anything.

Julie Flavell  38:13 Yeah, that's right. And you could play for very small stakes if you wanted. I mean, it didn't have to be hundreds of pounds last night.

Kathryn Gehred  38:20 How would you describe their relationship with each other?

Julie Flavell  38:23 The friendship between those two women, I mean, it's really interesting, because it shows the importance amongst aristocratic women. Usually, when people write about them, they stress the competition for husbands and so on and so forth. But I think they show in a very interesting way how important real friendship was between women in an environment where there was a lot of cutthroat competition, really gossip that could make or break people and so on and so forth. So yeah, it really is a lovely relationship. And this was just one aspect of it. It's been interesting to discuss it at length like this. Thank you for inviting me.

Kathryn Gehred  39:01 Oh, thank you so much for coming on. This is a fabulous conversation. To my listeners. Thank you very much for tuning in. I will link to Dr. Flavell's books in the show notes. And as ever, I am your most obedient and humble servant. Thank you very much. Your Most Obedient and Humble Servant is a production of R2 Studios at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. I'm Kathryn Gehred, the creator and host of this podcast, Jeanette, Patrick and Jim Ambuske are the executive producers. The audio in this episode was edited by Hayley Madl. If you enjoyed this episode, be sure to listen to past episodes and check out more great podcasts from R2 Studios. We tell unexpected stories based on the latest research to connect listeners with the past. So head to R2studios.org to start listening.

Dr. Julie Flavell Profile Photo

Dr. Julie Flavell

Independent Historian

Dr. Julie Flavell was born in the United States and grew up in Massachusetts, where she acquired a life-long interest in the American Revolution. After graduating from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, she gained her PhD in history at University College London. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 1999. She now lives in Scotland with her husband, who is British. Flavell has lectured in American history at Dundee and Edinburgh Universities, where she specialized in the Revolutionary era. Her first book, "When London Was Capital of America", explores the period just before the American Revolution through the experiences of individual colonists in London.

It was in quest of material for a sequel about London during the American Revolution that she came across the letters of Caroline Howe in the British Library. Caroline's life spanned two seminal wars for the birth of America, the Seven Years’ War in 1763 and the American Revolution just twelve years later. Caroline’s brothers became Anglo-American heroes in the first of these conflicts, but the second transformed them into foreigners in a land they had spilt their blood to defend. Flavell's latest book, "The Howe Dynasty", tells the dramatic story of this family across four wars through the eyes of the Howe women, radically recasting the American War of Independence as a civil war. "The Howe Dynasty" (2021) was a Finalist for the 2022 George Washington Book Prize, and a New York Times Editor's Choice, August 2021.