27 January 2014

Pitt's Eloquence: The Countess of Bessborough to Granville Leveson-Gower

      Henrietta, Countess of Bessborough, c. 1785 by Joseph Grozer, after Reynolds [Image 1]

Lady Henrietta ('Harriet') Bessborough, Viscountess Duncannon, the famous Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire's sister, wrote to her lover and frequent correspondent Lord Granville Leveson-Gower in October 1797 to relay some interesting gossip. She was writing from Woburn, and he was at Trentham. The Countess of Bessborough was clearly aware of Granville Leveson-Gower's profound reverence for his political mentor William Pitt, and had almost certainly heard him speak in raptures of Pitt's eloquence in the House of Commons. What she probably didn't expect to hear, however, was the 5th Duke of Bedford's rhapsodising to the same effect. Francis Russell, the Duke of Bedford, was a well-known Whig, and political adherent of Charles James Fox, and known to regularly oppose the measure of William Pitt's ministry. Thus, Lady Bessborough was in for a bit of an amusing shock when she heard Bedford waxing lyrical on Pitt's eloquence.

                           Francis Russell, 5th Duke of Bedford, c. 1796-7 by Grimaldi, after John Hoppner [Image 2]

She writes: "I wish you could have heard the D. of Bedford talk of Mr Pitt tonight. I assure you your praises of his [Pitt's] Eloquence are cold in comparison. He [Bedford] told me if I could imagine the purest, most correct, forcible, and eloquent language spoke in the most harmonious voice and animated manner, seizing with incredible quickness and ingenuity all the weak parts of the opposing arguments, and putting the strongest ones of his own in the most favourable point of view, that I should then have some faint Idea of what Mr P.[itt']'s speaking was. He [Bedford] said it was the most fascinating thing he ever heard. That in general he thought Mr Pitt plain in his person, but towards the close of an interesting speech that he look'd beautiful; and that he had so little Idea of the possibility of any woman hearing or seeing him [Pitt] at such a time without being in love with him, that if women were admitted to the H. of Commons, and the D. of Bedford was very much in love with any one, he would make it an absolute point with her always to go out when Mr Pitt got up to speak" (Leveson-Gower, pp. 177-8).

It appears that one's political leanings do not necessarily determine one's preference in terms of public speaking. I'm sure Lord Granville Leveson-Gower was entertained by Lady Bessborough's amusing story. 

I've read the beginning part of this passage, but the part about women (and yes, the emphasis was also in the original letter) falling in love with Pitt if they could only hear him speak in the House of Commons rang true with me. 


Granville (ed.) (1916) Leveson-Gower Correspondence, Vol. 1. London: John Murray, pp. 177-8.

Image Credits:

1. Mezzotint of Henrietta Frances ('Harriet) Ponsonby, Countess of Bessborough by Joseph Grozer after Sir Joshua Reynolds, circa 1785, National Portrait Gallery, NPG Number D31727. 

2. Francis Russell, 5th Duke of Bedford by William Grimaldi, after John Hoppner, 1796-7, National Portrait Gallery, NPG Number 6296.

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