This week we have the final installment in author Deborah Hale's series on The Glamorous Gunning Sisters: The Next Generation.
Lady Betty Hamilton’s cousin, Lady Anne Coventry, did not move in such exalted circles, but she did manage to create every bit as great a scandal. Lady Anne was born in 1757, the third of Maria Gunning’s children by the Earl of Coventry. Like her cousin, she experienced early loss with the death of her mother when she was only three. The earl took an interest in his heir, but little in his daughters, Maria and Anne. Shuttled between the family estate, Croome, and Brighthelmstone, they were left mostly in the care of their French governess and their uncle by marriage, Gilly Williams.
One person who did take an interest in the child was famed wit and eccentric George Selwyn, a friend of Williams who had also been admirer of Anne’s mother. Selwyn’s interest in “Nanny,” as he called her, was described by contemporaries as singular (an 18th century euphemism for obsessive and rather creepy). In a biography of the Duchess Argyll, Horace Bleakly recounts, “in the subsequent correspondence will be found many pleasing proofs of the anxiety with which he (Selwyn) watched over the welfare of the offspring of his deceased friend and of the parental and almost romantic affection with which he regarded the interesting child.”
Selwyn expected updates on her health and spirits in every letter he received from Williams. He sent Anne and her sister gifts for which she wrote him a thank-you note in French, asking him to visit. In a letter to Selwyn in 1765 when Anne was eight-years-old and her brother ten, their father sounds disturbed by Selwyn’s interest in his children: “I have refused so many applications to let the little boy leave Marybone, that I must beg of you not to ask it. There is no one but Duchess Hamilton has liberty to send for him, and it would be very inconvenient to extend that privilege any farther.” In a post-script, he added, “I shall not trust you in a post-chaise with Nanny a year or two hence.”
Was Selwyn as much a pedophile as his correspondence and actions make him sound, and did he ever act upon his obsession? Were Anne’s subsequent actions those of a child alternately neglected and spoiled, as contemporaries suggest, or might they have been the self-destructive behaviour of a sexual abuse victim?
When Anne was seven, her father remarried Barbara St. John who was an affectionate stepmother. Williams wrote to Selwyn, “I wish her indulgence may not, in the end, prove worse than a little wholesome reserve and moderate restraint.” Not long afterward, he complained to Selwyn of the child’s behaviour: “I told Nanny what you have brought for her, though by the by she does not deserve it, for, from the want of all restraint and contradiction, she grows so intolerably passionate, that I wish one time or other she does not hurt her sister.” In another letter, he wrote, “There is seldom a night she does not fight us all round. The very last night of all, she hit me a box of the ear, and told her good-natured stepmother not to be so impertinent as to trouble her head about her.” He concluded by predicting, “I fear she will be outdone before she knows she is to blame.”
After this, Williams’ letters to Selwyn grew less frequent. His last mention of Anne was in 1766, when he wrote, “Nanny is well and in beauty.” His last letter in 1770 contained no mention of the girl, who would have been thirteen. By that time Selwyn seemed to have taken a special interest in the young daughter of Lord and Lady Carlisle. Eight years later, Lady Anne was mentioned again in the Selwyn correspondence by his niece, Mary Townshend: "I am told of another intended marriage not upon so solid a foundation; Mr. E, Foley to Lady Anne Coventry. Except Lord Deerhurst (her brother) takes them on his establishment, I do not see how they are to subsist.” Miss Townshend’s brother Thomas also mentioned Lady Anne’s marriage with distinct disapproval: “You have heard, I suppose of Ned Foley's match with Lady Anne Coventry. The trustees settled the jointure; who settled the match, God knows.”
It was a far less brilliant match than Lady Betty Hamilton had made, and no more happy. Edward Foley, was the second son of a newly created baron. Though his family had a large fortune, Ned and his equally profligate brother seemed determined to spend and gamble it all away. Nine months after the wedding, The Annual Register for 1779 announced, “Rt Hon. Lady Anne Foley of a son.” The child must have died very young for sources indicate the couple had no family. “Within a few months of the wedding,” wrote Horace Bleakley, “the conduct of the lady had provided the scandalous chronicles with new material.” So numerous were Lady Anne’s lovers that it was rumored she sent the following note to General Fitzpatrick, "Dear Richard, I give you joy. I have just made you the father of a beautiful boy...P.S. This is not a circular.”
For several years Ned Foley seemed content to let his wife take as many lovers as she wished, until she began an affair with the Earl of Peterborough. By this time Foley may have run through Lady Anne’s jointure and possibly saw the wealthy peer as a chance to profit from his unsatisfactory marriage. Or perhaps he was looking to settle down and have children he could be tolerably certain he had sired. Foley brought charges of “criminal conversation” (the legal term for adulterous sex) against Lord Peterborough and won £2500 in damages – equal to over half a million US dollars in today’s money.
When Foley sought to divorce her, Lady Anne fought back. Her lawyer argued that “Lady Anne Foley had been guilty of infidelity with many persons before; that Mr. Foley knew it in some instances, and was cautioned against Lord Peterborough, yet that he kept him in his house when his lordship wished to go, and told him not to be vain of Lady Anne's favors, for that she shared them to all men alike; that he left him in the house alone with her for days.” Unfortunately, the court decided against her. Not only did Foley drag Anne through the humiliation of a divorce, where her infidelity was discussed in detail in both Houses of Parliament, he made further money by publishing all the salacious details in a pamphlet that is still in circulation!
Perhaps miffed at the amount of money the dalliance had cost him, Lord Peterborough had no intention of making an honest woman of Lady Anne once she was free. Besides, an earl did not need an infertile wife with a notorious reputation. The lady did not languish, however. Within two years she married Samuel Wright, a captain in the 15th Hussars, who was the son of a prosperous banker. The couple retired to his home in Nottinghamshire to live out the rest of their days in the peace that had long eluded her.