Lady Dufferin came to our attention when I was researching the connexions of astronomer and mathematician Mary Somerville (1780-1872) for electric voice theatre’s International Women’s Day zoom concert on March 8th 2022. I was interested to find how many important women scientists Somerville knew but also to discover in her circle of female friends many writers, poets and musicians.
So though Dufferin seems to have had no direct connection to science, she certainly spent time among some the greatest minds of the time.
Title: The Charming Woman
Scientist: MARY SOMERVILLE
Words by: Lady Dufferin
Written in: c. 1830
For: Voice & Piano
Performed by: Samantha Houston – Mezzo; Gwion Thomas – Baritone; Frances M Lynch – Piano
Published: as a single song by J. Dean in 1836, again in 1874 (possibly others) and as part of “Songs, Poems, & Verses. By Helen, Lady Dufferin … Edited with a memoir, and some account of the Sheridan family, by her son, the Marquess of Dufferin and Ava” published in 1894 by John Murray
First Performed: unknown but presumably by herself!
Lady Dufferin’s Son’s edition of her songs
The Charming Woman is described by her son in 1894 as a song which “when it first appeared, many years ago, was sung in the streets and theatres as well as in the drawing-rooms of London”
It was an incredibly popular comic ballad intended as a biting satire on society’s view of women as mere decoration with no quarter given to those with intellectual accomplishments. This of course echoes Somerville’s own situation at her first engagement and there are quite specific comments which reflect her fascination with Euclid with perhaps a swipe at her mother! However, that is just our reading of it – and the verses we’ve chosen to sing are those which emphasise these elements.
The words of the full song can be found along with the score for 17 of her songs on this link.
I have been unable to find any mention of her education so we must assume that this was carried out by her parents, Thomas Sheridan (1775–1817), actor and soldier and her mother Caroline Sheridan who was a novelist. She spent time as a small child with them at The Cape of Good Hope but after her father’s death they returned to England and stayed in a grace and favour apartment at Hampton Court Palace.
A songsheet for The Lament of the Irish Emigrant printed in New York says A Ballad – Poetry by the Hon. Mrs. Price Blackwood. The artist was William Sharp (1803-1875).
Her son said “She had a pure sweet voice.” It seems likely that she was always the first to sing her own songs.
“She sang delightfully, and herself composed many of the tunes to which both her published and her unpublished songs were set. She also wrote the music for some of Mrs Norton’s songs. Her ear for music was so good that if she went to an opera over night, you would be sure to hear her singing the principal airs in it the next morning.” The Marquis of Dufferin & Ava (her son)
Mrs Norton was her sister Caroline who was a celebrated writer and campaigner for women’s rights. English Heritage honoured her with a blue plaque at her home in Mayfair (2021).
Around 1833, the two sisters published a Set of ten Songs and two Duets they had worked on together, and after this Helen began to publish her own songs. Her most famous was The Irish Emigrant which is described by the author Catherine Jane Hamilton (1841–1935) as “the great favourite both in Ireland and in America,” It portrayed her concerns over the Irish Famine and its effects on the lives of ordinary people.
Helen’s Tower (Image by Ross on Wikimedia Commons)
She goes on to mention other popular songs “but the humour and fun of Katey’s Letter is irresistible, and The Bay of Dublin, Sweet Kilkenny Town, and Terence’s Farewell to Kathleen are always popular whenever they are heard….. Such ballads go straight to the heart, not only of the Irish people, but of humanity at large.”
Dufferin was known for poking fun at her contemporaries, as in her satire on lady travellers which her son tells us was fed by their trip on a yacht up the Nile “where she acquired the reminiscences which afterwards saw the light through the medium of the Honorable Impulsia Gushington’s virgin pen….” which were published as “Lispings from Low latitudes”.
Her play Finesse, or, A Busy Day in Messina, was very successfully produced at the Haymarket Theatre in London, but she herself did not attend.
Lady Dufferin’s life was infused with music, both as a composer and singer but also as someone who loved listening to music and opera, but she did not seem to think of herself as a musician, let alone one with important and publicly successful performances…. C.J. Hamilton tells us that “No thought of fame, no wish for it, ever seems to have crossed her mind.”
Clandeboye House (by Jonnyk84 on Wikimedia Commons)
DID YOU KNOW?
- Helen Blackwood was from the Irish family of Sheridans. Richard Sheridan, the playwright known for such works as “The School for Scandal” and “The Rivals” was her grandfather.
- Her first husband, Lord Dufferin, died suddenly in 1841 of an overdose of morphine which seems to have been an error made by the pharmacist making up the prescription. This marriage had been frowned upon initially by her husband’s family, but she eventually won them over.
- She married her second husband, Earl of Gifford in 1862 just 2 two months before he died of injuries acquired while trying to save his workmen from being crushed while removing large stones from beneath a wall. It seems he tried to hold up a large coping stone while they escaped resulting in his internal injuries, at first thought to have been mere strains. He had asked to marry Lady Dufferin, 14 years his senior, many times before but only received his longed for answer as a result of this event.
- Dufferin herself died of breast cancer at the age of 60 after enduring what was described as a barbaric operation to remove the tumour. “Thus went out of the world,” says Lord Dufferin, “one of the sweetest, most beautiful, most accomplished, wittiest, most loving, and lovable human beings that ever walked upon the earth.”
A portrait of Mary Somerville by James Rannie Swinton (The same artist as the main image on this page). Image from Somerville College, University of Oxford.
AN INSPIRING WOMAN
Mary Somerville gives a short account of Lady Dufferin during a visit to Rome with her sisters, which I quote from the Personal Recollections of Mary Somerville, compiled by her daughter Martha:
“There was much beauty at Rome at that time; no one who was there can have forgotten the beautiful and brilliant Sheridans. I recollect Lady Dufferin at the Easter ceremonies at St. Peter’s, in her widow’s cap, with a large black crape veil thrown over it, creating quite a sensation. With her exquisite features, oval face, and somewhat fantastical head-dress, anything more lovely could not be conceived; and the Roman people crowded round her in undisguised admiration of “labella monaca Inglese.” Her charm of manner and her brilliant conversation will never be forgotten by those who knew her.”
Helen’s Tower – built by her son in the grounds of her beloved Clandeboye inspired a great deal of poetry, including these words from Robert Browning (1812-1889):
Lady, to whom this Tower is consecrate!
Like hers, thy face once made all eyes elate,
Yet, unlike hers, was bless’d by every glance.