Words of comfort – Elizabeth Dryden’s correspondence
We often think of comfort in terms of physical ease or well-being – epitomised in the comfy chair; but it also has emotional aspects, both in terms of feeling comfortable (or uncomfortable) in a particular situation and seeking comfort in bereavement or at other times of stress. This complexity was perhaps even more evident in the early nineteenth century, a growing desire for physical comfort and convenience being layered onto a persistent need for emotional support.
Something of the complexity of the emotional aspects of comfort can be teased out from the correspondence of Elizabeth Dryden of Canons Ashby in Northamptonshire. Elizabeth was the widow of Sir John Turner Dryden, who died in 1797 leaving the estate with debts of £10,980 against an estate income of around £2500 per annum. This indebtedness shaped the rest of her life, and contributed to the poor relationship she had with her children. She complained of their ‘bad Tempers & bad dispositions’, although these were blamed on their father: ‘they are all complete Turners, which is saying enough’. She got on particularly badly with her second son, Henry, who inherited the estate at the death of his older brother in 1819, describing him as ‘extravagant & wrong headed’ and even a ‘Malignant Demon’.
Importantly, these troubled relationships were often described in terms of comfort. Elizabeth complained in 1812 that ‘I have little comfort in any of my family’ and, in a general tirade against her apparently malignant offspring written two years later, complained that ‘my daughter [Caroline] is indeed a nuisance to me instead of a comfort, so that I cannot be very pleasantly situated’.
For Elizabeth, then, neither home nor family offered comfort. Her real source of emotional support came from her correspondence, above all with her sister-in-law, Mrs Steele. Like many women, writing and receiving letters gave Elizabeth considerable pleasure. This came in many forms including the exchange of news about mutual friends, hopes for the future or memories of the past; the chance to bear one’s soul or vent one’s spleen to a trust confidant, and the opportunity to ask or offer favours. Elizabeth did all of these things in her letters to Mrs Steele and habitually expressed gratitude for those she received in reply, noting on one occasion in 1822 her ‘thanks for your kind letter, they always do me good’. The positive effect of letters was again clear when she informed Mrs Steele that ‘I have had a very comfortable letter from Caroline, repenting much and apologising’. The comfort described here came from the rapprochement that this signalled with her daughter who was suitably repentant for past misdemeanours.
The letters that Elizabeth Dryden valued for the comfort they brought were, of course, physical artefacts that might be treasured and preserved. Many people kept the letters that they received and a small number actively sought to assemble archives of correspondence, retrieving letters from their original recipients. But there is little sign that Elizabeth Dryden engaged in either of these practices – the letters that survive are those that she sent rather than the ones she received.
Such ambivalence spread to other objects. When appraising the goods at Canons Ashby in January 1817, she noted in a memorandum that ‘All the family writings which I have are in a long box bound with Hair with my Grandfathers initials, & is sometimes in the Brown Gallery & sometimes in the Storeroom, but ought to be in Sir Edward Dryden’s custody, as he has the greatest interest in them, not having myself any’. Although aware of their significance in constructing lineage, these were not things that held any emotional connection for Elizabeth – family, in this sense, appears to have mattered little. Significantly, the one set of items that appear to have held some special meaning for her were ‘Two small Cabinet Pictures purchased by my Uncle [which] are in good preservation & hang on each side of the best Cabinet in the Drawing Room’. Provenance, quality and location are all noted, but it is the link to her uncle (her adoptive father) that stands out.
For Elizabeth, this was a rare expression of personal attachment to material objects. She appears to have conceived her comfort mostly in terms of inter-personal relationships, and deployed the word in a manner that closely resembles long-established meanings of consolation and support. Comfort was thus linked to her emotional well-being, but in ways that were dependent upon how she felt about other members of her family and how she felt they were behaving towards her. In contrast, she appears to have invested relatively little emotional energy into specific material objects. This does not mean that comfort was entirely detached from the physical and material, but it does warn us against focusing too much on objects, be they practical or sentimental.
Manchester Metropolitan University