Book review: Defiance - The Life and Choices of Lady Anne Barnard, by Stephen Taylor

Defiance

Defiance

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The title of this biography of a woman at the heart of Georgian society hints at the source of its fascination. The choices she made, against the conventions of the time, caused her to be considered something of an eccentric, if an accomplished one. Today she is remembered for her travel writing and as the author of the Scottish song, The Ballad of Auld Robin Gray, but, as Stephen Taylor ably demonstrates, there is much more to her remarkable story than that.

With the benefit of hindsight, and her detailed autobiographical notes – six volumes written in old age for the benefit of her family rather than for publication – Lady Anne Barnard seems less of an oddity and more an astute woman in control of her own path. Taylor, the first writer to be given access to to these volumes, tells her incredible tale with a great deal of wit. The result is something of a true life Jane Austen novel, perhaps married with one of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman books.

Lady Anne Lindsay was born into the family of an impoverished Scottish aristocrat at Balcarres in Fife. Her father was the fifth earl, whose forebears had chosen the wrong – Jacobean – side of previous conflicts, and as a result the family’s wealth, land and power had been depleted. But Anne and her nine younger siblings had titles and breeding, and were expected to marry wealth.

After a bleak childhood, Anne was shipped off across the Forth to Edinburgh society, where she was found to be clever and spirited, brilliant in company and therefore judged likely to make an excellent wife. Thrust into the cradle of the Enlightenment, she sharpened her wits in the company of David Hume, Adam Smith, Walter Scott and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Dr Johnson and Boswell, while her mother lined up a series of suitors, among them the young and not so young, handsome and accomplished, rich and well connected.

Extracts from letters show the familial pressure she was under to make a good match, avoid the dreaded status of old maid and help her younger siblings as their elderly father ailed. She proved popular. As Taylor puts it: “Admirers were gathering like Highland stags.”

Yet Anne vacillated, Taylor believes through a desire not to cause offence, but Edinburgh society’s judgement of her dalliances branded her a coquette, with a great many lovers but none of them good enough. Wounded by scandal, Anne moved to the less straightlaced London where she seems to have decided to live up to her reputation. Here her acquaintances again read like a Who’s Who of Georgian society.

She became lifelong friends with the Prince of Wales and his illicit wife, Mrs Fitzherbert, taking off to revolutionary France with the latter and becoming embroiled in their scandalous marriage. She formed powerful alliances, notably with politicians such as Henry Dundas and the fabulously wealthy banker Richard Atkinson, who set her on the road to making her own fortune. Both men proposed, but like the other 20 suitors in her first 25 adult years, were rejected.

At the age of 42, however, having turned down some of the most illustrious men in the country, Anne surprised society and enraged her family by falling in love with and marrying Andrew Barnard, an obscure soldier 12 years her junior. The couple moved to the newly acquired colony of South Africa, where Anne wrote journals that would later be published.

Her time with Barnard, in a cottage called Paradise, was tragically short-lived, but Anne still had the power to raise society’s eyebrows in her later years, returning to London with an illegitimate child of her husband’s, born of a slave, as her protegé. As a novel, her tale might be thought far-fetched. As a biography, it is a brilliant insight in the life and times of a remarkably modern woman.

*Defiance - The Life and Choices of Lady Anne Barnard, by Stephen Taylor, Faber and Faber, 341pp, £20

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