The world of 'The Mistaken Wife'

Admiral Le Pelley

(Important in The Mistaken Wife)

Rear Admiral Georges-René Pléville Le Pelley (1726-1805) already had a distinguished military career when he was appointed Minister of the Navy and the Colonies in July 1797, having seen action in the war of the Austrian Succession, the Seven Years’ War, the American War of Independence, and the French Revolutionary War.  His tenure in ministerial office was marked by strict honesty and dedication to duty – rare qualities during the era of the notoriously corrupt Directory.  In April 1798 he was promoted to the rank of vice admiral but dismissed from office as a result of what turned out to be prescient criticism of the expedition to Egypt.  He commanded French naval forces in the Mediterranean for a short period, and then retired to Paris.  Le Pelley had an interesting relationship with England.  He lost his right leg in a battle with English privateers during the War of the Austrian Succession and twice suffered capture and imprisonment.  His treatment on both occasions was very moderate, however, and in 1770 he led the rescue of a British frigate that was in danger of foundering during a storm.  The lords of the Admiralty awarded him a valuable present and letter praising his conduct.  Further tangible proof of the respect with which Le Pelley was held came in 1780, when his son was captured and taken to England.  The Admiralty sent him back without requiring a prisoner-exchange, having authorised him to choose three fellow officers to accompany him.   


Catherine Hall

(Important in The Mistaken Wife)

St Catharine’s College, Cambridge was founded in 1473 by Robert Woodlark, the provost of neighbouring King’s College.  Named in honour of the patron saint of learning and scholarship, it was initially known as Katharine (and later Catherine) Hall.  The current name and spelling were adopted in 1860, and members of the College have become jealous of the second ‘a’ in Catharine, which inter alia distinguishes their institution from the much younger foundation at Oxford.  Lowther Yates, the Master whom Mary Finch did not meet when invited to the College to consult ancient manuscripts, held that post from 1779-1799.  His election was controversial and appears to have been the result of the Fellows’ wish to avoid an election by the Crown, which would have resulted if they could not resolve the matter themselves.  Their success on this occasion is rendered more noteworthy by the fact that, from 1790 the Fellowship was embroiled in a series of disputes involving vacancies and elections, some of which went on for nearly 20 years.  Yates was known for the humorous couplet, shouted from a window as he walked to the University Church in what was considered insufficiently formal dress: ‘Gadzoons, Gadzoons, Lowther Yates in pantaloons', so it is perhaps just as well that Mary did not make his acquaintance.


David and the Parisian art scene

(Important in The Mistaken Wife)

By 1797, the date of The Mistaken Wife, Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) had eschewed politics for art.  Already an important painter at the time of the Revolution, his activities during the Reign of Terror had led to incarceration when Robespierre was toppled.  Emerging from prison in 1795, David was invited to join the Institute of France, the successor to the French Royal Academy.  He had not enjoyed a tranquil relationship with the Academy, in part because he had chafed under its strict rules of instruction.  The Institute, however, did not have a pedagogical function – students would be guided solely by their mentors.  This suited David very well, as he was an extremely popular and devoted teacher, attracting students of all types and backgrounds.  The only tensions in his atelier were created by a group of radical students, known as the Primitifs or Penseurs who thought that David’s work had not gone far enough toward achieving a classical form.  In addition to their artistic theories, they were particularly notable for their physical non-conformity, adopting beards and dressing in classical tunics, oriental tunics, and sheepskin cloaks, as Mary observed when she visited David’s atelier.


Evan Nepean

(Important in The Mistaken Wife)

It has been suggested that Evan Nepean’s (1752-1822) period of service in the Royal Navy may have included intelligence work, which would account for his unusual appointment as under-secretary of state in the Home Office in 1782.  There he had responsibility for departmental funds paid to foreign agents and oversaw the programme to monitor suspect aliens and nationals in London.  He continued his intelligence work when he moved to the department of War and the Colonies in 1794 and then to the Admiralty in 1795.  In 1797 the king wanted Nepean to take a leading role in planning a secret invasion of Spanish settlements in South America.  In 1804 he became chief secretary to the lord lieutenant of Ireland, but the appointment was not a success and he returned to the Admiralty as a junior lord.  He left government service in 1806, but continued a member of Parliament until 1812; he had entered the legislature in 1796 but rarely spoke in the House.  His last official post was as governor of Bombay – an appointment with the East India Company.  Throughout his career he was known as a thoroughly efficient, capable man of business.


Lord Edward FitzGerald and Theobald Wolfe Tone

(Important in The Mistaken Wife)

Although they do not feature directly in The Mistaken Wife, Irish revolutionaries Lord Edward FitzGerald (1763-1798) and Theobald Wolfe Tone (1763-1798) might be said to make a ghostly appearances, via the career of Captain Flynn.  Flynn hints that he is in France to pursue matters hostile to Britain, and Wolfe Tone likewise went to France in 1796 to promote a French landing in Ireland.  Also like Flynn, Tone obtained a commission in the French army, although this did not prevent his conviction for treason when the British captured him in 1798.  Before coming to France, Flynn has served a period of exile in America, as Tone had done, and their observations about Philadelphia are similar.  Flynn’s earlier military experiences, however, echo those of Lord Edward FitzGerald.  Both men served in the southern theatre of the American War of Independence and saw action in the Carolinas as aides to Lord Rawdon.


Paris restaurants

(Important in The Mistaken Wife)

In the last quarter of the eighteenth century a new type of eating establishment emerged in France – the restaurant.  Previously, the public had to make do with taverns or caterers’ shops.  Caterers (traiteurs) sold cooked meats, ragouts, and pastries to take away, while taverns provided set meals at set times at set prices.  The innovation of the restaurant was vastly to expand choice.  Patrons could choose from a long menu of dishes, each of them individually priced and served at any time of day.  Thus the table d’hôte gave way to ordering à la carte.  When the Revolution broke up aristocratic households across France, many of the chefs fled to other parts of Europe, particularly England.  Some remained and became restaurateurs, however, and their expertise helped to elevate the range and quality of the food provided at these establishments.  Certainly English travellers were astounded by what was on offer.  Accounts of famous restaurants such as Beauvilliers and Robert’s mention menus the size of a newspaper requiring at least half an hour to study their contents, while the verdict on price and quality was generally very favourable.  The better Paris restaurants, too, were elegantly appointed and served a discriminating clientele.  The fact that women dined at these establishments also gave them a certain je ne sais quoi.  


Paris streets

(Important in The Mistaken Wife)

In addition to the usual problems created by the passage of time and urban renewal, readers might find it difficult to trace Mary’s steps in Paris because of the many changes of name that occurred during and after the Revolution.  For example, in 1797 the rue de Richelieu was known as the rue de la Loi (the name was changed back in 1808), and the Place Vendôme was the Place des Piques.  (Before the Revolution it had been called the place Louis-le-Grand; it became the place Vendôme in 1799.)  Mary would have known the Pont Royal as the Pont National, but if she returned in 1804 she would find it called the Pont des Tuileries; in 1814 it became the Pont Royal again.  (The present Pont National was built in 1852-3, but was known as the Pont Napoléon III until 1870).  Some names even changed more than once during the Revolution.  For example, the rue de l’École de Médecine (previously the rue des Cordeliers) became the rue Marat in 1793, but so swift was the late Marat’s fall from favour that the medical designation was resumed a year later.  Similarly, the Place des Vosges (originally the Place Royale) briefly became the Place des Fédérés before changing to the Place de l’Indivisibilité in 1793.  That designation also proved short-lived, but after changing to the Place des Vosges in 1800, it became the Place Royale again in 1815 and retained that name until 1870.



(Important in The Mistaken Wife)

By any measure, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (1754-1838) had an astonishing career.  The eldest son in an aristocratic family, his deformed foot disqualified him from the Army so he was intended for the Church.  He was ordained in 1779 and became bishop of Autun ten years later through family influence, although he regarded his vocation with considerable cynicism.  His extremist conduct during the first stage of the Revolution resulted in excommunication, while his secret royalist sympathies caused the National Convention to issue a warrant for his arrest.  Fortunately, he was in England on an unofficial commission when this happened.  He was expelled from Britain in 1794 and went to America, where he remained until the fall of Robespierre.  Then, through the intervention of friends, he succeeded in having his name removed from the émigré list and returned to France in 1796.  The following year he became Foreign Minister.  Having cultivated the friendship of Napoleon Bonaparte, Talleyrand was instrumental in the coup d’état that brought the general to power in 1799, securing his own position in the process.  (The sentence of excommunication was also lifted in 1802.)  He continued as Foreign Minister until 1807, and thereafter provided confidential information to Austria and Russia, with an eye to protecting France (and himself) in the event of Bonaparte’s death or defeat.  When the latter occurred in 1814, Talleyrand helped to restore the Bourbon monarchy and served as chief French negotiator at the Congress of Vienna.  Bonaparte’s return and second defeat undermined the settlement Talleyrand had helped to bring about, and he resigned in 1815.  For the next fifteen years he was out of office, but in 1830 he was appointed ambassador to the United Kingdom.  On his deathbed he received the last rites of the Catholic Church, and instructed his confessor to anoint the backs rather than the palms of his hands, stating, ‘Remember – I am a bishop.’


The American Envoys

(Important in The Mistaken Wife)

The appointment of John Marshall (1755-1835) to the three-man commission in 1797 demonstrates the strength of President Adams’ Federalist cabinet – Adams had hoped to include at least one member from the Republican party.  Marshall was particularly dismayed by the treatment the envoys received in Paris, and he returned to the United States in the spring of 1798.  The following year he was elected to the United States House of Representatives but served only fifteen months before being appointed Secretary of State.  In March 1801 he became chief justice of the United States Supreme Court, a post he held for thirty-four years.  During his tenure, decisions of the Court reinforced the national supremacy of the federal government vis-à-vis the states and also increased the Court’s power as a branch of federal government.  In particular, the decision in Marbury v. Madison established the Court’s power to declare invalid any act of Congress that conflicted with the U.S. Constitution.

Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (1746-1825) spent his youth in England and studied at Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford.  He was called to the bar in 1769, and then continued his education in France, including a period at the Royal Military College at Caen.  During the American Revolution he held a commission in the Continental Army, and endured a period of close confinement as a prisoner of war.  He played a significant role in the constitutional convention of 1787, and President Washington offered him various appointments – each of which he declined.  In 1796, however, he was appointed Minister to France.  A known Federalist, the French government declined to receive him because of his perceived pro-British sympathies. After the failure of the Franco-American negotiations, Pinckney returned to the United States, where he was twice an unsuccessful candidate for the vice-presidency.

The third member of the American delegation does not appear in The Mistaken Wife.  He was Elbridge Gerry (1744-1814).  While in Paris, he urged patience and compromise in an attempt to avert war.  His decision to remain in France after his colleagues had departed led to accusations of disloyalty by Federalist critics.  He did return in October 1798.  Gerry served two terms as governor of Massachusetts, but was defeated in 1812 over his support for a redistricting bill that created the term ‘gerrymander’.  He was elected vice-president under James Madison, and died in office.


The Republican Calendar

(Important in The Mistaken Wife)

On 5 October 1793 the French National Convention adopted a new calendar.  It was regarded as having begun on 22 September 1792 – the proclamation of the Republic – and so this became the first day of Year I.  Each year was further divided into 12 months, each comprising three décades of ten days.  Every tenth day, or décadi, was a day of rest.  In addition to being known by their respective numbers, each date was given a name relating to animals, plants, or agricultural tools.  New words were coined to designate the months, which evoked seasonal changes and agricultural practices.  The month of Vendémiaire, for example, was taken from the Latin, vindemia, or ‘grape harvest’; the month of Brumaire came from the French for ‘fog’ - brume.  There were a further five supplementary days at the end of the year, which were proclaimed holidays, and a sixth in leap years.  The new calendar was unpopular, both because it was complicated and unfamiliar, and because it provided for a longer working week.  In 1801 Napoleon Bonaparte negotiated a concordat with Pope Pius VII that included, among other things, a return to the Gregorian calendar.  This was not achieved, however, until 31 December 1805 (10 Nivôse, Year XIV).


The Semaphore Telegraph

(Important in The Mistaken Wife)

Claude Chappe developed the first modern system of optical telegraphy in 1793*.  After experimenting with synchronised pendulum clocks and sliding panel frames, Chappe and his brothers successfully tested a device consisting of a pivoting beam and arms, whose relative positions could designate signs for letters and numerals.  The National Assembly approved construction of a line from Paris to Lille, which was completed in the summer of 1794.  The famous watchmaker, Abraham-Louis Breguet, helped to design the pulley and gearing systems, and mathematician Gaspard Monge designed an improved code.  Stations were built approximately 10 km apart, often on a hill or utilising a church tower.  The speed of transmission varied according to the weather, but a message could be sent from Paris to Lille in approximately half an hour.  The system did not work at night; attempts to fasten lanterns to the pivoting arms proved unsuccessful.  To improve the security of transmissions, only certain stations decoded a message before passing it on.  Most were entrusted only with the control codes that preceded and followed the actual message.  In October 1794 construction of a second line, from Paris to Strasbourg, was approved, and by 1800 stations were spreading across the country.  Although hailed as a benefactor of France, Chappe endured chronic funding problems and criticism from adversaries, and he committed suicide in 1805.  His brothers continued to develop and expand the system, however, and by the end of the Napoleonic era France had 224 stations over one thousand miles of telegraph routes. With further improvements and expansions, Chappe’s semaphore continued in operation until 1853, when it was replaced by the electric telegraph.

*Lord George Murray’s shutter telegraph was inspired by reports of the Chappe semaphore.  Construction of the first line between London and Deal, with a branch to Sheerness, began in 1795.


The Woolwich Warren

Captain Robert Holland serves on the staff of the Royal Artillery regiment. The regimental headquarters was the Warren, the arsenal at Woolwich, which was then a village approximately nine miles from London.

Unlike the rest of the Army, the artillery was part of a separate branch of government – the Ordnance department – which bore responsibility for armaments and the men who employed them. It was fitting, therefore, that the arsenal should reflect both functions. Beginning with a purchase of some 30 acres by the Crown in 1671, the arsenal grew gradually to serve four related purposes: manufacture and storage of weaponry, research into new weapons and equipment, accommodation of the officers and men of the regiment, and practical instruction for artillery and engineer cadets.

The last, laudable aim of insuring that commissioned officers were competent in such subjects as mining, gunnery, sapping, and bridge-building sometimes had to give way to necessity. When the French war began in 1793, the demand for officers was so keen that the public passing-out exams were dispensed with in favour of an internal exam, and even this was stopped in 1795.

Captain Holland, of course, would have been subject to the more rigorous process of qualification.


(Important in The Mistaken Wife)

The walzer or waltz evolved in the middle of the eighteenth century, probably from peasant dances such as the Ländler and the Dreher.  Gliding, revolving dances for couples had been known earlier, both in the German and Austrian courts and among the common people, but these had not spread across continental Europe where the minuet held sway as the society dance par excellence.  Indeed, the solemn, increasingly formalised rituals of the minuet were recorded in dancing manuals and taught by professional dancing-masters to those wishing to succeed in society.  The English country-dance had already provided an antidote to the artificiality of the minuet when the waltz burst upon the scene, but the English ‘rounds’ and ‘longways’ dances were judged tame in comparison.  From its introduction in Vienna in the early 1790s, the waltz swiftly became very popular – in spite or perhaps because of its erotic associations.  Women, it was claimed, would become frenzied as a result of the whirling motion and close contact with their partner.  From Austria the waltz spread to France and England.  The Revolution had freed dance from the strict bonds of Old Regime society, and foreign visitors commented on how freely and frequently Frenchmen and women indulged in dancing during the Revolutionary period.  In England the waltz was accepted far more cautiously.  The true ‘waltz movement’ was not common in England until after 1812.  A description of the correct method of Waltzing, published in 1816, defended the dance against charges of immorality, but one doubts whether Mrs Tipton and her friends would have been convinced.

Wedding in the Temple Church

(Important in The Mistaken Wife)

Middle Temple and Inner Temple are two of the four ‘inns of court’ (the others are Lincoln’s Inn and Gray’s Inn) responsible for the training and regulation of English barristers.  While the other Inns probably began life as private residences, ‘The Temple’ had been the headquarters of the Knights Templar in England until the Order was dissolved in 1312.   The former Templar lands were given to the Knights Hospitaller, and they leased the Temple to groups of lawyers and judges.  The Temple Church remained in the possession of the Hospitallers until 1540, and when James I granted charters to the Honourable Society of the Middle Temple and the Honourable Society of the Inner Temple, respectively, their shared use of the church was also granted in perpetuity.  The Temple Church is a Peculiar, meaning that it is exempt from the bishop’s jurisdiction.  In most peculiars this exemption is relevant in respect of marriages, probate, and ecclesiastical discipline, but only the latter seems to have been exercised by the Templars or Hospitallers.  Marriages were celebrated in the church, however, from 1628 – often without the necessary formalities.  These ‘lawless’ marriages were prohibited in 1754 by Lord Hardwicke’s Act, which required either the publication of banns or a special licence from the archbishop of Canterbury.  The register records one marriage by special licence in 1755, another in 1760, and then none until 1865.  As Mary Finch’s marriage was founded upon a forged special licence, it is no wonder that no record of it remains.

White Ladies

The name of the Finch estate recalls the Cistercian monastic order, whose adherents were known as ‘White Monks’ and ‘White Ladies’ during the Middle Ages because of the colour of their habits.

Founded in 1198, the order stressed personal spirituality and an austere lifestyle, typically involving manual labour. The first English abbey was established in 1228. Female religious received little encouragement from the order, but ‘unofficial’ convents of women following Cistercian customs sprang up in England and Wales during the thirteenth century.

Although White Ladies is not modelled upon a particular establishment, its location on the Suffolk coast should come as no surprise. The Cistercians usually chose remote sites for their houses, and one of the few fully incorporated nunneries was actually founded at Marham, Norfolk in 1251. All monastic houses in England and Wales either surrendered to or were suppressed by the Crown during the sixteenth century, and many of them – like White Ladies – passed into private hands.