Henrietta Liston: One reader's response

Margaret Elphinstone

Margaret Elphinstone is the author of eight novels, including 'The sea road', 'Hy Brasil', 'Voyageurs', 'Light', and 'The gathering night'. She has also published poetry, short stories and literary criticism, and now tends mainly to write essays. She has spent her working life in various parts of Scotland including Shetland, Galloway, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Moray, and is Emeritus Professor in the Department of English Studies, University of Strathclyde. She lives in Galloway.

'We anchored in the Harbour of Newyork on the 1st of May, — in the Assistance, a fifty Gun ship Commanded by Comodore Monat — after a Passage of six weeks & two days — from Portsmouth.'

The year is 1796, and the writer is Henrietta Liston, the wife of Robert Liston, the new British Minister (not Ambassador: that would confirm independence too unequivocally) to the United States. Thus Henrietta begins her record of the new country in which she finds herself. She is a shrewd, enthusiastic and articulate observer of all that she sees.

Henrietta writes with the gusto of one to whom travel is still unexpected, and fascinating. In 1796 she was 44 years old, and for over 30 years she had lived with her uncle and aunt in Charlotte Street, Glasgow. Her letters home show that she had been quite 'entoureé' in the city.

She was close to her uncle by marriage, James Jackson, more so than to her ailing aunt. Her letters to him throughout her years abroad, range over her business interests at home, to enquiries after her aunt's failing health (it sounds as if she had dementia), Glasgow friends, news of family in Antigua, and lively descriptions of Henrietta's own travels.

James Jackson must have missed Henrietta's presence in his house. Probably both he and Henrietta were surprised by her quickly-organised marriage at such an advanced age. Henrietta had known Robert Liston for more than 10 years, and had observed his diplomatic career with the interest of a close friend. Recently back in Scotland after a posting in Constantinople, Robert proposed to Henrietta, perhaps because he needed an experienced, socially sophisticated wife for his new post in the United States, or perhaps because he thought Henrietta's companionship would enhance his solitary domestic life. Who knows?

For Henrietta, there was, among all the other changes, the prospect of a return to her roots.

Orphaned at eight, she'd been sent, with her brothers, from her birthplace in Antigua to live with her relations in Glasgow. The parting from her home would have been — as far as she knew at 12 years old — forever. Probably the cold and the lack of sunshine in the west of Scotland struck her as hard as it struck many later immigrants. Infrequent, long-delayed letters would have been the only sources of contact with Antigua.

The world was a bigger place. Distances were measured in weeks and months, travel was fraught with danger, and lives were often shorter. It's hard for us to imagine what it was like for Henrietta to know that after 33 years she might see her early home again.

Robert had chosen a wife who was a real asset to a diplomat who was forging a relationship with a country that had only ceased to be a colony 20 years earlier. Henrietta had to hold her own in society, dine with the President and other officials, as well as tackling spartan travels by land and sea, and bivouac uncomplainingly in filthy inns or even outhouses. She was more than equal to everything.

Her letters to her uncle reveal a relationship based on mutual respect and affection. Henrietta's first letter home, written from Moffat, on the road to London, reproaches her 'dear uncle' for addressing her as 'Mrs Liston', and not his usual 'Henny'.

One suspects that James Jackson had also encouraged the young Henrietta's pragmatic streak. As Postmaster of Glasgow for over 50 years, he was at home in the business community, and clearly encouraged Henrietta to look after herself. Perhaps he would not have done so if there had been a son or nephew — Henrietta was all he had — but who knows? Most unusually, Henrietta and Robert's marriage contract made her the sole proprietor of her own estate; from whom could she have learned to expect such autonomy, if not her uncle?

Henrietta tells her uncle how she's been sitting for her portrait in March 1796, while staying in a hotel in London's Pall Mall: 'Liston thinks it a good picture, but dislikes the expression of gravity in the countenance, this is not, however, the fault of the painter, and is really the expression my countenance wears when not animated in speech.'

I wish this painting were now available, but there are pictures of both Henrietta and Robert by Gilbert Stuart, painted in Philadelphia in 1800, at the end of the Listons' sojourn in America. In Stuart's likeness, Henrietta's direct gaze meets the viewer without artifice or apology. The artist has not pretended she is anything other than middle-aged. She looks friendly and intelligent, and there's more than a touch of humour in her eyes, which must have pleased Robert after his objection to the earlier portrait.

Henrietta looks like the woman who wrote the journals. She looks like someone I could talk to. I can't, because a couple of centuries stand in my way, but I can let her speak to me.

But this is speculation. We only have access to Henrietta's thoughts when we read her surviving letters and journals. Maybe she wrote prolifically before she left Glasgow on February 28 1796: after that date she writes with confidence and ease, like one accustomed to doing so.

The manuscripts written during her married life survive because they became part of the Liston archive. Robert Liston's public career ensured the preservation of his papers, relating as they do to significant historical events. Private writing, such as Henrietta's, only reaches the public domain by chance, or the discrimination of those who happen to inherit it. Posterity, in Henrietta's case, is in luck, because her journals and letters reached the public domain along with Robert's tailors' bills, expense accounts and bank statements, as well as his major political letters and documents.

The Liston archive, centred on Robert's political career, is an immense historical source, ranging from high politics to minute domestic detail. Henrietta's contributions are like jewels among the workaday uniforms of the archive. Her voice rings out from her faded, delicate manuscripts, collapsing time between writer and reader; she seems to be right next to us, vividly recounting what she sees and thinks.

Handling Henrietta's manuscripts brings her close. One can touch the very paper she wrote on, the very ink that flowed from her pen when it was fresh. One sees and feels where the story comes from. The ink in some of the letters from South Carolina is blurred and hard to read, because of the humidity of which Henrietta complains in her letter. Sometimes she describes the extreme circumstances in which she is writing, and one seems almost to be in that faraway place, with the very same letter in front of one.

Whereas the journals look outward to new places and new experiences, the letters, while describing the new scenes to those at home, naturally focus more upon family affairs and personal business.

In 1801, returning from the United States, Henrietta and Robert visit her brother and his wife in Antigua. The family have already been reunited in Philadelphia, when Nathaniel and his wife pay them an extended visit. In 1801 Nathaniel Marchant was suffering from an eye infection, and appeared to be going completely blind. In a letter of 2 February 1801, Henrietta is more upset than we're accustomed to find her, as her brother is extremely hurt that she hadn't told her uncle in Glasgow just how ill he had been: 'I had not mentioned to you his blindness (which lasted many months) as an excuse for his silence, though the inflammation was only in one eye the pain was so great that he never used either.'

There are other cousins and family friends to look after, particularly young men who embark on diplomatic careers under Robert Liston's aegis. Henrietta's letters show that, in spite of the difficulties of war and great distance, she is an active member of her extended home circle. She married too late to have children, and there is never the smallest hint of any feeling on this subject, but she was not without family responsibilities.

Henrietta's journals record the journeys she and Robert make across large tracts of the United States, and also the diplomatic meetings and friendships forged in the then capital city of Philadelphia, especially with President George Washington and his wife. Henrietta comments on the formality of political society, and the 'coldness of manners in most of the ladies'.

However, she is pleased to note that after the health of the President is drunk at a formal dinner, 'that of the King of Great Britain followed, and with more feeling than was necessary, to a mere compliment to his Minister.' Readers today may well be as surprised as Henrietta; the present is never as simple as retrospective narrative makes it out to be. These men were the victors of the Revolutionary War, and yet they drink a loyal toast to King George. Attitudes are more complex when one is part of a revolution than when one rationalises it centuries afterwards.

Henrietta writes of George Washington and his wife with affection as well as admiration. After their first meeting at a formal Levee, she writes characteristically of Mrs Washington, 'her figure though short & fat, is not without dignity, her face retains the marks of delicate beauty, and her voice is melody itself.' Washington, by contrast, is tall and well-proportioned, and although his general address is cold, 'to me he was affable and kind'.

The kindness on both sides developed into real friendship. Henrietta sits next to Washington at a public dinner, on the occasion of his retirement from public office. She joins the chorus of applause for his distinguished career as soldier and politician, but has an even higher accolade for Washington the private citizen: 'I now view him as he is in reality — honest, prudent and fortunate, &, wonderful to say, almost without ambition.'

A lengthy character sketch follows: Henrietta examines Washington, the man she has come to know and like, as forensically as she identifies different species of trees. Yes, he is nervous, hot-tempered, and taciturn, and his education has been 'confined', but he is also prudent, sound in judgement, and dignified in manner. As a private gentleman, he can concentrate on his large farm at Mount Vernon. Robert and Henrietta enjoy their repeated visits, as they find Washington, unsurprisingly, much more relaxed in private life, though Henrietta worries about his health. Her account of 29 November 1799 ends with a sentence that brings the modern reader up with a jolt: 'He has five hundred slaves.'

Henrietta's concern was not misplaced: on 18 December an express arrives with news of Washington's death. Henrietta doesn't allow her sorrow to blunt her perception. Visiting Mrs Washington, she remarks: 'Washington was more a respectful than a tender Husband certainly; — yet we found this excellent Woman grieving incessantly.'

As well as the human face of government, Henrietta's journals, and particularly her letters, express the personal anxieties behind political uncertainty. For 30 years, the Napoleonic Wars dominated European and North American politics. It's hard for a modern reader to take on board the permanent undercurrent of war and political unrest, in a world when violence was generally removed from civilian life in a way unimaginable in wartime today. But, as in Jane Austen's novels, or the Romantic poets, there are signs of turmoil and uncertainty, implied rather than explicit.

One has to remind oneself that for Henrietta, the six-week voyage from Portsmouth to New York meant exposure not only to sea and weather, but also to the French navy. Britain, in the 1790s, faced real possibility of invasion. Henrietta's letters home reflect that concern, as well as anxiety for family and friends in the army and navy. In a long letter home, written on 28 June 1797, Henrietta worries about danger at home, the mutiny in the Navy, and the suggestion that France will now declare war on the United States.

A more personal anxiety about the empty war-time exchequer is that Mr Liston hasn't been paid since he got to America — not even for his final six months in Constantinople.

Henrietta admits 'we will have to alter our mode of living' (which was pretty luxurious, for the diplomatic end had to be kept up) and that things are 'seriously wrong in England'. This is the nature of wartime — acute anxiety about the public situation, coupled with inevitable complications in managing one's own affairs. Henrietta's letter is a salutary reminder that, for those who live through events, there is no knowing how they will end, or who will live through them.

Meanwhile, in the United States, diplomatic life was interspersed with intrepid trips far into this new, and, to European eyes, wild country. Henrietta is a delightful companion at all times, but it is as a traveller that she comes into her own. Sharp-eyed, and occasionally sharp-tongued, she presents a portrait of a United States in the making, full of fascinating vignettes, and one that often startles the modern reader. She contradicts subsequent stereotypes and expected conclusions by what she actually witnesses in the present. She is often critical, but never complaining. Above all, she has the ability to carry the reader straight into a scene, so one feels one is experiencing it for oneself.

Travel wasn't easy. Even between New York, the principal trans-Atlantic port, and Philadelphia, the federal capital, the road was unreliable. In May 1796, Henrietta tells us 'the first five or six [miles] are what is called Causeway, — that is, large branches of trees laid across a Morass, & so thinly covered with Earth as to render the motion very hard for the Bones.' However, it was not all bad. If ever again I find myself stressed out at the international airport close by Henrietta's Morass, I shall think nostalgically of 'the pretty town of Newark'.

I, like Henrietta, have gone sightseeing at the strategic sites of the War of Independence: Trenton, Princeton, Washington Crossing. For her, the memory was immediate, part of the living memory of every adult she encountered. She was looking at a country still raw, not only in terms of battlefields and casualties, but also in terms of settlement. Henrietta frequently comments on the tree stumps still fresh among the farmland, everywhere except New England.

The biggest obstacle on the atrocious roads was water. The continental rivers, as yet unchannelled, could become impassable in an instant. Henrietta has to get used to small boats, dangerous ferries, rickety wooden bridges, fords under foaming spate, and on at least one occasion a near drowning. At the Hyco River, just one of the many river crossings coming north from Charleston, 'the Servant was then disired to ride forward; He no sooner proceeded than we saw the Horse begin to swim […] in the struggle the Horse threw him off, & we then percived, with inconceviable horror, that the poor Fellow could not swim …'

Luckily the poor man is swept up against a tree, and Mr Liston drags him ashore, and the only loss is 'his Hat and night cap'. Henrietta has meanwhile been 'left alone in the Creek, with four horses and one Postilion but my alarm had been so great for others, that I did not think of myself.' Once everyone is safely ashore, they find a small cottage two miles away, where they dry themselves and breakfast on the inevitable pork and cornbread, before setting out for the next river.

Henrietta faces epidemic with equal resilience. The Listons' tour of the Eastern States in September 1798 is dominated by the threat of yellow fever. Many people had fled Philadelphia even before their journey began, and Henrietta is well aware of the implications: 'The lower order of people are forcibly carried to an Hospital […] where their situation is so very wretched, that to escape this, they are often tempted to conceal their complaint until it is past cure.'

An idyllic tour of Long Island is overshadowed by reports of epidemic from Philadelphia and New York, and even a journey overland to Boston is no guarantee of safety. Henrietta, however, makes the uncomfortable journey with her usual spirit, enthusing over the beauty of the New England Fall. Nor, when they do encounter an infected traveller, does she put her own safety over the need to succour the patient: 'upon Mr Liston's assuring the Landlady (who appeared to me a humane good Woman,) that we were less apprehensive than most others […] we were allowed to enter.' The sick man died of yellow fever two days later.

Assuming I were fit, I reckon I could tackle the adventurous journeys and uncomfortable lodgings moderately well, but would I have this tough 18th century approach towards the life-threatening danger of infection? Today we have agencies like Médicins sans Frontiéres, and most Europeans regard them, rightly, as exceptional, but one learns a lot about Henrietta and her like, precisely by what they take for granted.

This is not the only instance when one realises that life for a European or American 'Lady' (to use the vocabulary of the time) was far less sheltered than we tend to think. Naturally Henrietta says nothing about how she had to tackle sanitation (I guess a privy would sometimes be a real luxury), keeping as warm and dry as possible, finding clean water and so on. Apart from these being private matters, why would she mention it? It is up to the modern reader to fill in the gaps of what is entirely taken for granted.

The lives of the settlers are far tougher than most of us would wish to endure today, but one cannot help mourning for the lost beauty of the small towns, the little farms, the groves of trees and flowery meadows. Henrietta is a knowledgeable botanist. After 1804, when she and Robert came home and built their house, Millburn Tower, near Edinburgh, they planted out a fine collection of North American species.

On her trip to South Carolina, in December 1797, Henrietta is delighted by the sub-tropical flora: 'the Swamps began to produce a beautiful variety of Evergreens, — the Bay the wild orange pruno Carolina the Water-Oak and other Shrubs. We sometimes seemed to drive, near half a mile, through a Green House, so charming appeared the Swamps on each side of us. But it was not til we reached Gerge-town that we saw the most noble and delightful of all Evergreens; — the live-Oak!'

On a trip to New England in 1798, Henrietta celebrates the famous Newton-Pippin apple of Long Island, but laments the absence of the magnolias and tulip trees of the south. She must be one of the first travellers to rave about the glories of the New England Fall: 'Trees, which were just beginning to assume that beautiful change of colour, produced by an American Autumn, & which, if justly delineated in painting, would, to a European eye appear fancy.'

Observations on human society elicit a more complex response from a modern reader. Henrietta spent her first 10 years on a plantation in Antigua. When she finally returns there, in January 1801, she is delighted to meet again the slaves she had known well as a child, and to find that they remember her affectionately.

Her adult life had been spent in a city made prosperous by the slave trade. Nothing in her background would have made her an abolitionist. She describes as a matter of course how new settlers in Carolina have a tolerable log-house 'surrounded by six or eight Negro Huts, a few Hogs, and a patch of Indian-Corn.' Other references are more derogatory; the slaves in Virginia are described as less stupid than those in Carolina, but just as impertinent.

One intriguing encounter makes one wonder more than usual what others thought about Henrietta. In November 1798, Robert and Henrietta set out on a beautiful morning to explore the countryside around Kingston, between New York and Philadelphia. They discover an unusual house, and walk round it, wondering if anyone lives there: 'the Sound of a voice however induced us to enter, — it was Sunday, — we found a Negro-Woman sitting in a very dirty room, reading aloud; — as we afterwards found, a Publication of Dr Preistley's.' The house is almost empty, full of a packing cases and some good furniture.

The woman explains civilly how the master of the house had lost all his money in dubious speculation, while overspending on his property. 'She had been thier Servant, & her black Husband managed their farm.' They were now awaiting re-possession. Sadly, there were four children now made destitute 'Owing their existence; (as the Black Lady, humourusly observed,) to the Idleness of thier Parents, for the Father, restrained by the Mother, from following his Profession; had nothing to do but get them.'

I'm intrigued by this little interlude. It reminds me of a scene in Eirik's saga, in which Gudrid, a 10th century Norse woman in Vinland, encounters a native American woman, and seems to recognise a reflection of herself — only she can't see it, because the woman of different race simply cannot, in her world view, be any kind of sister. The black woman, quietly reading an improving text amid chaos, and making an ironic comment on the situation, seems remarkably like Henrietta. Henrietta seems to almost recognise this, and yet she can't make the connection. Living inside the ideology of her time, it is simply not a possibility.

Similarly, Henrietta's descriptions of Native American settlements are, naturally, those of a woman of her time and situation. Near Camden, Virginia, she and Robert visit 'the remains of the Catawba — whose number is now reduced to three hundred, &anp; their territory to fifteen miles square.'

Henrietta remarks that the Indians, forced to settle among 'their natural enemies, — the Whites, — are obliged […] to adopt their customs and their Vices.' This seems perspicacious, but the subsequent description is quite without irony in its assumption of natural superiority. The chief's wife is 'Savage', 'squalid', 'nasty', 'almost naked'. An 'Ideot' by the fire 'in form and posture a large Ape', is a 'shocking spectacle'. The children, however, 'would be extremely pretty, if they were not often disfigured by Nose jewels'. Henrietta asks what is cooking in the big pot, and is told, deer flesh, but she seems to think it impolite that none is offered to the uninvited guests.

This is one of several similar accounts of native peoples encountered by Henrietta, ranging from the Carolinas to Upper Canada. Should the 21st century reader, according to their own provenance, feel affronted or embarrassed? I suggest that we should in the first place listen to Henrietta, a lucid, honest voice speaking to us from another time, and telling us precisely what she saw.

What she saw, is, of course, highly subjective. Some of the other people present would have seen things quite differently, and if we could hear their stories, they might sound like witnesses to another incident altogether. Henrietta's view, like anyone else's, is shaped by her origins, and the ideology of her time. We can spot distortions with all the acumen of hindsight, but that doesn't put the modern reader on any kind of moral high ground. Views like Henrietta's shaped the world in which we now live; we need to listen to her in order to understand ourselves.

Besides, Henrietta's point of view shifts with time and circumstances. By the time she travels to Quebec and Lower Canada in 1800, her attitude to difference seems more relaxed. On the Plains of Abraham she meets a mixed race child, and is amused by the girl's reply to her enquiry: 'Ma Mére est sauvage et mon Pére est François.'

The Indians at the Catholic Seminary in St Anne's, near Montreal, 'made a most respectable appearance', and the Chief makes a fine speech: 'His delivery was more rapid than I expected to find it, — but the pauses in his discourse were graceful, & his look at gestures dignified.' The dances that follows, in spite of the dancers being 'nearly naked' is 'graceful', although the 'Warwhoops, introduced in some of thier National dances, were truly horrid.' The Liston party leave early, but hear afterwards that the tribe carried on dancing all night.

Equally caustic are Henrietta's remarks on some of the European settlers she encounters in her travels. However, she praises American hospitality, especially the custom in the south of taking in unexpected visitors, since there are almost no inns along the road. The journals are studded with vignettes of American interiors, ranging from the neo-classical houses of the big southern plantations, to hovels and log cabins.

The company is equally varied. Leaving Halifax, South Carolina, Henrietta's party have to lodge in a ruinous inn, where 'one of the Group around the fire appearing intoxicated, & seeming disposed to amuse himself with a Pistol, I took the Daughter of the House aside, & declared our readiness to be contented with any place, in order to Sleep in a separate Apartment from these Men.' The Listons end up in an outhouse, open to the snow, and are glad of the ‘Edda Down Green silk Bed cover with which we travelled.' Whatever happens, Henrietta is never at a loss.

My personal highlight was her account of her travels to Lower Canada in 1800. For me, she was traversing familiar territory. I had made the same journey in December 1811 (sort of) and February 2001 (in reality). If Henrietta's archive had been available to me 15 years ago, it would have been a wonderful resource as I wrote my novel 'Voyageurs'. As it is, I found her journey full of recognisable landmarks.

The voyage by bateau up the St Lawrence, past the neat French farms bordering the river 'and the French Peasants labouring in red-night-caps', the singing of the French boatmen by moonlight, the search for the spot on the Plains of Abraham 'where the brave Wolf fell', the overland journey to Montreal: all this was so familiar to me I quite felt I was there with her.

The ubiquity of convents and monasteries in French Canada, and the vital hospitality that they offered to travellers, was news to me. If I'd known, my fictional character Mark would have stayed in one of these lodgings! Henrietta travels from Quebec to Montreal overland, and arrives at St Anne's, at the mouth of the Ottawa River. There her party embark in a voyageur birch bark canoe, and go through the rapids at La Chine to the accompaniment of voyageur songs.

I imagine Henrietta amidships in the canoe, very much in the style of Frances Anne Hopkins, who, 70 years later, travelled by voyageur canoe with her fur trader husband. Hopkins always puts herself in her paintings; looking at her in these self-portraits — trim, practical yet stylish, and very much mistress of her situation among les voyageurs — one can easily imagine Henrietta in her place.

In Montreal Henrietta and Robert Liston meet officials of the North West Company. She refers to Alexander Mackenzie, the first European explorer to reach the Pacific overland, to Mr McGillivray and Mr McTavish of the North West Company — I exclaimed (probably out loud): 'But I know these people.' And so I do, from my own researches, but it's a testament to Henrietta's power of drawing the reader into her world, even across centuries, that I had the oddest sensation of dejá vu, and just one degree of separation.

That's a very personal response to the journal of Lower Canada, but I think it encapsulates a quality of Henrietta's writing. If she ever imagined putative readers two centuries hence, she couldn't possibly have known, in our idiom, 'where we were coming from'. And of course we all come from different places. Those who know the places she describes will feel both a link, and also a gulf, between Henrietta's world and our own. Those who don't know any of the places will find Henrietta an excellent guide to unfamiliar territory, to such an extent that 21st century reality may then come as a shock.

Reading Henrietta's letters and journals allows the reader to dwell briefly in a world where individuals had to be pretty tough to meet the challenges of daily life, the threat of epidemic, the dangers of travel, and the constant bass note of war in the background. At the same time one cannot but feel regret at the lost beauty, the flora and fauna, the neat towns and family farms, the presence of true wilderness never far away. Attitudes to other races and other cultures may make us want to distance ourselves; but Henrietta is an intelligent guide to where our society came from, and that's a thing worth knowing. Above all, she knows how to tell a story, and live one too.

The wonderful thing about primary sources is that they are untroubled by the equivocal wisdom of hindsight. Henrietta is right there on the scene. Her journals and letters not only show us what the country was like, they express Henrietta's own reaction to what she found. The present is always so much more complicated than the past. One has to actually live in it, moment by moment, and make decisions about how to cope with it. Events have not yet been rationalised by historical theories or political correctness.

One is reminded that people living in their own present don't know what is going to happen next, nor if they are going to live through it. That might make them seem, to later readers, unduly concerned with their own comfort, or even their own survival — just like us, really. People don't notice the current ideology which they inhabit: to them, living right inside it, it just seems normal. People from the past may not seem to us to ask the right questions, or be as shocked as they should be by the ordinariness of their daily lives.

Primary sources challenge the prejudices and assumptions of hindsight. It's like opening a window and finding yourself breathing different air, smelling other smells and hearing other voices, unfiltered by the distorting glass of later narratives.

Long reads