October 31, 2016
A Blinn College history professor has been invited to Oxford University to present her research regarding a real-life “Pride & Prejudice” love story.
Dr. Diane Lovell will present “The Bisset Love Letters 1803-1828: A Significant New Primary Source in Regency History and the Reversal of Class and Gender Roles in a Real-Life ‘Pride & Prejudice’ Story” at the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies 46th Annual Conference in January.
While conducting research in the village of Sherborne, Gloucestershire, England in 2008, Lovell discovered more than 110 letters from Rev. George Bisset, Vicar of Malmesbury Abbey, to Lady Catherine Howard, the only daughter of the Earl of Suffolk and Berkshire. Ironically, at the time the letters were being written, Jane Austen was writing her most popular novel, “Pride & Prejudice,” with a plot that closely mirrored that of Bisset and Howard.
However, in the letters Lovell discovered, it was the woman who held wealth and status and the man who sought marriage above his station.
“The first 13 letters are the most heart-wrenching,” Lovell said. “The first letter that has survived is a letter from 1811 in which Mr. Bisset asks Lady Catherine for the second time to marry him.”
The Earl and Countess of Suffolk did not approve of Bisset’s marriage proposal, accusing him of seeking marriage with their daughter only for her wealth. Thus denied, Bisset sailed for Ceylon, where he served 9½ years as personal secretary and director of missions for Gen. Robert Brownrigg, the British governor of the island. Upon his return to England in 1820, Bisset learned of the Earl of Suffolk’s death. With her family opposition gone, Howard agreed to marry Bisset right away, concluding a 17-year courtship.
The letters not only provide fascinating details regarding perceptions of class, wealth, gender, courtship, marriage, anxiety, and foreign evangelism, but also provide a wealth of clues regarding daily life and travel in the era.
“There is a tremendous amount of interest in regency-era romance, largely because of Jane Austen, but this is also a fascinating true story in and of itself,” Lovell said.
Since discovering the letters, Lovell estimates she has spent more than 1,000 hours identifying the authors, placing the letters in chronological order, and annotating and researching the contents.
“I didn’t realize I was going to stumble upon enough research to keep me busy the rest of my life,” she said.
The British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies promotes the study of all aspects of the “long” 18th Century, and supports scholarship through awards, bursaries, and fellowships while acting as a point of contact for those interested in the history and culture of the period. For more information, visit www.bsecs.org.uk.