Letters from Penelope Maitland to Charlotte West, 1787-1805

Primary Contributors:

Department of Special Collections, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford; Centre for Digital Scholarship, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford; and Cultures of Knowledge


Letters from Penelope Maitland to Mrs Charlotte West (née Perry), 1787–1805

Penelope Maitland (1730–1805) was the daughter of Colonel Martin Madan MP, an equerry to Prince Frederick, and Judith Cowper, aunt of William Cowper (1731–1800) the poet. In 1754 she married Sir Alexander Maitland (1728–1820), first Baronet, a general in the British Army, and a younger son of Charles Maitland, sixth Earl of Lauderdale. From 1749 Penelope Maitland formed an attachment to the Methodists and became acquainted with the Wesleys.

Her letters to Charlotte West (1769–1860) date from the last two decades of her long life. Maitland had known Charlotte West as a child in their home village of Totteridge, Hertfordshire. After completing her education in France at a Benedictine convent, West lived with her father, Sampson Perry, in London. In 1788 she eloped with Charles Augustus West, a page to George III, and they were married secretly at Gretna Green. A year later, the marriage was formalized at St Luke’s Church, Chelsea. Charles became an army officer and was serving in Egypt and then Flanders at the time of the letters.

Maitland also had family members at war. Her son, Lieutenant Colonel Augustus Maitland, was killed in action in the Low Countries in 1799. Another son, Frederick attained the rank of General. At the time of the letters, he was commanding marines at sea, and in 1796 he was appointed secretary to General Sir Ralph Abercromby and travelled with him to the West Indies, and then to Ireland and the Netherlands.

The Maitland letters provide an insight into the effects of the upheavals of the Revolutionary period on society, Maitland commenting on political and military events of the time, particularly when they affect her directly. She confesses to West her fears for the safety of her sons at war, struggling to square her strong belief in Providence with her personal anxieties. There are glimpses also of the activities of Charlotte West’s father, Sampson Perry. Perry was a sometime surgeon, author, military commander, and newspaper proprietor who at the time of these letters was waging war on the government through his radical newspaper, The Argus, which led to his conviction for libel. In 1792 he fled to France, only to be imprisoned by the Revolutionary regime. In 1794 he returned to England in disguise, but was arrested and sent to Newgate, an incident noted by a disapproving Maitland, who held conservative political views, in a letter of 2 April 1795.

Maitland’s letters chronicle family incidents, the illnesses of herself and her children, and the problem of living under the eye of a rather controlling husband in the family home in Totteridge. She refers to her spouse as ‘The General’, and sometimes to herself as the ‘Abbess’, and to her daughters as ‘the Nuns’, or ‘Vesta’ and ‘Vitula’.

The letters (ref. MSS. 6633) came to the Library in 2011, a very generous gift of mother and daughter, Pat and Charlotte Kinnear, descendants of Charlotte West. The value of this collection as a historical source is heightened by the survival of Maitland’s diary, which came to the Library with the Madan family papers in 1967 (MSS. Eng. misc. e. 642-3).

Mike Webb
Curator of Early Modern Archives and Manuscripts
Bodleian Libraries

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