The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 19. Lady Luxborough and the Literary Society at Barrels: Shenstone
It was no doubt as a refuge from domestic unhappiness that Lady Luxborough turned to literature and sought the friendship of lesser poets. Born about 1700, she was half-sister of Henry St. John, afterwards viscount Bolingbroke, to whom she was all her life devotedly attached. In 1727, she married Robert Knight, son of the cashier of the South Sea company, whom Horace Walpole contemptuously calls a “transport.” About nine years later, she was separated from her husband in consequence of some scandal which has never been verified. Horace Walpole, who disliked her and her friends, speaks of a “gallantry” in which Dalton, tutor to the son of Lady Hertford (afterwards duchess of Somerset) was concerned; but this is unlikely, for the friendship of the two ladies was unbroken, and Lady Hertford was a particularly upright and scrupulous person. Family tradition associates her rather with Somerville; but this, again, does not seem probable. Whatever the cause, Henrietta Knight was banished to Barrels in 1736, and never saw her husband (who became Lord Luxborough in 1746 and earl of Catherlough in 1763, seven years after her death) again.
At Barrels, she lived quietly, but made friends with her neighbours, and became the centre of a literary society which included Shenstone and Somerville, Graves, Jago and a number of Warwickshire clergy. She was the “Asteria” of their poems, which commemorated her love of letters, her library and her garden. Her letters to Shenstone were carefully preserved by him, and he described them as “written with abundant ease, Politeness, and Vivacity; in which she was scarce equalled by any woman of her time.” She, certainly, wrote with simplicity and charm about trivial things, such as her friends’ poetry and her own horticultural experiments—one of her letters contains a delightful defence of autumn; and, after the manner of ladies in society who have any knowledge of literature, she had an exaggerated appreciation of the literary achievements of her friends. Her adulation of Shenstone is so excessive that one almost begins to suspect her of a warmer feeling. The letters which he received from her between 1739 and 1756 were published by Dodsley in 1775, and three years later there appeared, under the editorship of Thomas Hull the actor, two more volumes of correspondence between them, with other letters from the duchess of Somerset, Miss Dolman Shenstone’s cousin), Thomas Percy (of the Reliques) who had himself connections with Warwickshire, Dodsley, Whistler and others. They discussed public affairs sparingly, though, in later years, they were all, through the Lytteltons, much interested in Pitt; they talked a great deal about gardens, and waterfalls, statues and urns; and they cast a favourable eye upon contemporary literature, admiring Thomson (whose Spring was dedicated to Lady Hertford), thinking very well of Gray’s Elegy, and being “highly entertained with the History of Sir Charles Grandison, which is so vastly above Pamela or Clarissa.” Though the authors were students of the greater letter-writers, of Mme. de Sévigné, Pope and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, their own interests were simple, only slightly tinged with the sentimental affectations of the shepherdesses and hermits with whom the poets played, genuinely delighting in out of door pleasures, but not averse from a good dinner and a glass of wine. They present a picture of English country life, in a literary circle, unsurpassed, if not unique, in its veracity and completeness. Hull’s collection goes down to 1775, and is concluded by some rather tedious reflections from a “Miss N—” upon Venice and the residences and manners of John, third duke (and thirty-first earl) of Atholl, a benevolent personage who drowned himself in the Tay in 1774.