Sarah Jane Streatfeild (afterwards Cust, later Cockayne-Cust, 1821–67)
As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 18, 353–356.
The woman who impressed EBB with her “grace” and “intelligence” was born on 15 January 1821 at Gateshead Park, an oasis amid the coalfields and factories of Gateshead, co. Durham, south of the River Tyne across from Newcastle. The first-born of twin sisters, she was the third daughter and ninth child of Isaac Cookson (1776–1851), a wealthy glass and chemical manufacturer, and his wife Jane (1784–1869), only daughter and heiress of Edward Cooke of Togston, Northumberland. According to The Gentleman’s Magazine of June 1832, when Isaac’s father died in 1831, he left each of his children “a fortune of nearly £40,000” (p. 568). The next year Isaac purchased at auction the 2,070 acre estate of Meldon Park, near Morpeth, twenty miles northwest of Newcastle, for 56,900 guineas (close to £60,000). He ordered the old estate house torn down and built a grander one, which was completed in 1835.
At the Meldon parish church, four years later, on 12 September 1839, eighteen-year-old Sarah Jane Cookson married Sidney Robert Streatfeild (1808–51), of The Rocks, his family’s seat at Uckfield, Sussex. Isaac Cookson settled £7,000 on the young bride. Streatfeild was a major in the 52nd Light Infantry at the time of the marriage, but by 1844 he had become a director in the Northumberland and Durham District Banking Company. The Streatfeilds had five children: three sons and two daughters, most of whom were born at Jesmond, a northeastern suburb of Newcastle. The fifth child, Sara Marie (1850–1909), known as “Barley,” was born in Paris. Streatfeild was evidently not of robust health. One family reminiscence indicates that he was somewhat of an invalid. In 1850 he was diagnosed as diabetic, and the following year developed an abscess on one of his lungs, resulting in his death at Elswick, Newcastle, on 11 May 1851. Not long afterwards, Mrs. Streatfeild received further melancholy news: her father Isaac died at Munich on 8 October. In his will he made provisions for her and her children.
In the late spring of 1852, Mrs. Streatfeild became engaged to Henry Francis Cust (1819–84), later (1861) Cockayne-Cust, captain in the 8th Hussars. The occasion of their first meeting is recounted by their grandson in The Memoirs of Sir Ronald Storrs (1937): In the early 1840’s Henry “was returning to England on leave from India … broke his home journey in Spain, and elected to pay his first homage to the Alhambra by moonlight. After wandering awhile … he entered a courtyard and there met an English couple of the name of Streatfield [sic]. The lady … was tending her invalid husband. … Such, indeed, was her charm that there was henceforth no other wife for Henry Cust” (p. 3). Henry was the eldest son of Henry Cockayne Cust, Canon of Windsor, and his wife Lady Anna Maria, eldest daughter of the 1st Earl of Kilmorey. His uncle John Cust was the 2nd Baron and 1st Earl Brownlow. Sarah Jane and Henry were married on 5 August 1852 at his family seat, Cockayne Hatley, Bedfordshire. Curiously, the bride signed the marriage register as Sara without the “h” and evidently went by that Christian name from this time forward. The Custs lived first at Phoenix Park in Dublin where Henry had been serving various Lords-Lieutenant of Ireland as aide-de-camp since 1845. Not long before the marriage, he was made private secretary to the newly appointed Lord-Lieutenant, Lord Eglinton, a position that carried a salary of nine hundred pounds a year. Unfortunately, the conservative Lord Derby government, which had appointed Eglinton, fell in December 1852, though Henry was allowed to resume his previous post of aide-de-camp with the next appointee. The Custs remained in Dublin until 1854 when they relocated to Ellesmere House, Ellesmere, Shropshire, where Henry took over the management of the Bridgewater estate belonging to the 2nd Earl Brownlow. Sarah Jane and Henry had six children: four daughters and two sons. The last child, Adelbert Salusburg (1867–1927), succeeded as the 5th Baron Brownlow in 1921 on the death of his cousin, the 4th Baron and 3rd Earl Brownlow, the earldom becoming extinct at that time.
In December 1851, about six months before her engagement to Henry Cust was announced, Sarah Jane Streatfeild, some of her children, and her twin sister Mary Cuthbert were living in Paris at 28 Avenue des Champs Élysées. Sometime in the early part of the month, she was taken, at her own request, by EBB’s aunt Jane Hedley to meet the Brownings in their Champs Élysées apartment at 138. Mrs. Streatfeild and Aunt Jane knew each other through family connections. The latter’s sister-in-law, Ann Hedley, had married William Cuthbert, Isaac Cookson’s business partner, in 1812. Their son, also named William, married in 1840 Mrs. Streatfeild’s twin sister Mary. Additionally, Mrs. Streatfeild’s first cousin, Matilda Cookson, was the wife of Aunt Jane’s nephew (and EBB’s first cousin), Richard Butler (see letter 3019, note 1).
After this first meeting with Mrs. Streatfeild, EBB wrote that she liked her “face & manner“ (letter 2982). Three months later, writing to Arabella, EBB referred to Mrs. Streatfeild as “our friend” and continued: “a more graceful, winning creature, & fuller of intelligence, it would be hard to find … grace & high breeding are the great characteristics of face & person” (letter 3019). Two other characteristics that would have appealed to both Brownings were her liberal politics—EBB wondered how her friend would fare with her conservative husband (see letter 3053)—and her independent nature—in the same letter EBB wrote that Mrs. Streatfeild “is as wild as a bird, & wont sit upon everybody’s finger.”
That EBB took a strong liking to her new friend is further indicated in a letter to Henrietta: “Mrs. Streatfeild is charming—even fascinating .. one of the most graceful, elegant creatures the eyes ever looked at .. & good & intelligent & sympathetical besides. We see a great deal of her” (letter 3031). At some point during their time together in Paris, EBB presented Mrs. Streatfeild with copies of her Poems (Boston, 1850) and RB’s Poems (Boston, 1850). Each is inscribed: “With Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s affectionate regards … Paris, 1852” (see Reconstruction, C95 and C467, the latter is now with Meredith). RB was not immune to Mrs. Streatfeild’s charm. At the beginning of June she returned to England, leaving her youngest child Sara Marie, referred to at this time simply as “Baby” or “Baba,” in the care of Matilda Butler. Evidently, Mrs. Streatfeild had asked the Brownings to visit Sara Marie and report on her welfare. RB took it upon himself to look in on the child frequently, and EBB relayed his detailed findings. In another matter RB acted on Mrs. Streatfeild’s behalf. During her stay in Paris, she had leased a piano for her apartment. She had asked RB to settle the balance of the account, which he did gladly, only to find that she had been overcharged. With persistence he managed to extract “a steak from the jaws of the hyena” and recovered some of her money (letter 3056).
Curiously, EBB may never have seen Mrs. Streatfeild again after the spring of 1852; there is no documentation of their meeting after that time. And although EBB predicted in letter 3049 that they would have ample opportunity to meet in England during the summer, there is no evidence of their doing so. Mrs. Streatfeild may have been fully occupied preparing for her marriage to Henry Cust in August. After the event, EBB sent her best wishes and hoped Mrs. Cust would be “very, very happy” (letter 3089). But the marriage seems to have begun on a less than positive note. EBB told Henrietta that Mrs. Cust had “written six days after her marriage, but by no means in an ecstatical state” (letter 3092). A month later, EBB responded to Mrs. Cust’s last: “What is this letter of yours which I am so glad to get, and yet sad after reading, somehow” (letter 3115). On 11 October 1852, the day before the Brownings left England for Italy, EBB wrote feelingly to her friend: “I hold you, and so does Robert, in true affection & warm memory, and we never shall let you go from our tender thoughts, believe me. … Be happy Mrs. Cust, & go on & love me as much as you can. I love you” (letter 3136).
Despite such outpouring of emotion, the correspondence soon began to dwindle. Two and a half months went by before the next communication. EBB wrote without having heard from Mrs. Cust (letter 3154), after which the latter replied; then EBB failed to answer until April 1853 (ms at Pforzheimer). On 23 August 1853, EBB complained to Anna Jameson: “I am glad you saw Mrs. Cust who has not written to me for ever so long, & glad to hear that she is well enough & happy enough to be able to remember us if she liked .. which is something worth hearing. If you see her again give her our love & that bitter speech” (ms at Wellesley). EBB’s last recorded letter to Mrs. Cust was written on 24 October 1853, only seventeen months after the first: “I never received either of the letters you speak of, and I think you never could have received my last letter” (ms at Pforzheimer). EBB goes on to mention the “bitter message” she sent via Mrs. Jameson, “to the effect that I was ‘glad you were happy enough to be able to forget your friend.’ It was cross of me—but to have somebody you love called ‘pretty & happy’ just as she turns her back on you, is too much for natural patience, now is’nt it? I was cross, .. & Robert was cross to boot … and we both needed this kind welcome letter, accounting for the others not coming, and precious for itself.” Near the end of the Brownings’ London visit in October 1856, RB wrote to Mrs. Cust with regret that he and his wife had missed seeing her and added: “It would be a delight to hear from you,—as you know—I keep repeating!” (ms at ABL).
News of Mrs. Cust continued to be transmitted to the Brownings, either directly through letters that have not survived, or indirectly through mutual friends. The Pre-Raphaelite sculptor Thomas Woolner reported to RB at the beginning of 1857 that Mrs. Cust was having her hand cast for a sister going to India (5 January 1857, ms at Trinity). In September 1860, when Henrietta was desperately ill, EBB wrote to their brother George that Mrs. Cust was “kept in London for months” and implied that she was under the care of a physician “famous in these special disorders” (ms at Morgan). In March 1861 the Brownings were paid a visit by Lady Marian Cust (née Compton, 1817–88), Viscountess Alford, the widow of John Hume Cust (1812–51), Viscount Alford. The latter was a first cousin of Henry Cust, and presumably Lady Marian had news of the Brownings’ friend.
On the death of EBB in June 1861, Mrs. Cust sent a letter of condolence to RB. It is revealing that he responded with one of the few letters he wrote describing his wife’s last days: “I shall not take such a letter from you, take so much comfort from its affectionateness and love of her, and not try to say a word of thanks when my heart is full of them” (17 July 1861, ms at Pforzheimer).
After RB returned to London to settle, he saw Mrs. Cust occasionally. In a letter to Isa Blagden of 19 June 1862, he remarked that he sat next to his “old friend” at a dinner (ms at BL). About this time he presented her with a copy of EBB’s Last Poems, which he inscribed: “Mrs. Cust from R.B. London, June, 1862” (Reconstruction, C49). Writing to her on 23 February 1865, he accepts an invitation to visit her while she is staying in London and adds, “it is indeed vexatious that such distances both of time and space separate us” (Ernest Dressel North, book seller, New York, Catalogue of a Choice Collection, November 1906, p. 10).
On 14 September 1867, Sarah Jane Cust died at Ellesmere, presumably from giving birth to the Custs’ sixth child, Adelbert Salusbury. According to the death certificate, she died of asphyxiation stemming from “heart disease of six years.” Mrs. Cust was interred at Cockayne Hatley. RB read of her death in a newspaper while on holiday at Croisic, France, and wrote to her husband: “One cannot hope to be of the poorest service on such an occasion; but it seems natural to give some kind of witness to the existence of the feeling I have for the admirable and beloved friend that is lost” (22 September 1867, ms at Pforzheimer).
RB’s association with the Custs did not wholly end with Sarah Jane’s death. On 24 February 1868, Matthew Arnold invited him to dinner to meet among others Henry Cust and his step-daughter Sara Marie (“Barley”) Streatfeild (see ms at Leeds Univ). At the end of March 1872, RB began a week-long stay at the Lincolnshire seat of the 3rd Earl Brownlow, Adelbert Wellington Cust (1844–1921). A few years later, RB was invited to 51 Audley Street, the house of Barley Streatfeild, now Mrs. Charles Donaldson-Hudson. Although unable to accept, he wrote to Rhoda Broughton, who had made the invitation on Barley’s behalf: “Tell Mrs. Donaldson Hudson that I was asked to meet her at Locker’s, the other day, and that I was vexed with my whole heart at being unable to go. Do not tell her … that there is no one I more desire to know” (24 May 1876, ms at Cheshire). The last known communication between RB and Barley is his letter of 28 May 1879 in which he declined an invitation but offered to make “amends by a call some afternoon” (ms at ABL). The last known reference to any interaction between RB and the Custs is recorded by Enid Lady Layard in a journal entry dated 19 March 1887, where she mentions dining at Madame du Quaire’s in the company of the Matthew Arnolds, RB, and “Miss Violet Cust” (ms at BL). Violet Emily Cust (1858–1941) was the third daughter and child of Henry and Sarah Jane Cust.