William Cornwallis Cartwright

William Cornwallis Cartwright (1825–1915)

As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 28, 341–349.

A tangible measure of the stature William Cornwallis Cartwright achieved during his lifetime as a journalist and Member of Parliament is evident, in a palpably visual way, in the caricature of him produced by the noted portrait artist Sir Leslie Ward (known professionally as “Spy”) and published in Vanity Fair magazine on 19 July 1884. Appearing toward the end of Cartwright’s seventeen-year tenure as a Liberal Member of the House of Commons, the full-length profile pictures a dapper, bespectacled man of consequence decked out smartly in a three-piece suit with a top hat perched jauntily atop his head; a sheaf of papers is crooked casually by his side; a bit of a scowl creases his heavily bearded face.

A well-bred country squire from the village of Aynho (formerly spelt Aynhoe) in Northamptonshire, Cartwright was a frequent visitor to the Continent during much of his lifetime. An outspoken champion of the Italian unification movement known as the Risorgimento, he established friendships in the British expatriate community at Rome that included the Brownings and their circle of intimates, Frederic Leighton, Arthur Russell, Odo Russell, Lady William Russell, Edward Sartoris, Adelaide Sartoris, and Mary (“May”) Sartoris principally among them. There are no records to document when or how Cartwright was introduced to RB, though the likelihood is late 1855 or early 1856 at Paris, by way of Leighton or Mrs. Sartoris. The Cartwrights and Brownings were living near each other in the 8th arrondissement at that time. In letter 3768, EBB refers to Cartwright as “our all but next door neighbour.” Whenever it was they met, their relationship quickly blossomed into one of mutual respect and admiration that endured for the remainder of their lives.

Writing to her sister Arabella from Paris in February 1856 (letter 3738), EBB made several passing references to a “Mr. Cartwright” with a matter-of-factness that suggests familiarity. In May, RB’s friendship with Cartwright was secure enough that he introduced him in a note to Dante Gabriel Rossetti (letter 3790). On 29 August 1856, RB informed Cartwright that he had asked John Chapman, owner and editor of The Westminster Review, about the status of an essay his new friend had submitted for possible publication. “If I read the purposes in his face and guarded speech rightly, the Article will appear,” RB wrote reassuringly (letter 3850). The subject of Cartwright’s article is not mentioned, and there is no record of anything attributed to him being published in the journal until the April 1859 issue. Between 1858 and 1861, when the Brownings were in Rome for extended periods on three separate occasions, RB and Cartwright spent considerable time in each other’s company, meeting for dinner often, and making periodic excursions together.

On 5 April 1859, after the fall of the Conservative government in England, RB wrote effusively on Cartwright’s behalf to the Rev. W. J. Fox, the influential political orator and Liberal Member of Parliament, declaring that his friend could provide a fresh voice for the new leadership then being assembled:

    The Liberals may get a ripe scholar, a thoroughly liberal & honest man, &,—what hurts nothing,—a true gentleman to boot … Cartwright has written many articles—or some articles—in the “Westminster,” “Times” & other publications—one, in the latter, on “Macchiavelli,” you may have noticed .. this is just to apprize you that he “writes” (letter 4378).

Though his central friendship with the Brownings was RB, Cartwright occasionally called on EBB too, regaling her with inside political insights, displaying a degree of sophistication that would prompt William Gladstone to call him the “‘longest head in Europe’ when it came to foreign affairs,” views that EBB welcomed, even when they differed from her own (Elizabeth Cartwright-Hignett, Lili at Aynhoe: Victorian Life in an English Country House, 1989, p. 125). Writing from Florence to Anna Brownell Jameson in October 1859, EBB took pointed issue with Cartwright’s opinion of Napoleon III, which she asserted characterized the French emperor as being not quite the “antichrist,” but “assuredly the devil,” adding further that “I dont like his modes of political thinking which are ‘after the strictest sect’ and the reddest tape, English” (letter 4506). Bringing Isa Blagden up to date with the latest gossip five months later, EBB elaborated on the matter, noting that France “had resolved on maintaining a central independent kingdom,—on giving up annexation. I am perfectly incredulous, of course. Mr. Cartwright believed it implicitly however, as he does everything against France. If he could prove Napoleon to be the Devil, he would be happy for life, that man” (letter 4616). This was a minor quibble in an otherwise warm friendship, however, as EBB made clear in another letter to Isa not long thereafter. “Dont say anything tart about Mr. Cartwright,” she cautioned on 25 March 1860, “we love him– He is very kind, very amiable, very fond of Robert (a reciprocal liking, mind)” (letter 4628).

While in Rome, on 10 January 1860, Cartwright resumed keeping a personal journal (ms at Northamptonshire), [1] determined, he declared, to take note of “such occurrences, conversations & acquaintances as I may encounter which might some day be interesting to remember in reference to historical events” (see SD2319 in vol. 27), a routine he would follow faithfully, with a few notable omissions, through 1912. In the first entry, he recorded a drive made the previous day “with Mrs Story, Browning & Arthur Russell to the Roman tombs & Basilica of St Stephen on the Via Latina”(SD2319). Six days later, he wrote that “Browning gave me the pleasure of expressing a few & able opinions on my article on Italy in this number of the Westminster” [2] (see SD2326 in vol. 27). Numerous social events with RB in attendance are indicated in the weeks that follow, with the final three entries for the year—2, 6, and 11 December—reporting dinners with RB in attendance at each; clearly, the two men were moving fluidly in each other’s social milieu.

If Cartwright kept a journal over the next three and a half years, it has not survived, depriving us of whatever comments he might have made on the death of EBB in June 1861. The first mention of RB in the next extant journal comes on 27 October 1864, and it is a significant one, dealing with his discovery in a Naples private library of a written account of the trial and execution in 1698 of Count Guido Franceschini for the murder of his wife. He notes of already knowing that RB was “engaged on a poem on the subject,” and was thus determined “to communicate this to him,” going so far as to write “Browning” in the left margin of his journal as a reminder to himself (ms at Northamptonshire). The 21,000-line verse-novel then in progress, to be called The Ring and the Book, would be released by Smith, Elder & Co. in four volumes, 1868–69.

William Cornwallis Cartwright was born on 30 November 1825 in Munich, the son of Sir Thomas Cartwright (1795–1850), a British diplomat, and his Bavarian wife, Maria Elisabeth (“Lili”) (née von Sandizell, 1805–1902), the daughter of Cajetan Peter Max, Count von Sandizell. Called “Willy” from an early age, William had one sibling, a brother, Thomas (1830–1921). He spent his early years living in various locales as his father’s foreign postings changed, becoming fluent in four languages in the process. Because Cartwright was a sickly child through much of his youth, his parents fretted constantly over him, relying on private tutors for his education; fragile health continued into his teens, and would prompt them to abandon plans of sending him to Balliol College, Oxford.

Cartwright was descended from a family of squires rooted since the early 17th century in the small Northamptonshire village of Aynho. The family seat, Aynhoe Park, had been acquired in 1615 by Richard Cartwright (ca. 1564–1637), a prominent barrister, and remained in the Cartwright family until 1960, when it was sold to private interests. Aside from a modest entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, very little has been published about William Cornwallis Cartwright, though extensive family records offer a good deal of biographical information. He is discussed in some detail too by Elizabeth Cartwright-Hignett, the great-great-granddaughter of Lili Cartwright, in Lili at Aynhoe, which draws copiously from a diary the family matriarch kept, and reproduces numerous watercolors and sketches she made of the manor house, its furnishings, and the surrounding gardens. Many of the biographical facts for this profile of William Cartwright are taken from her account.

As the daughter of a Bavarian nobleman, Lili had moved freely in court circles, meeting her future husband when he was Secretary to the English Legation at Munich. They were married at Augsburg in 1824; William was born the following year. He first visited England in 1828 when he was three years old, and returned periodically in the years ahead before inheriting Aynhoe Park in 1850 upon the death of his father. Ms. Cartwright-Hignett describes William’s early relationship with his parents:

By 1844, both Lili and Sir Thomas had developed an anxious relationship with Willy, who was nineteen. He was frequently ill and seems to have been accident-prone. His ailments and probably hypochondria surfaced whenever he was faced with a situation he did not wish to encounter. He was also highly intelligent, romantic and disinclined to do any work unless it interested him. Like his brother Tommy, he had spent nearly all his boyhood abroad and seems to have had little interest in England at that time, which lent urgency to his parents’ wish for them all to visit Aynhoe again. They seem to have had a more relaxed relationship with Tommy, now fourteen, who had always been much easier to deal with. This pattern continued during much of their later lives, with Tommy behaving conventionally and Willy having a stormy but more interesting life and invariably upsetting his mother (Lili at Aynhoe, pp. 57–58).

In the absence of a university education, and with Willy’s delicate health in mind, it was agreed that he would benefit from travel abroad, particularly in warmer regions, prompting an admission of anxiety on the part of Lili in her diary:

Cart. [her husband] is acting in this affair [Willy’s travel plans] after having the advice of the doctor and he himself is quite ready to send Willy to Italy and Willy is even more ready to follow his counsel joyfully; he much prefers Italy to England which upsets me very much and makes me very concerned for his future. He will spend his life in idleness, without aim, without profession, and this lack of occupation will throw him into dangerous company, and will lead him into habits which will spoil him for the rest of his life. Willy’s future is a subject of great concern to me, and I tremble to think of it (Lili at Aynhoe, p. 72).

Cartwright departed England for the Continent in 1846 only to return the following year after the death of his grandfather, William Ralph Cartwright, who left Aynhoe Park—and its enormous debt—to Willy’s father. The financial situation was made worse by Sir Thomas’s own lack of prudence, and the fact that he spent considerable time away from the estate in Stockholm, where he continued on as British Minister to Sweden. William resumed his travels as well, “roaming about Europe with little notion of the financial problems besetting his parents, and more interested in the political and revolutionary movements in all the countries he visited” (Lili at Aynhoe, p. 124).

It was during these travels that Willy met Caroline Charlotte Clementine Gaul (1822–1890), whom he married in Breslau early in 1849, the precise date not known. Clementine, or “Clem,” as she was called, was the natural daughter of John Gaul, aide-de-camp of Grand Duke Constantine, and Charlotte, a daughter of the Remorsky family, which had been exiled from Poland. At the time of their marriage, Clementine was pregnant, seemingly with another man’s child; her daughter, Wanda—whom William warmly accepted without reservation as his own—was born on 22 June 1849 in Paris. With the death of Sir Thomas Cartwright in 1850, Aynhoe Park passed on to William, along with the accrued debt, which he was determined to pay off, forcing him to let out the manor house over the next three decades, living for much of that time in Rome. Despite the absence of a university education, Cartwright established a reputation as “something of an intellectual” (Lili at Aynhoe, p. 125). His frequent travels gave him added credibility as an authority on foreign affairs, leading to prominence as an occasional correspondent for The Times and as the author of several books and articles on the Risorgimento. These activities brought him in contact with the leading British artists and intellectuals of the day, not least among them the Brownings and Frederic Leighton.

Lacking documentary evidence of their marriage, William and Clementine remarried in Cairo in 1850. Requiring further validity in England, the couple exchanged vows for a third time, on 1 June 1853, at the parish church of St. Dunstan’s West in the City of London. Together, the couple had four more children, three boys and a girl, one of whom died in infancy: Thomas Barclay (1856–96); Fairfax Leighton (1857–1928); Arthur Frederick (10 February–24 March 1865); and Adelaide Frances Roma (1859–1907). In 1868, Cartwright became the Liberal Member of Parliament for Oxfordshire, a position he held through 1885, using one of the cottages on the family estate as his putative residence. An inheritance he would receive in 1881 from Fairfax William Cartwright, a cousin, enabled him to pay off the outstanding debt he had assumed from his father’s estate, freeing him, finally, to establish a permanent residence in Aynhoe Park. He died there on 8 November 1915, twenty-five years after the death of Clementine; both are buried in the churchyard adjacent to the manor house.

Living mainly in Rome during his years on the Continent, Cartwright was a fervent champion of Italian unification. His contacts among the Roman clergy and political liberals gave him access to information he shared with Odo Russell, Britain’s political agent in Rome from 1858 to 1870; in 1866, he accompanied William Gladstone during most of the future prime minister’s fact-finding trip to Italy. Around the time Cartwright met the Brownings, he had already begun writing reviews for several periodicals, producing material he would draw on for use in three books: On Papal Conclaves (Edinburgh, 1868); Gustave Bergenroth: A Memorial Sketch (Edinburgh, 1870), and The Jesuits: Their Constitution and Teaching (London, 1876). His most influential journalism appeared in The Times during the early part of the First Vatican Council (1869–70). He also wrote for The Spectator and The Pall Mall Gazette.

One of the more unfortunate realities of the Brownings’ correspondence with William Cornwallis Cartwright is that only one side of the exchanges—RB to Cartwright—has turned up to date, thirty-three letters in all, embracing thirty-three years, 29 August 1856 (ms at Northamptonshire) to 15 June 1889 (ms at ABL). A good number of these are little more than perfunctory acceptances of invitations to dinner or regrets at being unable to attend a get-together. RB’s note of 14 June 1877 cites a prior obligation with the Archbishop of York, adding that he “can only wish I could dine with you, as I do wish with all my heart” (ms at ABL). An acceptance to dine a year and a half later on behalf of “all of us”—presumably RB, his sister Sarianna, and his son Pen—is tendered with enthusiasm, and the expectation that “old times will be returned” (24 December 1878, ms at Northamptonshire).

Of more substantive interest—though again, just as teasingly one-sided—is a letter involving the document on the Franceschini matter that Cartwright had run across in Naples in October 1864. He is believed to have discussed what he saw in the private library of Augustus Craven, the natural son of the author and traveler Keppel Richard Craven, with RB on 17 May 1865 at Warwick Crescent, a day after arriving in England. Writing to Cartwright the next day, RB offered some added thoughts on what the manuscript account “which you mention” might possibly contain, furnishing the first few lines of a text in Italian in his possession—presumably from the fabled “Old Yellow Book” that was his principal source for The Ring and the Book—for comparison. “Should it be another account, the loan of it would oblige me exceedingly,” he concluded, otherwise “it will be unnecessary to trouble Mr Craven” (ms at ABL).

A follow-up letter to Cartwright a few days later contains what RB called a “memorandum” outlining in even greater detail the central elements of the Franceschini affair, as he understood it, and identifying multiple areas in which he sought amplification. “I should be glad of any scrap of information respecting the principals,” he stressed, particularly anything that might bear on “how the examinations” of the accused were taken, and any background information that might bear on “whatever incident, public or private, may have happened in Rome in 1697–8,— before and just after the murder” (ms at Berg). It is a very detailed, comprehensive letter, so much so that it has drawn close attention from scholars eager to determine if RB relied on more than one account as a primary source for his poem as commonly assumed, and if so, whether a variant text may have been furnished to him by Cartwright.

The Ring and the Book tells its own story of how it came into being, with the finding of what RB called the “old yellow book” in a Florence book stall a year before the death of EBB, to whom he would dedicate the finished work. Cartwright’s journal offers no further insight on the question of source material, and with none of his letters to RB having surfaced to date, the matter remains open to speculation. Interesting, too, is the caveat RB prefixed to the memorandum: “I have great guesses about most of the matters therein, but want their corroboration: of course you will take care that nobody begins to book-make or article-make about this till I have done with it.” On 17 May 1867, almost two years later and still having heard nothing more on the Craven text from his friend, RB wrote: “If you see Mr Craven,—do ask for that paper about the Franceschini Murder—it is most probably what I have, but should it be a different account, I can’t say of what importance it would be” (ms at ABL).

The other letters cover a range of comments involving both of their families, friends, and colleagues. On 8 June 1870, there is a request that Cartwright consider Frederick Lehman, “a very clever, cultivated & agreeable man,” for possible membership in the Cobden Club, of which Cartwright was a prominent member (ms at ABL). On 3 October 1873, there is a detailed description of the unexpected death of the industrialist Edmund Ernst Leopold Benzon, a dear friend. “You know my estimate of my own loss by this event: I cannot venture to calculate its effect on his family” (ms at ABL). On 10 April 1875, RB asked Cartwright, who had recently been elected to the admissions committee of the Athenæum Club, to support an effort to nominate the famed Italian actor Tommaso Salvini a visiting member (ms at ABL).

An appeal from Cartwright to RB in 1879 to take a friendly look at some poetry written by an acquaintance came up empty. “You know I would gladly take some trouble to oblige any friend of yours,” RB replied, but he felt compelled nonetheless to “implore your good offices to say that I am really unable to give the proper time to a conscientious examination of any manuscript poetry,” a favor, he continued, that was asked of him frequently. “Applications of this kind multiply on me strangely,—and exactly in proportion to the pains I bestow seems the unluckiness of the result. An author must, in the first instance judge himself—ask himself whether he has done his best for the proper reasons” (14 May 1879, ms at ABL).

Throughout the years of their correspondence, RB made warm reference to Cartwright’s wife and children, particularly Wanda, whom he mentions periodically by name. On one occasion he wrote her directly, penning a cover letter to accompany the gift of “a little book by one who loved you very much” (23 July 1887, The Month at Goodspeed’s Book Shop, November 1942, p. 43). It was a copy of A Selection from the Poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1886), bearing the presentation inscription, “Wanda Cartwright from her old and affectionate friend, Robert Browning, July 23, ’87” (see Reconstruction, C152). In his letter, RB asked Wanda to accept it “for her [EBB’s] sake and mine,” the occasion being her forthcoming marriage.

Another affirmation of their friendship is to be found in a 10 June 1885 letter from Sarianna Browning to the French critic Joseph Milsand requesting that he delay a planned visit with them, an unavoidable conflict having arisen by a sudden invitation from Cartwright. “I am vexed beyond words at this contretemps—it is the very first time in my life that R[ober]t. and I agreed to go on a visit together—Cartwright was so urgent,” Sarianna explained, noting that their friend—still a Member of Parliament—would only “stay in” Aynhoe Park for another month. “He has no chance, I hear, of being re-elected,” she added. “His constituents call him an absentee. He is a strange character, always most affectionate to us—so is Wanda—this is my only opportunity of seeing her, as she will not be in London—and she has travelled, when in wretched health, two days and a night for the sake of seeing me” (ms at ABL/JMA).

On 16 October 1887, RB brought Cartwright up to date on some personal issues, of particular moment, news that his son Pen had married the American heiress Fannie Coddington two weeks earlier. “I only became aware of Pen’s wishes about two months ago,—I being in St. Moritz and he at Dinant: but the proposal and acceptance had taken place in London some weeks before,—unaware as I was of the matter,—whereupon the parties separated, Pen to Belgium, and the lady and her sister to Switzerland,—where I was duly applied to for my consent—which was given most heartily, for I had long been acquainted with the lady’s family—a most estimable one: while Pen’s attachment, it seems, was simply of fourteen years’ standing, so the more likely to be durable” (ms at Wellesley). The letter continues with additional details of the happy sequence of events, so much so, that RB adds: “There—you know very nearly quite as much as I do: and I wish I knew half as much about yourself, and especially of Wanda—whose marriage took place some time after I left London, and of whom, since I read the advertisement in the Papers, I am quite ignorant—wishing her well, all the same, with my whole heart.” As the last letter of substance of the surviving correspondence between the two men—the final letter, dated 15 June 1889, six months before RB’s death, is a one-sentence note of regret to attend a dinner (ms at ABL)—it makes for a warm coda to an enduring friendship.

Additional evidence of their friendship is to be found in numerous supporting documents, particularly chatty mentions of RB in letters from such mutual friends as George Murray Smith, Lady Walpole, Percy Shelley, and W. Hall Griffin. One letter from Lady William Russell contains an especially frank assessment of RB’s behavior at the salon she hosted in London. “Every body liked Browning to whom I introduced him—as clever & agreeable,” she reflected to Clementine Cartwright in March 1864, “but he took to running into the room ––– & ranting when he stood in the middle of it ––– & roaring like a Bad provincial comedian acting Hamlet” (ms at Northamptonshire). She picked up on the theme nine months later with William Cartwright directly. “Browning is Vivacious to excess—he talks too much & too loud & he is like the Pendulum of a Clock when he stands & like a Man rowing against the stream when sitting … his conversation is excellent … but Stentorian & acrobatic to a marvelous degree” ([December 1864], ms at Northamptonshire). Musing about a number of mutual acquaintances two years later, Lady Russell had this to share with Cartwright: “Poor Browning is a point de succes himself although a Genius—but his Peacock Voice & cock-sparrow manners injure his cause” ([ca. March 1866], ms at Northamptonshire).

A far deeper indication of the Browning-Cartwright relationship is the number of books RB inscribed to him, no fewer than sixteen titles accounted for, spanning twenty-four years, the earliest, EBB’s The Greek Christian Poets and the English Poets (1863), presented on 25 April 1863 (with Cartwright-Hignett); the latest, Parleyings with Certain People (1887), inscribed “W. C. Cartwright from his old friend Robert Browning” (with Cartwright-Hignett). There is, additionally, a copy of Cartwright’s On Papal Conclaves (Edinburgh, 1868) that bears a presentation inscription to RB (see Reconstruction¸ A579). A copy of Cartwright’s tribute to a respected German man-of-letters, Gustave Bergenroth: A Memorial Sketch (Edinburgh, 1870), was presented to the poet’s sister, Sarianna Browning, and bears her ownership signature (see Reconstruction, A578). Especially telling is Cartwright’s personal copy of Asolando: Fancies and Facts (1890), issued on 12 December 1889, the day of RB’s death, and sent to him by the poet’s son, bearing this inscription on the half-title page: “W. C. Cartwright, To whom this copy would have been given by his ever affectionate and deeply attached friend my father, R. Barrett Browning. Jan. 13. 1890” (with Cartwright-Hignett).

Cartwright, in his journal (ms at Northamptonshire), made periodic mention of the Browning family in the years to come. News, on 1 March 1902, that Sarianna Browning “had just had an attack of heart trouble & failure of breath” caused particular concern and made a visit with her at Pen’s villa in Antella, Italy, outside Florence, untenable. “But I saw Pen. She is in a most precarious condition.” He returned on 20 March, and enjoyed a pleasant time in her company. “I found her seated in the garden, in appearance somewhat whiter in complexion, otherwise unchanged—her voice of the same strength & firmness—her conversation as of old—she welcomed me with warm affections—she was reading the last Times—made bright remarks & jokes—it was touching and gratifying to be with her,” altogether “an expedition not to be forgotten.” A return visit in February 1903 was similarly memorable, with RB’s beloved sister demonstrating a “memory clear & totally unimpaired.” At Rome on the evening of 22 April 1903, he “received, after delay, telegraphic notice of Miss Browning’s death in the night. I am deeply grieved—a true friend forever gone.”

Cartwright recorded numerous meetings with Pen, his penultimate mention coming on 10 May 1911, when they had lunch and made a day trip together in Pen’s motorcar. “Enjoyed the drive immensely. I can see Pen is not in the health I would wish.” Pen died a year and two months later, at the age of sixty-three. On 8 March 1929, fourteen years after Cartwright’s own death, Pen’s widow, Fannie, described the Cartwrights as “very old & intimate friends” of the Brownings. “They were a very clever family & great linguists as Mrs. Cartwright was a Russian—who are as we know noted for their ease in acquiring languages” (letter to Pauline Shields, ms at ABL).

—Nicholas A. Basbanes

1. Cartwright kept four prior journals during the periods 1843, 1844, September 1847–June 1848, and November 1849–October 1850 (ms at Northamptonshire).

2. W. C. Cartwright, “Italy: The Designs of Louis Napoleon,” Westminster Review, 17 (January 1860), pp. 218–266.


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