IN the year 1790-1 there was played in real life a singularly poor adaptation of an unwritten novel by one of the Minifie sisters—those sentimental ladies who, during the last quarter of the eighteenth century, provided the circulating libraries with several volumes of high-flown fiction. The adaptation of this unwritten novel possessed a good many of the most prominent features of the original, so that when it was brought to light there could be very little doubt as to the brain out of which it had been evolved. The result of the performance was so unsatisfactory as to compel one to believe that the worst possible way of producing a novel is to adapt it to suit the requirements of one's relations, forcing them to play in real life and in all earnest the parts assigned to them by the inventor of the plot.

Miss Minifie, the second of the sentimental sisters, had married in the year 1769 Colonel John Gunning, the brother of the two beautiful girls one of whom became Duchess of Hamilton, and later Duchess of Argyll, and the other Countess of Coventry. The result of the union was a daughter of considerable plainness, and people said that in this respect she resembled her mother's rather than her father's family. It seems that while the Gunning tradition was beauty, the Minifie tradition was a nose, and it soon became apparent that it was impossible to combine the two with any satisfactory artistic results. The young lady had made an honest attempt to do so, but her failure was emphatic. She had eyes that suggested in a far-off way the long-lashed orbs of her aunts, but that unlucky Minifie nose was so prominent a feature that it caused the attention of even the most indulgent critic to be riveted upon it, to the exclusion of the rest of her face. The charitably-disposed among her friends affirmed that she would be passably good-looking if it were not for her nose; the others said that she would be positively plain if it were not for her eyes.

Her father was probably that member of his family who had least brains: they made a soldier of him, and he married a lady novelist, closing an inglorious career by running off with his tailor's wife and having a writ issued against him for £5000. He took care to be at Naples, outside the jurisdiction of the English court, when it was issued, and he died before it could be served on him, which suggests that he may not have been so devoid of brains after all.

Her mother (née Minifie) seems to have entertained the idea of making the girl work out a “plot” for her when she arrived at the regulation age of the sentimental heroine of those days, and this plot she invented with all her accustomed absence of skill. Her materials were a “glorious child”—this was how she described her daughter—with a gifted mother; a young cousin, heir to a dukedom and a large estate; and, lastly, the Gunning tradition. Could any novelist ask for more? A short time afterwards she did, however, and this was just where her art failed her. She did much to discourage the writers of fiction from endeavouring to work out their plots in real life.

Catherine Gunning, the “glorious child,” being the niece of the Duchess of Argyll, her cousin was, of course, the Marquis of Lome; and as the Duchess had always kept up an intimate connection with the members of her father's family, even to the second generation, her son, Lord Lome, and Catherine Gunning had been a good deal together, not only when they were children, but also when they had reached the age when the novel-writer's hero and heroine begin to blossom. The girl's mother, doubtless having an idea that these very live young people were as plastic as the creatures of her fancy, thought to hasten on the dénouement of her story by whispering it to her friends. She whispered into more than one ear that Lord Lome and her daughter were betrothed, and such friends as received this information, strictly sub rosa, took care to spread it abroad—strictly sub rosa also. Now the aggregation of many confidential reports of this sort is what is termed “news,” so that in the course of a short time it was common property that Lord Lome was to marry his cousin, Catherine Gunning.

Congratulations reached the young lady, which she neither quite accepted nor altogether rejected. She seems to have learned from her mother's novels that in such matters it is wisest for a young woman to be silent but pensive. And on the whole her behaviour was fairly consistent with that of the heroine which her mother meant her to be. Indeed, all that was needed to enable her to take the place of the heroine of a pleasant little love story was the proposal of the hero; and unhappily this formality had still to be reckoned with. Lord Lome had so paltry an appreciation of what was due to the art of the fiction-writer that he declined to play the part of the young hero of the story, and when people approached him on the subject he said that he had heard nothing about being accepted by Miss Gunning, and that he could not possibly be accepted until he had proposed to her. He seems to have acted with the discretion one would have looked for from the son of the Duchess of Argyll, and in the course of the year the reports of the possible union dwindled away, and people began to feel that their friends were untrustworthy gossips to have circulated a report solely on the evidence of a young lady's pensiveness.

This was, however, as it turned out, but the opening chapter in the romance which the novelist-mother was working out. Indeed, it scarcely bears to be considered as a regular chapter, it was rather the prologue to the comedy which was played two years later with the same heroine, but for obvious reasons with a different hero. In the prologue there was scarcely visible any of the art of the novelist; in the comedy itself, however, her hand is constantly apparent, controlling the movements of at least one of her puppets; and very jerkily, too, that hand pulled the strings. The clumsiness in the construction of the plot prevented any one from sympathising with the authoress and stage-manager of the piece when its failure became known to the world in general, and to Horace Walpole in particular. Walpole could pretend a good deal. He pretended, for instance, that he knew at once that the Rowley poems, sent to him by Chatterton, were forgeries; and he pretended that he knew nothing of the marriage of his niece to the Duke of Gloucester until the public were apprised of the fact. He could not, however, even pretend that he sympathised with the failure of the Minifie plot. On the contrary, he gloats over the disgrace which, he declared, on this account fell upon the Gunning family. He hated the whole Gunning family, and he was plainly in ecstasies of delight when he believed that ruin had come upon them. “The two beautiful sisters were exalted almost as high as they could go,” he wrote. “Countessed and double duchessed, and now the family have dragged themselves down into the very dirt.”

The “family” had of course done nothing of the sort. One member of the family had allowed herself to be made a fool of at the suggestion of her very foolish mother; her father had also been indiscreet, but there is a wide difference between all this and the family of Gunning “dragging themselves into the very dirt.” The result of the tricks of the lady novelist to marry her daughter to the heir to a dukedom was only to make every one roar with laughter, and no doubt the fatuous ladies felt greatly annoyed. But the Marquis of Lome did not seem to take the matter greatly to heart, and he was a member of the Gunning family; nor did the Duke of Hamilton show himself to be greatly perturbed, though he must have been somewhat jealous of the honour of the family to which his mother belonged. The position that the Gunning family had taken among the greatest families in the land rested upon too solid a foundation to be shaken by the foolishness of a lady novelist, who had married a Gunning. And now people who read the story of the “dragging in the dirt” only shrug their shoulders at the ridiculous figure cut by the actors in the shallow and sordid comedy, and laugh at the spiteful gibe of the prince of gossips, who played a congenial part in damning the product of the Minifie brain.

Two years after the failure of the Lome plot startling whispers were once again heard in regard to Miss Gunning and the heir to another dukedom. This time it was the Marquis of Blandford who attracted the Minifie fancy. He was the Duke of Marlborough's heir, and was twenty-three years of age. Of course it was Mrs. Gunning (née Minifie) who was the first to make the announcement that the young people were greatly attached; and then followed—after the interval of a chapter or two—the lady novelist's declaration to her niece, a Mrs. Bowen, that Lord Blandford had proposed, and had been accepted by Miss Gunning. The date of the marriage had been fixed, and the draft deed of the settlements signed; but, as in the former “case,” the recipient of the news was told that she must regard the communication as strictly confidential, the fact being that although the arrangements for the match were so fully matured, yet General Gunning—he had recently been made a general—had not been let into the secret.

It must have seemed a little queer to Mrs. Bowen to learn that her uncle had not been made acquainted with the good luck that was in store for his daughter. The signing of marriage deeds in the absence of the bride's father must surely have struck her as being a trifle irregular. However this may be, she seems to have treated the communication as strictly confidential by at once proceeding to spread abroad the news that it contained. It reached the ears of several people of distinction before long. General Conway heard of it, and from a quarter that seemed to him absolutely trustworthy. He passed it round to Walpole and the Court circle. The Duke of Argyll, as the uncle of the young lady most interested in the match, was apprised of it in due course, and on appealing to headquarters—that is to say, to Mrs. Gunning—for confirmation or denial of the report, learned that the marriage had indeed been “arranged,” but the question of settlements remained in abeyance.

Shortly afterwards there came rumours that there were obstacles in the way of the marriage, and Miss Gunning, on being questioned by some of her friends, confessed that it was the parents of her lover who were unkind: young Lord Blandford was burning with anxiety to call her his own, but the Duke and Duchess belonged unfortunately to that type of parent to be found in so many novels in which the course of true love runs anything but smooth.

Strange to say, it was just at this point that a letter appeared in the Advertiser, signed by General Gunning, apprising the world of the fact that the Gunnings were one of the noblest families in existence, the writer actually being able to trace his ancestry up to Charlemagne.

It was while people were so laughing over this letter as to cause him to declare it to be a forgery, that the General became suspicious of the genuineness of his daughter's statements in regard to her affaire de cour. When a blunt old soldier finds a letter bearing his signature in the papers, well knowing that he never wrote such a letter, he is apt to question the good faith even of his nearest and dearest. It is certain, at any rate, that the descendant of Charlemagne had an uneasy feeling that any woman who wrote novels was not to be implicitly trusted in the affairs of daily life. His mind running on forged letters, he commanded his daughter to submit to him her correspondence with her lover.

Miss Gunning at once complied, and he sat down to read the lot. The result was not to allay his suspicions. The letters read remarkably well, and contained the conventional outpourings of an ardent lover to the object of his affections. But to the simple soldier's mind they read just too well: some of them were in the style of a novel-writer with whom he was acquainted—imperfectly, it would appear, or he would have suspected something long before. Retaining the precious “pacquet” he awaited developments.

He had not long to wait. Another contribution to the correspondence which he had in his hand came to his daughter, and was passed on to him. Noticing in it some doubtful features, he came to the conclusion that it was necessary to get to the bottom of the affair in the most straightforward way. He leapt to the bottom of it by sending the whole “pacquet” to the young Marquis of Blandford, asking him peremptorily if he had written the letters.

He got a reply to the effect that a few of the letters were his—they were the ordinary ones, courteous, but in no way effusive—but that the greater number had not come from him. His lordship did not seem to think that common politeness demanded his expressing his hearty concurrence with the tone and sentiments contained in these same letters. Now in the judgment of a novelist of the intellectual calibre of the Minifie sisters this is exactly what a young gentleman would do when playing the part of the hero of a romance, so that it would appear that General Gunning was fully justified in coming to the conclusion that the whole scheme—the whole piece of scheming—was the design of his wife—that it represented an attempt on her part to force one of her “plots” upon some real personages. Dull-minded man though he certainly was, he must have perceived that his wife's plan was to compel Lord Blandford to act the part of the hero of her sentimental imagination, and when confronted with a parcel of forged letters, in every one of which there was a confession of love for Miss Gunning, to bow his head meekly, as any gentleman (of her imagination) would, and say, “Those are my letters, and they express nothing but the most honourable sentiments of my heart.”

But as it so happened the young Lord Blandford was not a young gentleman of this particular stamp. He seems to have been almost as practical as his great ancestor, who, out of the proceeds of his first love intrigue, bought an annuity for himself. Hence the fiasco of the Minifie plot.

The Minifie plot, however, was not worked out in one act only, and an insignificant prologue. The resources of the lady's imagination were by no means exhausted by the failure of Lord Blandford to act up to the heroic part assigned to him. He seems to have talked a good deal to his friends about the forged letters, and the Duke of Argyll, the young lady's uncle, took the matter up as an important member by marriage of the family. He applied to his niece for an explanation of the whole affair; and her father seems to have agreed with him in thinking that if the girl was ever to hold up her head again it would be necessary for her to bring forward some evidence to prove what she still asserted, namely, that the letters had been written to her by Lord Blandford—this “pacquet” of letters played as important a part in the story of Miss Gunning as the “Casquet Letters” did in the history of Queen Mary—and that they were written with the concurrence and approbation of the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough. The Duke and Duchess had, she affirmed, encouraged her by the most unmistakable means to believe that they were extremely anxious to see her married to their son.

It was then suggested—Horace Walpole, who gloats over the whole story in a letter to one of the Berrys, does not say by whom—that the young woman should draw up a narrative of the progress of the attachment professed for her by Lord Blandford, and of the particular acts of encouragement for which she alleged the Duke and Duchess were responsible, leading her to feel sure that she was a persona grata with them. It was hoped by the Duke of Argyll and General Gunning that the girl would be rehabilitated in the eyes of society by the production of the Duke of Marlborough's formal assent to the statements made by Miss Gunning in endeavouring to exculpate herself. Miss Gunning assenting—after a consultation with her mother, we may be sure—a “narrative” was accordingly prepared by the young lady, and in it there was the ingenuous confession that although she had been unable to resist so dazzling an offer as that of Lord Blandford, she had not wavered in her affection for her cousin, the Marquis of Lome.

Here we have the true Minifie touch of sentimentality, and we cannot doubt that the remaining portion of the plot was due to her clumsy ingenuity.

This narrative was sent to the Duke of Marlborough, with the following letter from General Gunning:

“St. James's Place,

3 rd February, 1791.

“My Lord,—I have the honour of addressing this letter to your Grace not with the smallest wish after what has passed of having a marriage established between Lord Blandford and my daughter, or of claiming any promise or proposal to that effect, but merely to know whether your Grace or the Duchess of Marlborough have it in recollection that your Graces or Lord Blandford ever gave my daughter reason to think a marriage was once intended.

“My motive for giving this trouble arises merely from a desire of removing any imputation from my daughter's character, as if she had entertained an idea of such importance without any reasonable foundation.

“For my own satisfaction, and that of my particular friends who have been induced to believe the reports of the intended marriage, I have desired my daughter to draw up an accurate narrative of every material circumstance on which that belief was founded.

“This narrative I have the honour of transmitting to your Grace for your own perusal, and that of the Duchess of Marlborough and Lord Blandford, thinking it highly suitable that you should have an early opportunity of examining it—and I beg leave to request that your Grace will, after examination, correct or alter such passages as may appear either to your Grace, the Duchess of Marlborough, or Lord Blandford, to be erroneously stated.

“I have the honour to be,

“With the greatest respect, my Lord,

“Your Grace's most humble and

“Most obedient servant,

“John Gunning.”

This letter was dispatched by a groom to its destination at Blenheim, and within half an hour of his delivering it, His Grace, according to the groom, had handed him a reply for General Gunning. This document, which the groom said he had received from the Duke, was forwarded, with a copy of the letter to which it constituted a most satisfactory reply, to a small and very select committee that had, it would seem, been appointed to investigate and report upon the whole story. It must also be quoted in full, in order that its point may be fully appreciated by any one interested in this very remarkable story.


“Sir,—I take the earliest opportunity to acknowledge the receipt of your letter, and to answer it with that explicitness you are so much entitled to. From the first of the acquaintance of the D———s of Marlborough and myself had with Miss Gunning, we were charmed with her, and it was with infinite satisfaction we discovered Blanford's sentiments similar to our own. It had long been the wish of both to see him married to some amiable woman. Your daughter was the one we had fixed on, and we had every reason to suppose the object of his tenderest affections, and, from the conduct of both himself and his family, yourself and Miss Gunning had undoubtedly every right to look on a marriage as certain. Indeed when I left town last summer, I regarded her as my future daughter, and I must say it is with sorrow I relinquish the idea. The actions of young men are not always to be accounted for; and it is with regret that I acknowledge my son has been particularly unaccountable in his. I beg that you will do me the justice to believe that I shall ever think myself your debtor for the manner in which you have conducted yourself in this affair, and that I must always take an interest in the happiness of Miss Gunning. I beg, if she has not conceived a disgust for the whole of my family, she will accept the sincerest good wishes of the Duchess and my daughters.

“I have the honour to remain,


“Your much obliged and

“Most obedient, humble servant,


Now be it remembered that both these letters were forwarded to the committee with the young lady's narrative, to be considered by them in the same connection, at Argyll House, where their sittings were to be held.

What was to be said in the face of such documentary evidence as this? Those members of the committee who hoped that the girl's statement of her case would be in some measure borne out by the Duke of Marlborough could never have hoped for so triumphant a confirmation of her story as was contained in His Grace's letter. It seemed as if the investigation of the committee would be of the simplest character; handing them such a letter, accompanying her own ingenuous narrative, it was felt that she had completely vindicated her position.

But suddenly one member of the committee—Walpole in the letter to Miss Berry affirms that he was this one—ventured to point out that in the Duke's letter the name Blandford was spelt without the middle letter d. “That was possible in the hurry of doing justice,” wrote Walpole. But the moment that this pin-puncture of suspicion appeared in the fabric of the lady's defence it was not thought any sacrilege to try to pick another hole in it. The wax with which the letter was sealed was black, and the members of the council asked one another whom the Marlborough family were in mourning for, that they should seal their letter in this fashion. No information on this point was forthcoming. (It is strange if Walpole did not suggest that they were in mourning over the defunct reputation of the young lady.) If the Duke of Argyll was present, it can well be believed that, after the members of the council had looked at each other, there should be silence in that room, on one wall of which we may believe there was hanging the splendid portrait of Elizabeth, Duchess of Argyll and Baroness Hamilton of Hameldon, in her own right, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds. The lady was dying at her Scotch home when this investigation into the conduct of her niece was being conducted.

It was probably a relief to every one present when the suggestion was made that the Duke of Marlborough's second son was in town, and if sent for he might be able to throw some light upon the subject of the mourning wax or some other questionable point in the same connection. Although it was now close upon midnight a messenger was dispatched for the young man—probably his whereabouts at midnight would be known with greater certainty than at midday. At any rate he was quickly found, and repaired in all haste to Argyll House. He was brought before the committee and shown the letter with the black wax. He burst out laughing, and declared that the writing bore not the least resemblance to that of his father, the Duke of Marlborough.

There was nothing more to be said. The council adjourned sine die without drawing up any report, so far as can be ascertained.

But the full clumsiness of the Minifie “plot” was revealed the next day, for General Gunning received a letter from the Captain Bowen whose name has already entered into this narrative, telling him that his wife, the General's niece, had a short time before received from Miss Gunning a letter purporting to be a copy of one which had come to her from the Duke of Marlborough, and begging her to get her husband to make a fair copy of it, and return it by the groom. Captain Bowen added that he had complied with his wife's request to this effect, but he had written “copy” at the top and “signed M.” at the bottom, as is usual in engrossing copies of documents, to prevent the possibility of a charge of forgery being brought against the copyist.

The letter which the girl wrote to Mrs. Bowen was made the subject of an affidavit shortly afterwards, and so became public property. It is so badly composed that one cannot but believe it was dictated by her mother, though the marvellous spelling must have been Miss Gunning's own. The fact that, after making up a story of her love for Lord Lome, and of the encouragement she received from the Marlborough family in respect of Lord Blandford, she instructed Mrs. Bowen to keep the matter secret from her mother, confirms one's impression as to the part the lady must have played in the transaction. Miss Gunning wrote: “Neither papa or I have courage to tell mama, for she detests the person dearest to me on earth.”

But however deficient in courage her papa was in the matter of acquainting his wife with so ordinary an incident as was referred to in this letter, he did not shrink from what he believed to be his duty when it was made plain to him that his daughter and his wife had been working out a “plot” in real life that necessitated the forging of a letter. He promptly bundled both wife and daughter out of his house, doubtless feeling that although the other personages in the romance which his wife was hoping to weave, had by no means acted up to the parts she had meant them to play, there was no reason why he should follow their example. It must be acknowledged that as a type of the bluff old soldier, simple enough to be deceived by the inartistic machinations of a foolish wife, but inexorable when finding his credulity imposed upon, he played his part extremely well. At the same time such people as called him a ridiculous old fool for adopting so harsh a measure toward his erring child, whose tricks he had long winked at, were perhaps not to be greatly blamed.

The old Duchess of Bedford at once received the outcasts and provided them with a home; and then Mrs. Gunning had leisure to concoct a manifesto in form of an open letter to the Duke of Argyll, in which, after exhorting His Grace to devote the remainder of his life to unravelling the mystery which she affirmed (though no one else could have done so) enshrouded the whole affair of the letter, she went on to denounce the simple-hearted General for his meanness—and worse—in matters domestic. He had never been a true husband to her, she declared, and he was even more unnatural as a father. As for Captain Bowen and his wife, the writer of the manifesto showed herself to be upon the brink of delirium when she endeavoured to find words severe enough to describe their treachery. They were inhuman in their persecution of her “glorious child,” she said, and then she went on to affirm her belief that the incriminating letters had been forged by the Bowens, and the rest of the story invented by them with the aid of the General to ruin her and her “glorious child.”

Captain Bowen thought fit to reply to this amazing production. He did so through the prosaic form of a number of affidavits. The most important of these was that sworn by one William Pearce, groom to General Gunning. In this document he deposed that when he was about to start for Blenheim with the “pacquet” for the Duke of Marlborough, Miss Gunning had caught him and compelled him to hand over the “pacquet” to her, and that she had then given him another letter, sealed with black, bearing the Marlborough arms, instructing him to deliver it to her father, pretending that he had received it at Blenheim.

In spite of all this Miss Gunning continued to affirm her entire innocence, and even went the length—according to Walpole—of swearing before a London magistrate that she was innocent. “It is but a burlesque part of this wonderful tale,” adds Walpole, “that old crazy Bedford exhibits Miss every morning on the Causeway in Hyde Park and declares her protégée some time ago refused General Trevelyan.” But “crazy old Bedford” went much further in her craziness than this, for she actually wrote to the Marquis of Lome trying to patch up a match between Miss Gunning and himself. Immediately afterwards the town was startled by the report that a duel was impending between Lord Lome and Lord Blandford, the former maintaining that it was his duty to uphold the honour of his cousin, which had been somewhat shaken by the course adopted by the Marlborough heir. Of course no duel took place, and the young men simply laughed when their attention was called to the statement in print.

How much further these alarums and excursions (on the Causeway) would have proceeded it would be impossible to tell, the fact being that Captain Bowen and his wife gave notice of their intention to institute proceedings against the Gunnings, mother and daughter, for libel. This brought l'affaire Gunning to a legitimate conclusion, for the ladies thought it advisable to fly to France.

“The town is very dull without them,” wrote Walpole to one of the Berrys, enclosing a copy of a really clever skit in verse, after the style of “The House that Jack Built,” ridiculing the whole affair. When Mrs. Gunning and her daughter returned, after the lapse of several months, the old Duchess of Bedford took them up once more; but the town declined to take any further notice of them. It was not until her father and mother had been dead for some years that Miss Gunning married Major Plunkett, an Irish rebel, who fled after the rising in 1798. She lived with him happily enough for twenty years, endeavouring to atone for the indiscretion of her girlhood by writing novels. It is doubtful if many of her readers considered such expiation wholly adequate, considering how foolish she had been. One act of folly can hardly be atoned for by another. But her intention was good, and her faults, including her novels, have long ago been forgiven her by being forgotten.

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