BEAUFORT: The Duke and His Duchess, 1657–1715

Molly McClain, Author . Yale Univ. $35 (336p) ISBN 978-0-300-08411-5

Forgotten by history, Henry Somerset and Mary Capel Somerset are occasionally remembered for their formal gardens at Badminton House in Gloucestershire. As early as 1720, five years after the melancholy yet resilient duchess's death, Leonard Knyff's drawings of the gardens, an abstraction of the Copernican universe, in Britannia Illustrata, memorialized the elaborate landscaping design. Yet the duke, a courtier of the restored Charles II and his quickly ousted brother James II, wished to make a political, not a botanical, impression upon England and Wales. Unstable political and religious alliances complicated his career, and eventually the duke and duchess were left with little beyond their vast properties. In her first book, McClain, assistant professor at the University of San Diego, extrapolates the couple's lives from their letters and expense accounts. Attempts to illuminate Mary Capel's passionate nature remain largely speculative, besides accounts of her chronic depression. Carrying 13 children to term (Henry was her second husband) was typical in the 17th century; but the duchess's trials were much greater than her many pregnancies. Often absent for long periods for courtly duties, Henry left to Mary the oversight of their lands and burgeoning finances, and the raising of local militia. They were a well-matched pair in greed and ostentation. The duke's political endeavors went largely undocumented, but their home, his 88 exacting letters to Mary and their domestic and legal papers flesh out a portrait of Restoration society. Devotees of the period may want to read this book, but it will interest few others. 18 b&w illus. (June)

Reviewed on: 05/28/2001
Release date: 05/01/2001
Paperback - 298 pages - 978-0-300-18838-7
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