Dear Diary – Brian Maye on traveller and diarist Katherine Wilmot

Her records of her experiences provide a valuable insight into social life in Napoleonic France and Italy and tsarist Russia

Katherine Wilmot, who died 200 years ago on March 28th, was a remarkable person by any standards. She travelled extensively in Europe, including to Russia, at a time when travelling and travel conditions were a lot more difficult than they are today, and she kept a valuable record of her experiences that gives a great insight into social life in Napoleonic France and Italy and tsarist Russia at the time.

She was the eldest daughter of nine children of Edward Wilmot, a former army captain who was surveyor of Drogheda port at the time of her birth (which is generally accepted to be 1773). He had moved to Drogheda on marrying Martha Moore, daughter of the rector of Innishannon, Co Cork. The family later moved back to Cork and settled in Glanmire, near Moore Park, which belonged to the aristocratic Mountcashells. Katherine became friendly with Lady Mountcashell, who was a former pupil of Mary Wollstonecraft, the English writer, philosopher, advocate of women’s rights and mother of Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein. Lady Mountcashell has been described as “a republican with a vigorous mind [who] had little in common with her husband” (www.ricorso.net).

Katherine joined the Mountcashells on their Grand Tour of Europe between 1801 and 1803, where they spent time in Napoleonic France and then Italy, participating in many social gatherings and mixing with all shades of political opinion. She kept a diary and wrote many letters home and these give a balanced account of people she met and scenes she witnessed. She remarked that the court of Napoleon was quite like that of the French monarchy replaced by the revolution, thought highly of Bonaparte but not so much of his chief diplomat Talleyrand, whom she described as eating like a cormorant.

Parisian dress fashion also drew her commentary. “My first impression was amazement at beholding the women from 15 to 70 almost in a state of nature. The petticoat (or train of the gown rather) covers, however, half the length of the room, which is a most benevolent disposition to display in a country where there are not many carpets.”

She met Robert Emmet briefly in France and wrote favourably of him. In Naples, she heard that ladies had diamonds sewn into the seams of their dresses, just avoided an encounter with bandits in Milan and had an audience with Pope Pius VII in Rome. When the Anglo-French war broke out again, she left the Mountcahsells in Italy, travelled through Germany to a Danish port, getting back to London in October 1803 and thence to Ireland.

Her sister Martha had gone to Russia in August 1803 to stay with Princess Dashkova at her Troitskoe estate; the princess had been close to Catherine the Great, became first director of the Russian Academy of Science and, now in old age, became dependent on Martha as a companion. Katherine left Cork in June 1805, with her maid Eleanor Kavanagh, and reached Russia two months later with a view to accompanying Martha home. However, the sisters spent a further two years with Princess Dashkova.

They recorded their impressions of the Russian élite and of the festivities and religious practices of the ordinary people. “Katherine describes the extravagant opulence of the aristocracy, fears the consequences of the absolute power wielded by the nobles over the servile classes, and wonders at the Russians expressing fear and hatred of France yet adhering to French modes and manners,” according to Íde Ní Thuama, who wrote the entry on her in the Dictionary of Irish Biography.

Katherine departed Russia about a year before Martha did. Her return journey was complicated by passport problems on land, wars and storms at sea but she reached Ireland in October 1807. Some years later she settled at Moulins, in France, preferring the drier climate there. After a decline in her health, she moved to Paris, where she died in March 1824.

On leaving Russia, she’d taken Martha’s transcript of Princess Dashkova’s memoirs. When Martha herself left in 1808, she burned the original manuscript because the princess had fallen foul of the new tsar’s regime, and she published the memoir in 1840. It was to be more than a century before Katherine’s letters were published. “They show a unique picture of the Napoleonic period – bringing the social scene to life, also the pleasures, irritations and dangers of travel by coach and ship,” according to Íde Ní Thuama.

The Royal Irish Academy library was given some of the sisters’ collections by historian Elisabeth Lecky, widow of the great 19th-century Irish historian WEH Lecky, whose family was related to the Wilmots. They feature some letters that Eleanor Kavanagh, Katherine’s maid, wrote from Russia referring to the lives of the servants there.

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