Superficially this thesis reconstructs the life of an aristocratic woman, Maria Holroyd, beginning with her childhood experiences in East Sussex and London. At the age of twenty she accompanied her parents on a surprising and memorable trip to Paris in the summer of 1791. This was followed by a visit to Lausanne to renew contact with a family friend, Edward Gibbon. On her return to England she continued to be involved in the outcomes of the French Revolution as émigrés were welcomed at Sheffield Place, her family home. The death of her mother in 1793 and her marriage to John Thomas Stanley in 1796 gave new directions to her life. She travelled with her husband's regiment through the north of England and Scotland before settling down as mistress of Alderley Park in Cheshire and giving birth to eleven children. Although her father's remarriages and production of a male heir denied Maria the inheritance of Sheffield Place, her
husband inherited considerable property which allowed a comfortable rural and intermittent urban existence for the large family. The births, marriage and deaths of its members prescribed the main structure of Maria's life, which extended to the age of ninety-one. As an increasingly difficult and unhappy widow, accompanied by two ageing spinster daughters, she returned to the south of England for her last few years.
Fundamentally this thesis is about the content of a woman's life and the issues of concern to that woman as she experienced different perspectives from childhood through to widowhood and old age. Education for Maria was derived in part from formal training, a rich intellectual and social environment, the strictures of an aunt and a grand tour of Europe compressed into four eventful months. As a parent the erstwhile receiver became the deliverer as Maria involved herself in decisions pertaining to her girls and boys, setting them on their different
courses. Similarly, with entry into the marriage market and the search for a husband, Maria survived her own fears of spinsterhood but was compelled to relive her experiences through the lives of her own daughters, whose hopes were not always fulfilled; her unmarried daughters lived to play out the part that Maria must have earlier dreaded for herself. Marriage, for the woman successful in the mating game, meant a continuous cycle of pregnancies, childbirth and motherhood, with all the attendant perils. As these were survived or accommodated, a new generation of daughters had lives to be controlled and sons introduced daughters-in-law into the family, creating new perspectives on women's roles. Maria's own marriage provides fascinating insights into a relationship more egalitarian than was perhaps customary and reveals some evidence of wifely power and control.
Outside the strictly marital zone this woman involved herself in the conventional charitable role
and its extension, the care of émigrés during the 1790s. As lady of the manor she was required to feature prominently within her local world, and she was at her husband's side as the philanthropic and status confirming provider of entertainment and celebrations when family or national events called for such provision. Beyond this Maria's correspondence reveals a woman with managerial responsibilities within the household and over family affairs, and it was not the least of her duties to oversee and co-ordinate frequent movements among residences, not forgetting the harmonious and efficient organization of serving staff in the various establishments. Her involvement in estate and business matters unfortunately remains somewhat obscure; but there was probably no comparable tour de force in later life to equal her earlier involvement in the publication of Gibbon's memoirs.
Throughout Maria's life, health was an ever-present concern and
death a frequent experience. From her involvement with her mother's declining health she became a shrewd observer of contemporary medical practice, and her frequent encounters with family deaths left her no stranger to issues such as infant mortality, the hazards of urban life, the traditions surrounding death, the etiquette of mourning and the conventions associated with the grieving period, even if her own conduct sometimes raised questions.
The Holroyd/Stanley correspondence, while permitting the reconstruction of a biographical outline and throwing some light on issues in the public sphere that have traditionally interested historians, has greatest value when placed in the context of modern feminist writing and women's history. It reveals a great deal of private life and experiences of one woman outside the public sphere and thereby contributes substantially to the debates and historiography of women's history in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.