My introduction to the Berry sisters came when they were mentioned in a novel. In looking them up, I discovered that Mary, the older of the two, was a well-known author, and that the two sisters were personalities in society of their day, which spanned the Regency era.
Their father, Robert Berry, was the nephew of a successful and wealthy merchant, named Ferguson. Mr. Ferguson achieved great success in London and Robert and his younger brother William were taken into his business. Unfortunately, Robert Berry appears to have been something of a dreamer with a keener interest in literature than commerce, while William seemed to have a head for business. Robert married a distant cousin, Elizabeth Seaton, for love in 1762, despite the fact that she had no portion. Robert’s income at that time was 300 pounds per year. Mary, the couple’s first child, was born March 16, 1763 in Kirkbridge, Yorkshire. Agnes was born May 29, 1764. Sadly, Elizabeth Berry died in childbed in 1767 at the age of 23, and the baby died as well. Their Grandmother Seaton cared for the two girls in Yorkshire, until they were moved to Chiswick in 1770. Their governess’s marriage in 1775 ended their formal education. There is an indication that, when Mary was 16, she was in love with a Mr. Bowman (or Bowden) but the relationship was disapproved and came to nothing.
In 1781, Robert Berry’s uncle died, leaving the bulk of his fortune and estate to William Berry, who took the last name of Ferguson, and a legacy of 10,000 pounds to Robert. William, however, established an annuity for Robert of 1000 pounds per year. Even though some sources suggest that Robert Berry’s reduced status of 300 pounds per year was a permanent state, at the time, it was still an income that allowed a comfortable life and, once Mr. Ferguson died, the family’s status definitely changed to a much higher standard of living. At this time, Mary and Agnes would have been young ladies of approximately 19 and 18 years of age. In 1783, Mr. Berry took his daughters on a tour of Holland, Switzerland and Italy. During this tour, the older daughter Mary took on the responsibility of acting as her sister’s and her father’s guardian. Also in 1783, Mary began writing her journal in Florence, Italy, which became a lifelong activity. The family returned to England via France in June of 1785. While in Italy, Mary met General Charles O’Hara, governor of Gibraltar.
Subsequently, upon the family’s return to England, they spent some time in London and visited friends. Attractive, well-informed, and charming, the young ladies became popular in society. During the winter of 1787, Mary and Agnes became acquainted with Horace Walpole. According to some sources, Mr. Walpole saw them but, because of their lack of social status, declined to be introduced them. However, Mr. Walpole heard so many favourable comments about them that he allowed the introduction at their second meeting, and speedily became an admirer of the girls, especially of Mary. This was the beginning of a significant and intimate friendship. Mr. Walpole, who was in his 70’s, and the young ladies, both in their twenties, became very devoted, Mr. Walpole even referring to them as his “twin wives” (1). He introduced them to many of his friends, and obtained a house for the Berry’s in 1789.
In 1790, the Berry family went abroad for a year, maintaining a correspondence with Mr. Walpole. On their return, he convinced them to take up residence near him in Little Strawberry Hill. Subsequently, gossip arose about the nature of Mr. Walpole’s relationship with the Berry’s, and Mary tried to cancel the arrangement, but, citing his age, Mr. Walpole convinced her to disregard the gossip, and the family remained at Little Strawberry Hill. Horace Walpole became the Earl of Orford in December, 1791. There are indications that he thought of asking Mary Berry to marry him, but no indication that he ever did so.
At some point during this time, General O’Hara returned to England, and renewed his acquaintance with Mary Berry. He became engaged to Mary before he returned to Gibralter in November of 1795. Horace Walpole, Earl of Orford apparently liked General O’Hara, but was not aware of their engagement, which was apparently kept secret from everyone. Mary and General O’Hara corresponded, but the engagement was broken off in June of 1796, at least in part because Mary could not make up her mind to announce their engagement out of concern for the Earl’s feelings. This was a great sorrow to Mary for the rest of her life.
The Earl died March 2, 1797. He left Mary and Agnes each 4000 pounds, and the house, garden and long meadow of Strawberry Hill jointly for their lives. The earl left to Mr. Berry, Mary and Agnes his printed works and his manuscripts, to be published at their discretion with any income thereof to go to them. Although Mr. Berry was supposed to be the editor, Mary actually did all of the work. Mr. Berry’s contribution was a paragraph praising his daughter’s efforts in the preface. The WORKS OF HORACE WALPOLE was published in 1798, the year after the earl’s death.
Sometime after the Peace of Amiens in 1802, the Berry family went to Paris again. During this visit, Mary was supposedly presented to Napoleon. She returned to England just before her published play “Fashionable Friends” was put on at Drury Lane Theatre but failed. (It had been a success in amateur performances at Strawberry Hill.) Apparently, there were questions of the play’s morality. Interestingly, Mary implied that the play had been written by Walpole. Equally interesting, when editing Walpole’s works, she had included a play entitled “Mysterious Mother” with his work even though she had written it herself. A third play by Mary called “The Martins” was not published or performed. After the failure of her play at Drury Lane, she went back to France with Agnes and their father, where they travelled through the south of France into Switzerland and Germany. The family returned to England in the fall of 1803.
At some point in this period of time, Agnes fell in love with and became engaged to a cousin, Colonel Robert Ferguson (the son of Robert Berry’s brother William). However, the marriage did not occur. There are indications of her uncle’s disapproval and of her own reluctance to take the final step. At any rate, she stayed with her family. In many respects, Agnes seems to have been in her sister’s shadow, less attractive, less lively and definitely in second place in Horace Walpole’s affections, even though Mary was proud of her sister’s artistic talent and abilities.
Mary Berry went on to publish in 1810 an annotated edition of the letters of Madame du Deffand to Horace Walpole written between 1766 and 1780 and Madame du Deffand’s correspondence with Voltaire between 1759 and 1775, for which she received 200 pounds. Their father died May 18, 1817 at Genoa, and his annuity stopped, which resulted in Mary and Agnes having to live on their own income. They gave up Little Strawberry Hill at this time, and took residence at Devonshire Lodge in Petersham. In 1819, Mary produced a work on Rachel Wriothesley, Lady Russell, which included letters from Lady Russell to her husband Lord William Russell written between 1672 and 1682 as well as some other letters by Lady Russell. Mary and Agnes became personalities, known for their gatherings in their London lodgings, where they attracted artists, writers, politicians and society’s elite, including the writers Maria Edgeworth and William Makepeace Thackeray, Lord Colchester, the Devonshires, and the Duke of Sutherland, and the artist Thomas Lawrence. Mary seems to have been the main draw with her liveliness and literary talent, but Agnes seemed to have a talent in arrange seating in a way that encouraged the flow of conversation.
Mary’s most ambitious work was a major effort and became her most famous. The first volume, titled “A Comparative View of the Social Life of England and France from the Restoration of Charles the Second to the French Revolution” was published in 1828. The second volume “Social Life in England and France from the French Revolution in 1789 to that of July of 1830” came out in 1831. These two volumes were reissued as a single volume under the title “England and France: a comparative View of the Social Condition of both Countries” in the complete edition of her “Works” in 1844.
Mary and Agnes seem to have maintained their social lifestyle as time went on, even as Agnes’ health began to deteriorate, noticeably by 1849. She survived until her death in January 1852. Mary did not long survive her sister, passing away November 20, 1852. They are buried in the same grave in St. Peter’s churchyard, Petersham. In 1865, Lady Theresa Lewis edited and published “Extracts from the Journals and Correspondence of Miss Berry from 1783 to 1852.”
(1) Melville, Lewis. REGENCY LADIES. P. 95
Sources include:Melville, Lewis. REGENCY LADIES. New York: George H. Doran Company, 1926
Twickenham Museum. “The Berry Sisters” (no author or publication date). Here.
A Web of English History. “Mary Berry (1753-1852)” by Charles Kent, published 1885. Website is the intellectual property of Dr. Marjory Bloy. Here.
Richmond.gov.uk. “Local History Notes. St. Peter’s Church, Petersham” (no author or publication date). Here.
GoogleBooks.com. ENCYCLOPEDIA OF BRITISH WRITERS, 16th, 17th and 18th CENTURIES, Alan Hager, ed. “Berry, Mary.” P. 20. New York: Book Builders LLC, Facts on File, 2005. Here.
GoogleBooks.com. HORACE WALPOLE by Austin Dobson, 1893. Here.
Bartlebys.com. EXTRACTS OF THE JOURNALS AND CORRESPONDENCE OF MISS BERRY. Mary Berry (1763-1852). Here.
Photos courtesy of Margaret Evans Porter, used with permission.
Lauren Gilbert's first published book, HEYERWOOD, A Novel, was released in 1991. A second book, A RATIONAL ATTACHMENT, is in process. She lives in Florida, and will be attending the Amelia Island Book Festival in February. Find out more about her by visiting her website Here: