‘Maud is not a girl to surprise anyone into matrimony. I wonder why?’ wrote the American Caroline Jebb, 43, to her sister Ellen Dupuy in Philadelphia. Maud was Ellen’s sensible 22-year old daughter, tall with golden brown hair and dark blue eyes. She was visiting her Aunt Cara (as she called Caroline) in Cambridge in the summer of 1883. It was her first trip to England and she loved everything about the university town in May: the picnics and afternoon teas, the boat races and games of lawn tennis, trips to London for shopping, dinner parties and the cultivated conversations of the college fellows. Caroline was keen to give her niece a taste for culture, so gave her poetry books by Browning and Tennyson to read, took her to a Greek play and to see paintings at the Royal Academy. But most of all, she wanted Maud to marry well.
She had already tried and failed with Maud’s older sister Nellie, who had come to Cambridge the year before and refused a proposal of marriage from George Darwin, the second son of Charles Darwin and a professor of astronomy at Cambridge. Caroline and her husband Richard Claverhouse Jebb were close friends of his and she was very sorry to see him disappointed. ‘George Darwin is so kind and nice, so really generous in big things, so companionable and amusing’, she told Nellie, ‘that if only you had been five years older, I think you might have liked him.’ George Darwin was 38, tall but slight in stature, and years of poor health had left him prone to exhaustion after any sort of exercise. Bookish and serious-minded, he was ill at ease in most women’s company apart from Caroline’s.
Fond as she was of her dear George, Caroline had a very different sort of man in mind for Maud. She told her sister that Henry Martyn Taylor, a barrister, had much to offer, being ‘very manly, a good shot, Alpine climber, tennis player, has an income of, I fancy, about £2,000 a year… I fancy he could settle at least £10,000 on his wife to secure her future.’ Caroline wanted her American niece to be practical in her choice of husband. Despite their aristocratic-sounding name, the Philadelphia Dupuys were not well off, and Maud was only able to afford the trip to England with the help of her businessman brother, Herbert. She told him that she liked her Aunt Cara’s friend George. ‘I can see how nice he is as a brother and a friend…but somehow the romantic view of lover is left out of his disposition.’ Sensible as she was, Maud knew her own mind and wanted to marry for love. Caroline was no fortune-hunter either, for all her interest in finding her niece a good match. Years earlier she herself had turned down a proposal by Cornelius Vanderbilt, the railway magnate and richest man in America, and married Cambridge classical scholar instead.
When the wealthy, manly Henry proposed in September 1883, Maud politely refused and set off to spend the winter travelling around Europe with another aunt. By December they were in Rome, and Caroline was still hoping that her niece would reconsider Henry’s offer: ‘after six months of married life, Maud would be devoted to a man like Mr Taylor, and quite happy and settled in her life.’ Would she ever have a better offer? Caroline was not sure. In February Maud and her aunt left Rome and travelled to Castellamare, where they found a note waiting for them. It was from George Darwin, who happened to be passing through Italy, he said, on his way home from a trip to Tunisia. Might he call on them? It was all Caroline’s doing of course. Back in Cambridge she had come to realize that George liked her niece very much, but Maud did not see this kindly, reserved older man in a romantic light. So Caroline told him to go to Italy to find her.
Maud and George spent the next two weeks in each other’s company. Away from Cambridge he lost much of his English awkwardness and reserve. He spoke Italian fluently, was an energetic walker and enthusiastic about everything. ‘G.D. picked violets and crocuses for me, and we walked and walked and talked and talked’, Maud wrote to her sister, describing how, after one long walk, George hailed a passing donkey cart to give them a lift back to their hotel. ‘It was so funny!’, Maud told her sister, describing how he and the driver jumped out when they went up hills. ‘To think of a Professor in Cambridge running by the side of a donkey cart… And me in the cart too!’. In Florence George proposed and Maud accepted happily. Caroline was delighted to hear the news, with one reservation. ‘He must call me Cara, not Aunt’, she told her niece sternly. ‘I can’t stand that from a man so near my own age.’
A couple of weeks later another worry occurred to Caroline, and she wrote to George directly. The Darwin family ‘might think this was a match of my making’, she warned him, ‘And it wasn’t a bit, mind that! You were both a thousand miles away from any influence of mine and words can’t say how thankful I am. If there is a suspicion of my being a matchmaker, I utterly and entirely repudiate it…’
Ann Kennedy Smith.
Please reference as follows: Ann Kennedy Smith, ‘Marrying Maud’ https://akennedysmith.wordpress.com/(Accessed: day/month/year)
Sources: Gwen Raverat’s account of her mother’s first visit to Cambridge in ‘Prelude’, the first chapter of Period Piece (Faber and Faber, 1952) is simply unsurpassable, as are her beautiful illustrations. Maud’s words are taken from Frances Spalding’s elegant biography Gwen Raverat: Friends, Family, and Affections (Harvill Press, 2001, pp. 38 and 40). All quotations from Caroline’s letters are taken from With Dearest Love to All: The Life and Letters of Lady Jebb by Mary Jane Bobbitt (Faber and Faber, 1960).