Words of comfort – Elizabeth Dryden’s correspondence by Jon Stobart

We often think of comfort in terms of physical ease or well-being – epitomised in the comfy armchair; but it also has emotional aspects, both in terms of feeling comfortable (or uncomfortable) in a particular situation and seeking comfort in bereavement or at other times of stress. This complexity was perhaps even more evident in the early nineteenth century, a growing desire for physical comfort was apparent in sofas and easy chairs, hearths that threw heat out into the room, and lamps that improved the lighting of rooms that were increasingly laid out in a manner that was convenient for modern, informal ways of living. Yet all of these were layered onto a persistent and very human need for emotional support.

The Drydens of Canons Ashby

Canons Ashby, Northamptonshire – south front, remodelled by Edward Dryden, c.1700 (photograph by author)

Something of the complexity of the emotional aspects of comfort can be teased out from the correspondence of Elizabeth Dryden of Canons Ashby in Northamptonshire. Elizabeth was the widow of Sir John Turner Dryden, who died in 1797 leaving the estate with debts of £10,980 against an estate income of around £2500 per annum. This indebtedness shaped the rest of her life, and she was – or at least felt herself to be – constantly short of money. It probably contributed to the poor relationship she had with her children. She complained of their ‘bad Tempers & bad dispositions’, although these were blamed on their father: ‘they are all complete Turners, which is saying enough’.[1] She got on particularly badly with her second son, Henry, who inherited the estate at the death of his older brother in 1819, describing him as ‘extravagant & wrong headed’ and even a ‘Malignant Demon’. Importantly, these troubled relationships were often described in terms of comfort. Elizabeth complained in 1812 that ‘I have little comfort in any of my family’ and, in a general tirade against her offspring written two years later, complained that ‘my daughter [Caroline] is indeed a nuisance to me instead of a comfort, so that I cannot be very pleasantly situated’.

The Reverend Sir Henry Dryden, 1787-1837 (© National Trust)

Looking for comfort

Things came to a head in 1819 when Henry inherited the estate on the death of his older brother. Elizabeth was still living at Canons Ashby, but she quickly intensified her search for a London house – something that she had been contemplating for some time. She wrote to her sister-in-law, Mrs Steele, that she wanted a ‘comfortable house in town’, later amplifying this to specify, firstly ‘a moderate residence with a good garden’, preferably Gower Street, and later a ‘a good sized House with garden & backhouse & stables adjoining; the House three rooms on a floor […] I want also a large dining Parlour many feet long’. For Elizabeth, comfort was clearly equated with the size and convenience of the house, but it also needed to be clean and airy. She commended one house as being ‘well aired’, but later in the same letter worried ‘whether I can live at in London as the air disagrees so much with me’ and that she lived in fear of the dreadful colds that afflicted her in town. Moreover, she was worried about the need for new furniture because ‘I have much fear of the bugs [and] must be at the expense I fear of a new bed as all old furniture in London is dangerous’. At times, Elizabeth’s desire for a new home in London was palpable. She wrote thanking Mrs Steele for her efforts in looking for a house ‘which is a thing I much want and indeed cannot be comfortable without’, no doubt because it offered an escape from the discomfort of sharing Canons Ashby with her son, Henry.

Epistolary solace

Neither home nor family offered Elizabeth comfort. Her real source of emotional support came from her correspondence with Mrs Steele. Like many women, writing and receiving letters gave Elizabeth considerable pleasure. This came in many forms including the exchange of news about mutual friends, hopes for the future or memories of the past; the chance to bear one’s soul or vent one’s spleen to a trust confidant, and the opportunity to ask or offer favours. Elizabeth did all of these things in her letters to Mrs Steele and habitually expressed gratitude for those she received in reply, noting on one occasion in 1822 her ‘thanks for your kind letter, they always do me good’. The positive effect of letters was again clear when she informed Mrs Steele that ‘I have had a very comfortable letter from Caroline, repenting much and apologising’. The comfort described here came from the rapprochement that this signalled with her daughter who was suitably repentant for past misdemeanours.

The letters that Elizabeth Dryden valued for the comfort they brought were, of course, physical artefacts that might be treasured and preserved. Many people kept the letters that they received and a small number actively sought to assemble archives of correspondence, retrieving letters from their original recipients. But there is little sign that Elizabeth Dryden engaged in either of these practices. Indeed, she seems to have been largely ambivalent to objects with potential sentimental resonance. When appraising the goods at Canons Ashby in January 1817, she noted in a memorandum that ‘All the family writings which I have are in a long box bound with Hair with my Grandfathers initials, & is sometimes in the Brown Gallery & sometimes in the Storeroom, but ought to be in Sir Edward Drydens custody, as he has the greatest interest in them, not having myself any’. Although aware of their significance in constructing lineage, these were not things that held any emotional connection for Elizabeth – family, in this sense, appears to have mattered little. Significantly, the one set of items that appear to have held some special meaning for her were ‘Two small Cabinet Pictures purchased by my Uncle [which] are in good preservation & hang on each side of the best Cabinet in the Drawing Room’. Provenance, quality and location are all noted, but it is the link to her uncle (her adoptive father) that stands out.

For Elizabeth, this was a rare expression of personal attachment to material objects. She appears to have conceived her comfort mostly in terms of inter-personal relationships, and deployed the word in a manner that closely resembles long-established meanings of consolation and support. Comfort was thus linked to her emotional well-being, but in ways that were dependent upon how she felt about other members of her family and how she felt they were behaving towards her. In contrast, she appears to have invested relatively little emotional energy into specific material objects. This does not mean that comfort was entirely detached from the physical and material, but it does warn us against focusing too much on objects, be they practical or sentimental.

Home comforts?

Which leaves us with the conundrum of her persistent presence at Canons Ashby, despite her avowed intention to leave and her sister-in-law’s protracted search for a suitable London house. Why stay in a place that manifestly involved her in such emotional discomfort? The answer is complex, but revolves around two key factors. One was the establishment of a truce with her son Henry, allowing them to co-exist at Canons Ashby, at least for those months of the year that they were both present, and moderating the push of discomfort. The other was the strong pull exerted by Canons Ashby. The more that apparently suitable houses were found for her, the more Elizabeth found fault with details or with London as a whole. Instead, she began to express a liking for the country and for Canons Ashby in particular. It gave her prestige and social comfort, despite its coldness and dilapidation. It was also home – the place where she lived all her life, except for the early years of her marriage to John Turner Dryden. Perhaps she felt as Mrs Elton did in Jane Austen’s Emma: ‘there is nothing like staying at home, for real comfort’.

Jon Stobart is Professor of History at Manchester Metropolitan University. His research focuses on consumption and the material culture of the country house, and he is currently engaged in a comparative project exploring ideas of comfort and convenience. His co-authored article ‘Comfort in English and Swedish country houses, c.1760-1820’  appears in Social History 43:2.


[1]  Elizabeth Dryden’s correspondence with her sister-in-law Mrs Steele is contained in a bound volume at the Northamptonshire Record Office, D(CA)/361. All quotations are from these letters.