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Guest Blog–Mistress of Riversdale

I’m very excited to introduce Mrs. Rosalie Calvert, who in her twenty-first century existence is Katherine Spivey. Katherine has read everything I’ve read, and more (and Katherine, I still have one of your books. Sorry about that). This Saturday, Mrs. Calvert, dressed to the nines, will appear at Riversdale House Museum, MD, when we celebrate the Battle of Bladensburg, an inglorious defeat at the hands of the British that took place just a couple of miles from the mansion.

Mrs. Calvert is graciously receiving callers at her splendid house. Come on in and have a nice cup of tea and enjoy some sophisticated, witty conversation of the sort so rarely met with on these shores …

Thanks, Janet, for inviting me to be a guest blogger. I’m honored. Janet and I volunteer at Riversdale House Museum in Maryland, and we’ve co-presented on 18th- and 19th-century literature. At Riversdale, Janet’s a docent, and I’m a historical interpreter/reenactor/person who dresses up and pretends to be someone in history.

The person I interpret is Rosalie Stier Calvert, an emigre from Belgium who came to the United States in 1794. She married into the Calvert family, her parents built Riversdale, and then her family moved back to Europe. We’re enormously lucky to have as a source her treasurer trove of letters, which were discovered in Belgium around 30 years ago, translated, and published by Johns Hopkins University as Mistress of Riversdale: The Plantation Letters of Rosalie Stier Calvert. Few letters have provided such a robust picture of American life from a foreign and female viewpoint. I’ve been playing her since 1995.

Since she wrote her letters to family and not with an eye to publication, she reveals many things: customs and manners in the fledgling United States (she dislikes most American women), the travails of raising a family (although a large family is delightful if the children are well-behaved), the effects of the embargo and the war (no one has any cash!), gardening and horticulture (“I am disgusted with all controversy except for politics”), politics (her low opinion of President “Tommy Jeff”), fashions, and the economy (she acted as business agent for her father and brother).

In one of her letters she describes the aftereffects of the burning of Washington in 1814. During the Battle of Bladensburg, she saw the “rockets’ red glare” from her bedroom windows. Her husband and son went to the battlefield to render aid and bury the dead. She stored the recovered rifles in her bedroom.

Before the British invaded, people had defined themselves by state, but after the burning of Washington the country united: “We are all Americans now.”

How did I get started reenacting? I met some people at a ball at Gadsby’s and started dancing. Then I started participating in civilian reenactments for the colonial period at places like Carlyle House in Alexandria and the State Department. Then I stepped in as Rosalie Calvert at one of the period dinners during Maryland’s tricentennial: three hours of being a character live. I couldn’t script the conversation; I just had to be Rosalie Calvert: say the sorts of things she might say, include topics she would introduce, betray the opinions she held. While I’m Mrs. Calvert, I don’t say favorable things about Presidents Jefferson and Madison, even though my other reenacting character is Mrs. Madison.

And what, pray tell, does reenacting have to do with romances? Specifically Regencies? I’d read Jane Austen’s ouevre by the end of middle school. I’d read all of Georgette Heyer’s by the time I finished high school. And I did graduate work at the University of Virginia on 18th- and early 19th-century British novels. I love the pace of the sentences, the graduated degrees of intimacy in conversation, the architecture of the works, and the undoubted moralism (well, Mrs. Heyer not so much).

Indeed, Mrs. Calvert’s life reads like a romance in high life–except that she had a due sense of humor and proportion, enjoyed being busy, and had an undoubted capacity for business. Included in all of this was a love of reading novels: “We have 11 novels in the house,” she says, though her mother reads them to improve her English.

The more I work with her, the more she’s begun to resonate with my own life. I’ve started gardening and getting my finances in order, and I’ve even learned to like anchovies. (Life imitates history, after all.) I may even learn to like hock. I just got back from a weekend at the beach; a reenacting event next weekend means I wore a large hat, went out only between 7-9 a.m. and 7-8 p.m., and slathered enough sunscreen to cover Almack’s. I enlisted my husband in my search for cameo brooches, period-authentic amethyst or opal rings, and long kid gloves that fit.

It’s important to remember that she loved her family dearly. She never saw any of them after they returned to Europe; Rosalie was either pregnant or prevented by war/embargo from going to Europe on a visit. She once went a year without getting a letter from her family. I’m convinced she would have been an early adopter (#federaleramomblogger) of social media and probably would have had a smartphone.

That being said, bring on the questions!

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Janet Mullany
12 years ago

Welcome, Katherine! Tell us about your clothes. How many outfits do you have and how long does it take to get dressed?

Audrey
12 years ago

Hi Katherine,

Tell us about the wonderful art collection that was housed at Riversdale and what happened to it.

Katherine
12 years ago

How many clothes? Enough to fill a walk-in closet and then some. Let’s see: 15 gowns, 3 wigs, 7 bonnets, never enough gloves, 4 pairs of slippers that will need replacing soon, 2 chemises (ahem)…Getting dressed is quite a production. I can’t do it in less than 45 minutes; more if i’m wearing contacts and full/ball dress.

I’m fortunate that my husband is willing to help and is getting a lot of practice with teeny tiny buttons.

Once when I had an event during the week, I had to dress at work. I was very careful to choose a ‘sober, discreet matron” to help with my gown and wig; my coworkers were giggling too much to be much help.

Katherine
12 years ago

Art collection Oh, this is a great story. When the Stiers left Antwerp, Mr. Stier (Rosalie’s father) packed up his exquisite art collection of the Old Masters and brought it to the New World. He left it with Rosalie when the Stiers returned to Europe. Her letters are full of tidbits as “peeked at the paintings to check on them”, “wiped off some white dust with a cloth”, etc. Returning them to her father was difficult because of the British embargo and the usual problems with the weather. She finally did return the paintings, but she held a viewing at Riversdale that was quite a social event: “paintings never before seen”.

Diane Gaston
12 years ago

Katherine, I love that Rosalie called the President Tommy Jeff!
And that you play Mrs. Madison as well, with totally opposite views!

I am close enough to attend the reinactment, so it is KILLING ME that I can’t do it this weekend! I do pine for a man in regimentals.

I did visit Riversdale House once for a booksigning with Mary Jo Putney and I forget who else…Sophia Nash, perhaps…I read aloud from my book for the very first time ever! I must say, everyone was very welcoming there.

Janet Mullany
12 years ago

Do you interchange clothes between Rosalie and Dollie (and do either of the ladies object as I’m sure they would do in real life?)

Katherine
12 years ago

Wardrobe borrowing Shhh. Neither lady knows that I have borrowed the other’s gowns. Let’s keep it a secret.

< normal tones > Generally I reserve the purple palette (lavendar, mauve, orchid, plum) for Mrs. Calvert, and use the other colors for Mrs. Madison, particularly the yellows and reds she was fond of. But it’s more of a guideline than an actual rule.

Katherine
12 years ago

Diane, I’m sorry you can’t come to Riversdale this weekend. I always enjoy welcoming guests.

I can’t promise to pine for a man in regimentals, but I might manage to balsam.

As regards Jefferson, Mrs. Calvert was disgusted by the fact that he had described Riversdale as being “in the Chinese style.” In her view anyone capable of such a mistake couldn’t be trusted with a pencil much less a country. Architecture is a harsh mistress.

Diane Gaston
12 years ago

Ha. ha. I wonder what she would have said about Monticello? And if Tommy Jeff knew of her disdain, since I suspect he fancied himself to know a great deal about architecture?

Kim in Hawaii
12 years ago

Aloha, Katerine! I moved from the Baltimore area last summer and miss the connections to our country’s history (but thankful for the balmy weather in Hawaii).

I thought this was a an interesting quote from Rosalie’s letters, ‘Before the British invaded, people had defined themselves by state, but after the burning of Washington the country united: “We are all Americans now.”

Do her letters indicate how quickly the US was able to establish relations again with England after the War of 1812? Any contributing factors?

It still amazes me that England could wage war agains the US while chasing Napoleon throughout Europe.

Janet Mullany
12 years ago

Re Tommy Jeff–Rosalie was very proud that she had solid mahogany (expensive, imported) doors in her house, unlike the fakes at the White House. Nanana boo boo.

Melissa
12 years ago

SUCH interesting content!

How did Mrs. Calvert act as agent for her father and brother when she had no legal rights–no power to sign contracts, for example?

I suspect that, with enough money, legal niceties can be overlooked.

So unlike our own time…

Also, was Mrs Calvert Catholic?

Katherine
12 years ago

Aloha, Kim! Briefly–and I mean very briefly indeed–those in the United States who favored Britain (mostly New Englanders) were able to reestablish cordial trade relations. In addition, Waterloo and the Congress of Vienna (as well as a small contretemps called the Battle of New Orleans) sort of balanced the accounts. I don’t remember where I read it, but Wellington was asked whether the British could succeed, and he essentially said no, due to the long supply lines, the obstinancy of the Americans, and such like. Sound military thinking.

And it’s important to remember that the War of 1812 didn’t get us any territory, but it did underline boundaries. In other words, we didn’t go after Canada any more.

But to hark back to President Jefferson, one of the reasons Mrs. Calvert held him and his politics in disdain was that he favored France–and France was the country whose revolution had upset Europe and forced Mrs. Calvert’s family to flee. Mrs. Calvert admired the British. So, fake doors or no, I don’t think they’d ever come to a meeting of the minds. I was considering this one day, as in “What would Mrs. Calvert do if President Jefferson showed up?” I decided she’d be courteous and insist that the conversation cover flowers and horticulture. I don’t think she could object to Mr. Jefferson’s observations on those.

Melissa
12 years ago

Tommy Jeff! I’ve have never before pictured the creator of Monticello as a country music star… but wouldn’t
“Tommy Jeff and the Louisiana Purchase” be a great name for a band?

Katherine
12 years ago

More about the doors One compelling fact that came out in the letters was that for a certain period during the embargo nobody had any money. Dollars were torn in half for a half dollar, etc. Tobacco rotted in warehouses because it couldn’t get past the blockade. So like most people the Calverts ordered what they could afford, and put what they couldn’t afford on their wish list. (I wish I had relatives in Europe sending me the pick of the market–amethyst rings, silver settings, silks and muslins, etc.

There are some shortcuts (ahem) at Riversdale; I’d encourage you all to visit and pay particular attention to the dining room.

Katherine
12 years ago

Hello, Meliss! Yes, Mrs. Calvert was Catholic. And even though Maryland was founded as a Catholic refuge, actual freedoms accorded Catholics depended on the year and who was in power. Her mother was concerned that she’d be able to worship as a Catholic since there were so few priests. Indeed, Mrs. Calvert ended up going to Anglican services later in life. I’d appreciate knowing more specifics about religious life in the Federal City; I’ve always assumed that Georgetown would have some.

Also, I don’t know the legal ramifications of acting as a business agent, but her letters are full of “please check that this is according to your wishes” and “you suggested the Bank of –, but rumours paint them as unreliable”. She describes trying to teach herself accounting, and seems to have managed quite nicely. (Mrs. Madison could have used half her ability.)

and yes, Tommy Jeff and the Louisiana Purchase would be a great name for a rock band. Or perhaps a rockabilly band. Or even a rockasillybilly band. OK, enough band names.

Melissa
12 years ago

A very High Church Anglican communion service is virtually indistinguishable from a Roman Catholic mass. (“Bells and smells” is the Episcopal term.)

EXCEPT, of course, it’s in English. Mrs Calvert would have heard mass in Latin.

Janet Mullany
12 years ago

I understood that Mr. Stier went to great pains to make sure that Rosalie was the owner of Riversdale by using, ironically enough, French law. The Napoleonic code allowed married women to own their own property (sole femme). And obviously this held in the federal era.

Uh, or I’ve been misleading visitors to Riversdale about this. Oops.

George (Rosalie’s husband) pretty much kept his business affairs separate since he owned a tobacco plantation some dozen miles away and had an alternate family with a slave woman there. There’s a possible reference to it in one of the letters, where Stier advises Rosalie on making the house such a pleasant place that a husband will wish to return, but without the letter from Rosalie to which he is responding it’s impossible to know. I imagine a lot of plantation wives found themselves in this position, although the marriage does seem to have been a love match as well as being eminently suitable: not only was George a great catch with huge tracts o land but he was an illegitimate descendant of the powerful Lords Baltimore who “founded” Maryland.

Janet Mullany
12 years ago

Totally random question: in the portrait of Rosalie she’s wearing black, and I wonder if she’s in mourning for someone at this time? (around 1802, correct?) Or was it a fashion statement–she looks quite hot in black. Ooh la la.

Katherine
12 years ago

Janet, I’ll have to look up your point about the Stiers’ use of French law. I’d always thought they had some kind of prenup, given the way the Stiers divided their property (equally to all siblings, male or female, not the English custom of primogeniture). And I think that if Mr. Stier named her executrix/business agent, then it would be legal, if unusual. (I am not a lawyer, nor do I play one on historytv.)

Also, I don’t think George Calvert himself was illegimate; I think an ancestor was. But again, he didn’t seem to get on with his family; they were always coming to him with problems to solve.

And re the portrait in black? I don’t have my book with me, but black fabric would have been expensive, so as much a function of status. And it could have been her best frock. Dr. Ann Wass from last week could pronounce more definitively than I can.

Janet Mullany
12 years ago

George’s father was an illegitimate son of one of the Calverts, which raises the question of why he (George) was allowed to use the family surname; I guess it was rather like Edward (Austen) Knight.

Ann Wass
Ann Wass
12 years ago

Ann here–you may remember from my post last week that I have the privilege of working at Riversdale. Mrs. Calvert was indeed in mourning for her mother when her portrait was painted. As to accounting, Mrs. Calvert learned to keep books in school–English nuns kept a school in Liege.

Ann Wass
Ann Wass
12 years ago

And as to the issue of owning property. Mrs. Calvert’s general rights to her own property were spelled out in a marriage contract (aka pre-nuptual agreement) but this, of course, was before the building of Riversdale. It did take some time to confirm her ownership of Riversdale. One of our colleagues traced out the process several years ago. She had to confirm her citizenship, papers from her father had to be done a certain way, and ultimately an act of the Maryland legislature confirmed her ownership.

librarypat
librarypat
12 years ago

Wow, I want what’s in your closet. When it comes to dressing and doing hair, it is no wonder ladies maids were a necessity. Either that or you needed helpful sisters.

I was a docent for a special event many, many years ago. I enjoyed it, but it was early colonial and we didn’t have such elegant outfits. Wish I had known about Riversdale House when we lived in the Washington, DC area. We visit historic houses everywhere we travel. A good historical interpreter/ reenactor make a big difference in how much you get out of the visit.

How did you get started in the reenacting/ interpreting “business.”

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