Bloomsbury Square, July 2020
Forgive my impertinence; we have not met, nor have I hope of ever doing so since I write this at a distance of almost 300 years since your passing. In truth, I have only known your name these past three weeks.
An explanation is warranted. Like you, I am a writer of letters, although you would hardly recognise the manner. Today, we use impossible machines and have only to press a button for our scribbles to reach their intended recipient.
That being said, I am no stranger to pen and paper, still enjoying the feeling of connection in my hand. Having now read some of your correspondence, I suspect you know the feeling to which I refer – it is clear that this physical act tied you to those you loved best. I think particularly of your husband, William, Lord Russell, your ‘best life’ and ‘dearest heart’; taken from you by his enemies, executed for his alleged involvement in what we now call the Rye House plot.
Are you surprised to learn that a stranger has read your private correspondence? I do not mean to cause alarm. Your letters and essays that survived can be found in a book, compiled about 100 years after your passing. Your words meant something, even went some way to restoring your husband’s reputation.
But why, perhaps you ask, do I tell you of such things? I was tasked with exploring an area of London you once knew well as part of an annual festival in the vicinity. We call it Bloomsbury Square, although you would have known it as Southampton – built by your father, the fourth earl of Southampton, and the first of its kind in London. Your great mansion has gone, sadly, and I dare say the square itself is transfigured.
In short, madam, I was compelled to write. Women have not fared well in historical terms, too many voices left unheard. To hear you directly was an opportunity too great to ignore. And while you came to my attention because of the men in your life (your great-great grandfather will be better known to my contemporaries as ‘Call Me Risley’, on account of a series of fictional books based upon the life of Thomas Cromwell), it is you who captivated me.
You, who helped write your husband’s execution speech. You, who continued to enjoy the ear of politicians and royalty throughout your life. You, who lived to the age of 86 in an era when average life expectancy was just 32 years. You, who wrote in your will that the residue of transactions would pass to your remaining daughter ‘alone and without her husband’.
You, who, having survived smallpox only to lose your beloved son to the disease at the age of 30 – despite warnings not to visit Streatham because of its prevalence in those parts – would well understand the anxiety that millions of Londoners like me have felt living through a pandemic these past months.
You. Your words. Yours in all ways,
Note: I am indebted to Letters of Rachel Russell and Lady Rachel Russell – One of the Best of Women by Lois G. Schwoerer, both stored on the shelves of The London Library.
Photo credit: Rachel Russell (née Wriothesley), Lady Russell by Henry Meyer, after Samuel Cooper stipple engraving, published 1853 NPG D5859 © National Portrait Gallery, London