Blogger receives Provost Fellowship
By Anna Gaynor
Sarah Deas has always been a devotee of the American Revolution. Since her first history class at Loyola, the now-senior was hooked on the tales of George Washington, John Adams, and the rest of the Founding Fathers.
It’s ironic then that the award-winning history blog that helped earn her a Provost Fellowship focuses on what happened on the other side of the Atlantic. That blog, The Invisible Faces, profiles some of the more interesting members of the English courts in the mid- to late 18th century.
“I don’t want to say the court is overlooked, but the court can get a rep of it’s just a bunch of people dressing up, being pretentious, and just acting a certain way to get in favor with the monarch, which to an extent is true,” said Deas, a history major. “But they also had a major influence on the monarch. I think it’s a very interesting influence to study and how it affected the wider whole of English history.”
She started the blog on the suggestion of Professor Robert Bucholz, PhD, chair of the Department of History at Loyola. As part of her internship with him, she was tasked with looking through online archives and expanding an inventory called the Database of Court Officers, which catalogs the servants and officers in the English courts from 1660 to 1901.
“Someone’s title is maybe lady of the bedchamber, so you think, oh that’s a nice dainty title,” Deas said. “But then that’s a very powerful position to be in. I didn’t realize how powerful some of these positions could be.”
Cast of characters
The blog helped her win the History Department’s Undergraduate Blogging/Vlogging Contest. The characters she has uncovered have ranged from an apothecary who was name-dropped in Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion to a twice-over widow who had some choice words for poet Alexander Pope on women’s education—words that were published in the form of couplets, naturally.
For Deas, though, the one standout may be Lady Mary Cowper, whose diary depicted a biting and sometimes rather eventful life at court.
“She was very blunt about things,” Deas said. “She’s very perceptive and she wasn’t afraid to write it.”
For one, there was her secret engagement to her fiancé, William, who would eventually become Lord Chancellor to the king. And then there were the women who kept making advances on her betrothed. One went so far as to threaten his future career if he didn’t marry her instead. But then after Mary and William wed—in secret—there was the letter he received from an admirer, which sparked quite the marital rift when Mary found it.
And that’s not including the political incidents, either.
“At one point there’s a gap in her diary because there was a whole scandal that her husband was implicated in,” Deas said. “So she burned part of her diary—because that’s what you do when you’re trying to avoid a scandal is you burn something. I don’t know why she thought that was a good idea, but she did.”
‘A natural-born historian’
Bucholz suggested Deas start profiling court members like Mary Cowper while she was researching for the database the courts of Prince George and Princess Caroline. Because her work means going through page after page of primary sources, compiling individual biographies helped keep things interesting.
“She’s a natural-born historian,” Bucholz said. “She loves to find out about the past. She loves to find out things about the past that might strike some people as being obscure. I’ve given her a pretty tough assignment in that she’s working on this database of court officers.”
The database is an attempt to create an entry for every person who has ever served in the royal household. With 15,000 entries already, it includes when people arrived in court, the positions they held, and when they left. Having this information on the royal families’ entourages can help shed some light on the movers and shakers of the 1700s.
“One way to think about power is a flow chart,” Bucholz said. “They used to teach us the senate and the order of succession of the presidency, and you could lay it out in a chart. But that’s not where real power is. Real power is two people who may not be on the chart but who the president listens to. Real power takes place not necessarily in the senate chamber but when those people go out for drinks afterward. That’s what we’re studying, the informal aspect of power.”
Thanks to the Provost Fellowship, Deas will be researching the courts of George and Caroline’s children through the summer, which is perfect because it’s given her an excuse to keep plowing ahead with the database and the blog.
“It shows what happens to real people,” she said. “Here’s a specific person. Here’s what happened to them and how this affected them personally. These people are kind of forgotten. They’re just names on a list, so it’s cool to kind of give breath back into these individuals that have been gone for awhile.”