Hvem var Clara? 1-3

  • Kaj Thaning


Who was Clara?

By Kaj Thaning

In this essay the author describes his search for Clara Bolton and her acquaintance with among others Benjamin Disraeli and the priest, Alexander d’Arblay, a son of the author, Fanny Burney. He gives a detailed account of Clara Bolton and leaves no doubt about the deep impression she made on Grundtvig, even though he met her and spoke to her only once in his life at a dinner party in London on June 24th 1830. Kaj Thaning has dedicated his essay to Dr. Oscar Wood, Christ Church College, Oxford, and explains why: “Just 30 years ago, while one of my daughters was working for Dr. Oscar Wood, she asked him who “Mrs. Bolton” was. Grundtvig speaks of her in a letter to his wife dated June 25th 1830. Through the Disraeli biographer, Robert Blake, Dr. Wood discovered her identity, so I managed to add a footnote to my thesis (p. 256). She was called Clara! The Disraeli archives, once preserved in Disraeli’s home at Hughenden Manor but now in the British Museum, contain a bundle of letters which Dr. Wood very kindly copied for me. The letters fall into three groups, the middle one being from June 1832, when Clara Bolton was campaigning, in vain, for Disraeli’s election to parliament. Her husband was the Disraeli family doctor, and through him she wrote her first letter to Benjamin Disraeli, asking for his father’s support for her good friend, Alexander d’Arblay, a theology graduate, in his application for a position. This led to the young Disraeli asking her to write to him at his home at Bradenham. There are therefore a group of letters from before June 1832. Similarly there are a number of letters from a later date, the last being from November 1832”.

The essay is divided into three sections: 1) Clara Bolton and Disraeli, 2) The break between them, 3) Clara Bolton and Alexander d’Arblay. The purpose of the first two sections is to show that the nature of Clara Bolton’s acquaintance with Disraeli was otherwise than has been previously assumed. She was not his lover, but his political champion. The last section explains the nature of her friendship with Alex d’Arblay. Here she was apparently the object of his love, but she returned it merely as friendship in her attempt to help him to an appointment and to a suitable lifelong partner. He did acquire a new position but died shortly after. There is a similarity in her importance for both Grundtvig and d’Arblay in that they were both clergymen and poets. Disraeli and Grundtvig were also both writers and politicians.

At the age of 35 Clara Bolton died, on June 29th 1839 in a hotel in Le Havre, according to the present representative of the Danish Institute in Rouen, Bent Jørgensen. She was the daughter of Michael Peter Verbecke and Clarissa de Brabandes, names pointing to a Flemish background. On the basis of archive studies Dr. Michael Hebbert has informed the author that Clara’s father was a merchant living in Bread Street, London, between 1804 and 1807. In 1806 a brother was born. After 1807 the family disappears from the archives, and Clara’s letters reveal nothing about her family. Likewise the circumstances of her death are unknown.

The light here shed on Clara Bolton’s life and personality is achieved through comprehensive quotations from her letters: these are to be found in the Danish text, reproduced in English.

Previous conceptions of Clara’s relationship to Disraeli have derived from his business manager, Philip Rose, who preserved the correspondence between them and added a commentary in 1885, after Disraeli’s death. He it is who introduces the rumour that she may have been Disraeli’s mistress. Dr. Wood, however, doubts that so intimate a relationship existed between them, and there is much in the letters that directly tells against it. The correspondence is an open one, open both to her husband and to Disraeli’s family. As a 17-year-old Philip Rose was a neighbour of Disraeli’s family at Bradenham and a friend of Disraeli’s younger brother, Ralph, who occasionally brought her letters to Bradenham. It would have been easy for him to spin some yarn about the correspondence. In her letters Clara strongly advocates to Disraeli that he should marry her friend, Margaret Trotter. After the break between Disraeli and Clara it was public knowledge that Lady Henrietta Sykes became his mistress, from 1833 to 1836. Her letters to him are of a quite different character, being extremely passionate. Yet Philip Rose’s line is followed by the most recent biographers of Disraeli: the American, Professor B. R. Jerman in The Young Disraeli (1960), the English scholar Robert Blake, in Disraeli (1963) and Sarah Bradford in Disraeli (1983). They all state that Clara Bolton was thought to be Disraeli’s mistress, also by members of his own family. Blake believes that the originator of this view was Ralph Disraeli. It is accepted that Clara Bolton 7 Grundtvig Studier 1985 was strongly attracted to Disraeli, to his manner, his talents, his writing, and not least to his eloquence during the 1832 election campaign. But nothing in her letters points to a passionate love affair.

A comparison can be made with Henrietta Sykes’ letters, which openly burn with love. Blake writes of Clara Bolton’s letters (p. 75): “There is not the unequivocal eroticism that one finds in the letters from Henrietta Sykes.” In closing one of her letters Clara writes that her husband, George Buckley Bolton, is waiting impatiently for her to finish the letter so that he can take it with him.

She wants Disraeli married, but not to anybody: “You must have a brilliant star like your own self”. She writes of Margaret Trotter: “When you see M. T. you will feel so inspired you will write and take her for your heroine... ” (in his novels). And in her last letter to Disraeli (November 18th 1832) she says: “... no one thing could reconcile me more to this world of ill nature than to see her your wife”. The letter also mentions a clash she has had with a group of Disraeli’s opponents. It shows her temperament and her supreme skill, both of which command the respect of men. No such bluestockings existed in Denmark at the time; she must have impressed Grundtvig.

Robert Blake accepts that some uncertainty may exist in the evaluation of letters which are 150 years old, but he finds that they “do in some indefinable way give the impression of brassiness and a certain vulgarity”. Thaning has told Blake his view of her importance for Grundtvig, and this must have modified Blake’s portrait. He writes at least: “... she was evidently not stupid, and she moved in circles which had some claim to being both intellectual and cosmopolitan.”

He writes of the inspiration which Grundtvig owed to her, and he concludes: “There must have been more to her than one would deduce by reading her letters and the letters about her in Disraeli’s papers.” - She spoke several languages, and moved in the company of nobles and ambassadors, politicians and literary figures, including John Russell, W.J.Fox, Eliza Flower, and Sarah Adams.

However, from the spring of 1833 onwards it is Henrietta Sykes who portrays Clara Bolton in the Disraeli biographies, and naturally it is a negative portrait. The essay reproduces in English a quarrel between them when Sir Francis Sykes was visiting Clara, and Lady Sykes found him there. Henrietta Sykes regards the result as a victory for herself, but Clara’s tears are more likely to have been shed through bitterness over Disraeli, who had promised her everlasting friendship and “unspeakable obligation”. One notes that he did not promise her love. Yet despite the quarrel they all three dine together the same evening, they travel to Paris together shortly afterwards, and Disraeli comes to London to see the them off. The trip however was far from idyllic. The baron and Clara teased Henrietta. Later still she rented a house in fashionable Southend and invited Disraeli down. Sir Francis, however, insisted that the Boltons should be invited too. The essay includes Blake’s depiction of “the curious household” in Southend, (p. 31).

In 1834 Clara Bolton left England and took up residence at a hotel in the Hague. A Rotterdam clergyman approached Disraeli’s vicar and he turned to Disraeli’s sister for information about the mysterious lady, who unaccompanied had settled in the Hague, joined the church and paid great attention to the clergy. She herself had said that she was financing her own Sunday School in London and another one together with the Disraeli family. In her reply Sarah Disraeli puts a distance between the family and Clara, who admittedly had visited Bradenham five years before, but who had since had no connection with the family. Sarah is completely loyal to her brother, who has long since dropped Clara. By the time the curious clergyman had received this reply, Clara had left the Hague and arrived at Dover, where she once again met Alexander d’Arblay.

Alex was born in 1794, the son of a French general who died in 1818, and Fanny Burney. She was an industrious correspondent; as late as 1984 the 12th and final volume of her Journals and Letters was published. Jens Peter .gidius, a research scholar at Odense University, has brought to Dr Thaning’s notice a book about Fanny Burney by Joyce Hemlow, the main editor of the letters. In both the book and the notes there is interesting information about Clara Bolton.

In the 12th volume a note (p. 852) reproduces a letter characterising her — in a different light from the Disraeli biographers. Thaning reproduces the note (pp. 38-39). The letter is written by Fanny Burney’s half-sister, Sarah Harriet Burney, and contains probably the only portrait of her outside the Disraeli biographies.

It is now easier to understand how she captivated Grundtvig: “very handsome, immoderately clever, an astrologer, even, that draws out... Nativities” — “... besides poetry-mad... very entertaining, and has something of the look of a handsome witch. Lady Combermere calls her The Sybil”. The characterisation is not the letter-writer’s but that of her former pupil, Harriet Crewe, born in 1808, four years after Clara Bolton. A certain distance is to be seen in the way she calls Clara “poetry-mad”, and says that she has “conceived a fancy for Alex d’Arblay”.

Thaning quotes from a letter by Clara to Alex, who apparently had proposed to her, but in vain (see his letter to her and the reply, pp. 42-43). Instead she pointed to her friend Mary Ann Smith as a possible wife. This is the last letter known in Clara’s handwriting and contradicts talk of her “vulgarity”. However, having become engaged to Mary Ann Alex no longer wrote to her and also broke off the correspondence with his mother, who had no idea where he had gone. His cousin wrote to her mother that she was afraid that he had “some Chére Amie”. “The charges are unjust,” says Thaning. “It was a lost friend who pushed him off. This seems to be borne out by a poem which has survived (quoted here on p. 45), and which includes the lines: “But oh young love’s impassioned dream /N o more in a worn out breast may glow / Nor an unpolluted stream / From a turgid fountain flow.””

Alex d’Arblay died in loneliness and desperation shortly afterwards. Dr. Thaning ends his summary: “I can find no other explanation for Alexander d’Arblay’s fate than his infatuation with Clara Bolton. In fact it can be compared to Grundtvig’s. For Alex the meeting ended with “the pure stream” no longer flowing from its source. For Grundtvig, on the other hand the meeting inspired the lines in The Little Ladies: Clara’s breath opened the mouth, The rock split and the stream flowed out.”

Thaning, K. (1985). Hvem var Clara? 1-3. Grundtvig-Studier, 37(1), 11-46. https://doi.org/10.7146/grs.v37i1.15940