There may have been women as lovely, there may have been women more lovely; but never in the whole history of the British nation have two sisters been accorded so prominent a position in the ranks of the beautiful as have been the two famous daughters of Mrs. Gunning. The beauty of the younger united the houses of Douglas-hamilton and Campbell, and the elder sister, who became Countess of Coventry, Walpole expected one day to see as Queen of Prussia.
In the reign of James I. Richard Gunning, a representative of the senior line of the Gunning, or Gonning. family, of Tregonning, in Cornwall, which had died out in 1587, migrated to Ireland. Here he settled on an estate called Castle Coote, in Roscommon. In 1731 John Gunning, a descendant of his, a student of law and the heir to a heavily-burdened property, after the manner of impecunious people, rendered a precarious position still more precarious by falling in love with a penniless young girl. This lady, the Hon. Bridget Bourke, a daughter of Viscount Bourke, consented to throw in her lot with him, with the result that they were duly married.
At first the young couple lived in England, and there were born the two eldest children, both lovely girls.
Castle Coote, he and his family crossed to Ireland. The wildness of Connaught, however, did not appeal to Mrs. Gunning, and soon she decided to escape with her children to Dublin or to London, if funds permitted.
Dublin Taken by Storm
Early in the summer of 1748, therefore, the Gunnings' exodus from Connaught took place. The scantiness of their resources may be estimated from the fact that, on October 30, when a birthnight ball had been arranged to take place at Dublin Castle, the two Misses Gunning feared they would be unable to avail themselves of this opportunity to join the Court circle, because they possessed no suitable dresses.
Fortunately, however, an application to
Mr. Sheridan, manager at the Dublin theatre, proved successful, and the difficulty as to costume was removed by his placing the establishment's wardrobe at the service of the young ladies. From that evening onwards the two girls made a triumphal progress through society. But their financial position grew steadily worse and worse.
Indeed, Miss Bellamy, who was acting then in Dublin, records that on her way back from rehearsal one day she heard a wail of distress, and on entering the house from which the cries came, she discovered " a lady of most elegant figure," with four beautiful girls and a boy about three years old around her.
The lady was Mrs. Gunning, who at once explained the cause of their woe. Expenses during their residence in Dublin had far exceeded their income and the bailiffs were " in," on behalf of some of the creditors Miss Bellamy took pity on the miserable family, and hurried them off to her own quarters, where she gave them food and lodging, while her servant hoodwinked the bailiffs, and contrived to rescue all the portable property of the Gunnings from the clutches of the law.
According to the same authority, while living with her in Dublin, the two girls consulted a seer of some repute, to discover what the future had in store for them. They were told that they would become peeresses, and Maria was informed that she would die comparatively early.
During the two years of their residence in Dublin the two girls were the toast of all the beaux, the divinity of all the poets, and the admiration of all beholders, but it was a mystery at the time, and it remains a mystery to this day, how they managed to pay their way for the ordinary necessaries of existence, and how they obtained the means to lead a life of continual gaiety among the rich in the capital of Ireland.
Lord Harrington was Viceroy at this time, and he followed closely the gorgeous example of entertainment set by his predecessor, the notable Earl of Chesterfield. Money, therefore, and money in considerable quantities, must have been paid into
Mrs. Gunning's exchequer; whence it came it is impossible to discover.
Glowing reports of the success of the " beautiful Misses Gunning " soon reached London, Bath, Paris, and other resorts of the great and wealthy. Their success as " beauties " undoubtedly was unprecedented in the annals of the Viceregal court, but to the reports were added vague rumours about dowries, which had no substantial basis whatever.
Mrs. Dewes consulted her sister, Mrs. Delany, on the subject, and that prolific writer, whose letters have been selected and published, replied from Delville, close to Dublin, on June 8, 1750:
" I have stole away to finish my letter, with a promise (this being a jubilee, day) of playing to them [her guests] on the harpsichord as soon as I have done. All you have heard of the Misses Gunning is true except their having a fortune, but I am afraid they have a greater want than that, which is discretion ! "
Indeed, the financial strain soon became so severe that Mrs. Gunning arrived at the reasonable conclusion that a crowd of admirers was all very well, but that it was now time to make sure of a husband. At any rate, she determined to change the scene of action and proceed to London, if she could but get hold of a little ready money.
This the Irish Government helped her to obtain (it had a pleasant way of doing that sort of thing in those days), for she was accommodated with the annual increase of £150 to her very meagre income by having her name added to the Irish Establishment list as a beneficiary to that amount. This providential assistance came at the right moment, and away Mrs. Gunning and her family went to England.