Thursday, February 12, 2015

Adventures in 18th Century Teenagers with a Young Janet Livingston

References for the following are all taken from Janet Livingston Montgomery's Reminiscences, transcribed in the Dutchess County Year Book, 1930.  The Reminiscences were intended for her favorite, and youngest, brother Edward Livingston.

Janet Livingston Montgomery (1743-1828) is best known as the builder of Montgomery Place, or perhaps as the widow of Brigadier General Montgomery, who died in the Battle of Quebec in 1775.  But before Janet was a widow, she was teenager looking for a husband.

Janet was the first of her parents' many children.  I don't know why for sure, but she spent most of her first 12 years growing up with her paternal grandmother and grandfather.  It wasn't an uncommon arrangement to divide up child rearing among several households.  They were happy and indulgent years apparently, but when her grandmother died, she was sent to the care of her paternal grandfather--and his wife Gertrude.

Janet, who much later in life declared "I don't like stupid people.  I have never been accustomed to them," felt stifled under Gertrude, who was her grandfather's second wife.  In a rather cutting description of the woman, Janet once said that she had "all the cunning and intrigue that her weak intellect would allow."

Life with Gertrude and Col. Beekman (the grandfather) was strict, and freshly-turned-teen Janet was dismayed at her life there, listening to the old dame prattle on about her fashionable youth (now long past).  Janet didn't care and found the conversations thoroughly "intolerable."  She needed some space to herself, and you should never underestimate the powers of a determined teenager.

Desperately seeking privacy for visiting with friends, Janet enlisted the help of the family servants in renovating an old, mostly forgotten room in the house.  Apparently "a little hump-back wasp of a steward" had been using it for 50 years, but never mind him--teenage Janet needed some space!

She and the servants cleared out some "large guns, and two large pictures of Indian pheasants," washed the room, and soon thereafter she began receiving her own friends there.

The steward did his best to hang onto a corner of the space.  Once he dared to get off his stool and try to talk to her though, haughty Janet had her grandfather throw him out of the room for good.

Once she had an inch, Janet took a mile.  She wanted a fashionable space to receive her friends.  You know, with wallpaper.  And curtains.  Working with the servants at night--since she was sure she would be denied permission by her financially-concious grandparents--Janet tried to scrape decades of whitewash from the walls, but only wound up completely wrecking the plaster (thankfully the half-deaf grandparents never heard the crash).  She somehow repaired it, purchased wallpaper, borrowed furniture from her parents, and even got her hands on a little stash of Beekman liquor that was so old and bad her grandfather wouldn't touch it (but she loved).  Now she was all set up at home.

But young Janet wanted more than a cozy fireside parlor with her "newspaper and the pipe."  She wanted to go out.  She wanted to meet boys.  It was the 60s now (the 1760s, that is), and she was old enough to "go into company."


The winter social season in New York offered many temptations for an energetic young lady like her.  But her grandfather would have none of it.  He "detested the word engagements," she wrote.  As far as he was concerned "girls knit stockings and spun and learned to make good wives."  Apparently learning to be a good wife wasn't on Janet's to-do list, but going to a few parties and engagements was.  One night she even enlisted the help of several servants (including the coachman and at least one woman) to sneak out in someone else's carriage--a classic technique of getting picked up in front of someone else's house.

Nevertheless, later in life she was proud of her male conquests.  "I had many idle scenes," she wrote.  Knowing that 18th century dating could get a little handsy, I do wonder what those "idle scenes" entailed.

The first young man who called on her was a "Yael" College graduate with a "little bobbed wig and a switch in his hand..."  She turned him away in "disgust."  When telling the story, she felt the need to add "After some years he married and in a fox chase broke his neck."

Another suitor, a "modest Scot" in the military promised to return to her after going to home to get a better commission.  She wasn't quite ready to promise herself to him, but was ready to wait and see if he came back.  "He set sail and was lost at sea."  Suitor number two was dead.  Janet was thinking herself cursed.

So she wasn't completely cloistered.  She got permission to receive guests and even go out from time to time--provided she was home by 10pm, which was just the height of indignity since all her friends "kept late hours."  At least once we know that she and "the three ladies in our house" got permission to go to a play, where she started a little romance with the rather dashing man in the seat next to her.  He was a real socialite, the life of the party, and always raising a toast to Janet when he was out and about.  But when her mother got wind of the romance, Janet was afraid of the outcome.

There wasn't time to worry.  The young man's friends convinced him to go out drinking one night.  They drank until the morning and then decided to go riding (can you see where this is going?).  The man fell and broke his neck, and Janet's little dalliance was over with.; suitor number three was dead too.  "What was surprising, I was prepared for this event by a dream," she said.

Later she fell desperately in love with a handsome officer with "a beautiful coat and cockade" but no money or family connections to speak of.  Her parents put a stop to that, but it was hard for Janet and the "struggle between love and duty was very painful."  Janet's parents weren't going to arrange her marriage, but they certainly weren't going to let her throw in her lot with any old soldier who might not be able to provide for her in the way she was used to.  At least this one didn't die like the last two.

Janet was getting older now and still stuck living under the care of her parents and grandparents.  Her younger brother had already gotten married.  She needed to get focused on her future.

Men in uniform apparently were something of an attraction for her.  When she was 23 she met another soldier who was polite but also shared her general impatience with the human race.  The meeting came and went, but when he returned ten years later, he found her still single, and he struck up conversations again.  The romance went quickly, and they were married that summer.  Janet had long since left her teen years behind, but at least she'd finally accomplished the all-important goal of finding a mate.

Janet's teen years sound remarkably familiar: borrowing the carriage, sneaking out, moderate rebellion (though nothing too wild), a sprinkling of booze and smoking, and several failed romances.  All of this was written when she was 77, and many details in her writings get confused about who was who or when.  This section of the Reminiscences has a lot of clarity and detail though, which just goes to show you that even if you don't go to a conventional modern high school, your teen years make a life-long mark on you.

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