In May 1798, in what would turn out to be the last great pageant ever staged in the Irish House of Lords, the Earl of Kingston was tried before his peers for the murder of his wife's cousin, Colonel Henry Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald, a married man with children, had eloped with the Earl's younger daughter Mary amid a blaze of publicity. Advertisements requesting information as to the girl's whereabouts had been placed in The Times, and rivers had been dragged after a false suicide note was discovered. In the end, a maidservant exposed Mary's hiding-place, and she was returned, pregnant and in deep disgrace, to her family's estates at Mitchelstown. A few weeks later, the affair took on a darker tone when Fitzgerald, who had followed Mary back to Ireland, was shot dead in his bed by the Earl, acting in defence of his daughter's honour.
Tickets for the trial were much sought after, and almost the entire Irish peerage poured into the court as spectators. But it all proved to be a tremendous anti-climax. Proceedings collapsed when no witnesses arrived to testify (the Earl had bought them off). Nonetheless, the deeper political significance of the occasion was not lost on some of those present. The solemnity of the trial was important testimony to the sovereignty of the Irish nation at a time when Ireland's position of semi-independence, ruled from Dublin through the power of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, was about to come to a dramatic and bloody end. Within weeks of the Kingston trial, Ireland found itself in an uproar of violent revolutionary activity, which dwarfed the French Terror in its brutality and loss of life. Twenty thousand people, most of them Roman Catholics, were slaughtered in clashes between United Irishmen and the militia around Cork, Dublin, and Wexford. The consequence of the failure of this revolution was the Act of Union, which Pitt pushed through in early 1801, transforming Ireland from a nation with corrupt governors into "a miserable province" of Westminster. The Parliament building on Dublin's College Green was sold to a bank company on condition that it was so altered that it could never again be a debating chamber.
Janet Todd's new book looks at these tumultuous events through the lives of the two daughters of the Earl of Kingston (or Lord Kingsborough, as he is for the greater part of the narrative), who, in different ways, reacted against what was expected of them as members of the Anglo-Irish élite. One is the wayward Mary, who disappears quickly from the pages of verifiable history after the trial; the other is her gauche and gawky elder sister who, as Margaret Mount Cashell, the radical wife of one of the drearier Ascendancy earls, rejected the divide-and-rule policy of London, defined herself as Irish (even down to wearing patriotic green stockings), and backed the United Irishmen and their policy of political separation from the mainland.
Todd's way into the story of these rebel daughters is through her last biographical subject, their crosspatch governess, a skittish and caustic figure whose life briefly intersected with theirs. For just a year, during 1786-7, Mary Wollstonecraft was governess to the Kingsborough daughters, encouraging insubordinate behaviour, and rivalling their affections for their mother, a lisping glamourpuss who took her dogs to bed. At the time of the trial the name of Wollstonecraft, by then the most notorious radical woman in Europe, was invoked as having had a bad effect on the fallen Mary, responsible for leading her to "the vestibule of the Corinthian temple of Seduction and Adultery". Wollstonecraft's influence on Margaret, Todd suggests, was even more far-reaching. Although Margaret's radical agenda did not include women's rights, she had been taught by her governess to imagine life outside the Ascendancy, and without Wollstonecraft might never have strayed from the conventional path of aristocratic girls. After the Rebellion, Margaret parted from her husband and settled in Italy with a lover, a scholarly barrister called George Tighe. She called herself "Mrs Mason", wrote a half-finished novel called The Chieftains of Erin which transposed the present Irish Rebellion back into the troubles of the reign of Elizabeth I, and befriended Shelley and Claire Clairmont.
Todd is at her best in her descriptions of Margaret and Mary's early lives, and particularly in her analysis of the ways in which the former subverted the expectation in aristocratic circles that a woman should hide her knowledge as she would a deformity. She is less successful in her attempts to make the political history cohere with a personal narrative. Somehow the dramatic core of this story gets lost in the complexities of the Irish Rebellion. The lack of a dramatis personae or chronology adds to the confusion and this reader found himself floundering in a sea of detail.