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‘Saucy Mistress Boldface’: Edward Synge’s letters to his daughter Alicia, 1746-52

A gift to Trinity Library in the 20th century revolutionized what we know of the 18th century. Listen back to Lyric FM’s Easter Sunday documentary to hear more.

In the late 1990s Dr Marie-Louise Jennings presented to the Library a sheaf of letters which had been written by her ancestor, Bishop Edward Synge (1691-1762), in the middle of the eighteenth century. It is true that letters from wealthy men are the most frequent kind of correspondence which survives from the 1700s so this gift might not at first seem worth getting excited about. But it most definitely is. These letters are different. These are unparalleled in the Irish historical record because, in them, Bishop Synge – wonderfully, extraordinarily – was writing to his young daughter, Alicia. In the absence of her deceased mother, Synge was overseeing his daughter’s life and education and, over the course of 221 letters, we can therefore watch an 18th-century girl grow up under the devoted, if imperious, care of a doting father. These letters prove intriguing to all who come to know about them, and radio producer Angie Mezzetti is only the most recent person to fall under their spell. Inspired by a lecture she heard, given to the Trinity Women Graduates Association (of which she was President), Mezzetti decided there and then to bring these letters to a wider audience. The fruit of her work, Saucy Mistress Boldface, was broadcast on Easter Sunday at 6pm on the Lyric Feature, RTE Lyric FM’s weekly documentary slot.

‘This, hussy, is a very odd letter for me to write to a girl of thirteen’. Actor Simon Coury reads Bishop Synge’s letter of July 1746.

Bishop Synge lived with his daughter Alicia (b. 1733) in Kevin Street in Dublin; Alicia was the sole survivor of six siblings and her mother had died when she was about five years old. Every summer, the Bishop departed to live in Elphin, Co Roscommon, leaving Alicia at home in the company of her governess/companion Blandine Jourdan. Father and daughter wrote frequently, on average twice a week; lamentably, Alicia’s letters to her father have not survived. The Bishop’s main purpose was educational; literacy, and specifically letter-writing, was a business skill which he wanted his daughter to master. If, as was to be the case, Alicia Synge was to be the manager of a large house as an adult, she would need to be able to write, and write well, to conduct business and manage her affairs.

‘To see you a valuable, accomplished woman will be the greatest joy and comfort’. Actor Simon Coury reads Bishop Synge’s letter of 21 July 1747.

Most of the Bishop’s letters begin with a comment or critique of the letter he had just received from Alicia (and the phrase ‘Saucy Mistress Boldface’ was one of his ‘endearments’ to her). Then he filled his pages with advice on absolutely everything which it would normally have fallen to a girl’s mother to teach her, thereby allowing historians a priceless glimpse into private life in the 18th century.  

Angie Mezzetti is a TCD alumnus, a radio documentary maker and media producer, who runs Ocarina Productions. She specializes in documentaries relating to women’s lives, modern and historical.  In 2018 she made Stranieri, a documentary about the immigrants who became the backbone of the RTE Symphony Orchestra. This was inspired by Professor Corinna Salvadori Lonergan, of Trinity’s Department of Italian, whose parents came to Ireland to perform with the orchestra. Mezzetti also researched and produced the film All Changed, commissioned by the Trinity Centre for Gender Equality and Leadership in 2016. The film features several pioneering women academics who changed Trinity’s patriarchal, gender-exclusive character. They all recall the difficulties they had as women in College prior to 1968; the film includes a wonderful story, by Professor Salvadori Lonergan, about the origins of the TCD creche.

Saucy Mistress Boldface is Angie Mezzetti’s third radio production, with Trinity connections, for the Lyric Feature. It was funded through the BAI Sound and Vision scheme.

Marie-Louise Jennings (1933-2015), the generous donor of the original letters, was a historian of 18th-century Ireland and a Fellow of Birbeck College, the University of London. Her father was the film-maker Humphrey Jennings. Dr Jennings is best known for her pioneering study Newspapers and Nationalism: the Irish Provincial Press 1850-1892 and her exacting editions of a number of key 18th-century texts including the Synge letters (with Lilliput Press, under the name Marie-Louise Legg) and Synge’s 18th-century census of Elphin.

Listen back to Lyric FM Feature Saucy Mistress Boldface here.

The description of the full Synge collection is available on the Library catalogue.

Dr Jane Maxwell

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