Mariana Starke

Miss Starke (sometimes given the ‘courtesy’ title of Mrs) had the great good fortune to have relatives who needed nursing in a benign climate abroad. (Less good luck for the relatives, obviously.) As a consequence, instead of staying in the genteel family circle at home and writing somewhat unsuccessful plays, she more or less invented the genre of travel guides which her publisher, John Murray, developed as the rising middle classes – whether out of curiosity or dire financial need – started travelling en famille to Europe after 1815.

The daughter of Richard Starke of Epsom (who had been born in Madras (Chennai) and had been deputy governor of Fort St David, at Cuddalore near Madras, until ousted by none other than the young Clive of India), she was born in 1762, the second child in a family of four, but tragically the oldest survivor, her elder brother John having been killed in a carriage accident when only a toddler. (For lots of thoroughly researched information on Starke, her life and writings, see the blog of Elizabeth Crawford, here.)

Hylands House, Epsom, the home of Mariana Starke, in 2010. In the 1800s it was owned by relatives of John Constable, who is known to have stayed there. (Credit: Brian Bouchard)

Educated at home, in a cultured milieu, her first foray into literature (in 1787) was a co-translator with a friend of Madame De Genlis’s Theatre of Education (comic but edifying plays for children); she then turned to drama herself. It seems likely that her first play, The Sword of Peace, was staged at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, in August 1788. (It and the subsequent The Widow of Malabar both have an Indian setting, and have led to the erroneous belief that Mariana herself lived in India, which Crawford demonstrates is not the case.)

Mariana also wrote poems, and acted in plays staged at the private theatre of her friend Mrs Crespigny in Camberwell, and the circle in which she moved included the poet William Hayley (who was a friend and patron of William Blake and the editor of Cowper’s works), and the painter George Romney. This period of her life was brought to an end by the failing health of both her parents and her sister Louisa – all seemed to have suffered from tuberculosis. In October 1791, the parents, daughters and Scott, a female servant borrowed from Mrs Crespigny, set off for the hopefully healthy climate of Italy: they must have been desperate, given that they were travelling late in the year to an area on the brink of war.

Louisa died in Nice on 18 April 1792, and was buried there. Her family (and Scott) seem to have travelled north to Geneva, but returned in September to find that Nice was about to become the epicentre of a war between France and the Kingdom of Sardinia (which sounds bizarre until you remember that the kings of Sardinia were the dukes of Savoy). Mariana tried to hire a British ship, ‘our nation being at peace with France’, to enable her to get her ‘family and friends embarked before the city was bombarded, a circumstance which we hourly expected to take place; but no English vessel could I find ready for sea’.

They eventually found a ship, but had to be careful not to draw attention to themselves in embarking. Mariana disguised herself as a servant (shades of her theatricals in England) and made it successfully on board. They arrived in Genoa without incident, travelling on to Livorno and then Pisa. By the following spring they were in Rome, and made the acquaintance of the painter John Flaxman, who became a close friend. They spent the winter of 1793–4 in Pisa, where Richard Starke died, aged 74, on 5 March. He was buried in Livorno (where there was an established Protestant cemetery for the British merchant colony).

The Campo Santo of Pisa in the nineteenth century.

Mariana and her mother remained in Italy until 1798, and on their return she herself is believed to have become ill – possibly from stress? However, her experiences enabled her to publish a two-volume Letters from Italy in 1800, and a new and augmented version in 1802 as Travels in Italy.


The publisher of these works was Sir Richard Phillips (1767–1840), a remarkable figure in many spheres. A Leicestershire farmer’s son, educated in London at the expense of a benevolent uncle, he tried teaching in Cheshire and London, then opened a hosier’s shop in Leicester. Eventually, in 1790 he found his metier as a stationer and bookseller, and soon acquired a printing press. He branched out further into prints and sheet music (and pianofortes), and set up a circulating library.

An advertisement for Starke’s latest drama in the preliminary pages of Letters from Italy.

Phillips held some eccentric views (he didn’t believe in gravity, for example, and was a strict vegetarian at a time when this was seen as bordering on madness) and was a decided radical in politics – he founded a newspaper which skirted the laws on subversion and treason, and was imprisoned for 18 months in 1793 for selling Tom Paine’s Rights of Man. He continued to edit the paper from prison (then run by the famous Daniel Lambert, the most corpulent man in England), and received support from Joseph Priestley.

Daniel Lambert, portrayed by Benjamin Marshall (1767–1835), c.1806. (Credit: Leicestershire Museums and Art Galleries)

After his release, a fire put an end to Phillips’s Leicester activities: with the insurance money he moved to London, set up as a publisher in St Paul’s Churchyard, and founded the Monthly Magazine, with John Aikin as editor and William Fordyce Mavor as a contributor. (Phillips the radical was knighted in 1808 because he had become a sheriff of London the previous year and had delivered an address to George III on behalf of the Corporation.)

Richard Phillips, 1806 portrait by James Saxon (1772–1819). (Credit: the National Portrait Gallery)

Letters from Italy, as the title page makes clear, is a guide book (especially for the increasing numbers of people who did not want the expense of a guide or ‘courier’). Volume 2 contains a 148-page appendix giving details of almost everything the traveller could need to know, from ‘Things most requisite for an invalid, and indeed for every family to be provided with on leaving England’ (which included Buchan’s Domestic Medicine and a rhubarb-grater) to the types and prices of fish in the market at Pisa, the complicated currencies and exchange rates in the various Italian states, and the cost of washing a tablecloth in Florence. She was much mocked by critics for including such details – presumably because said critics, when they had done the Grand Tour in their youth, had People (and Money) to deal with this sort of thing.

She was also the first writer (I believe) to rate sights, paintings etc., using exclamation marks rather than asterisks. The Sistine Madonna, in Dresden, for example, gets !!!! (And do not be deceived by the title Letters from Italy – she travels as far as Prague …) In both versions of the work, she is sharp about the French. In the preface to Letters from Italy: ‘I shall likewise point out the Architecture, Paintings, and Sculpture, which still embellish Italy; lest persons disposed to visit that Country should be led … to conclude that all her choicest works of genius are destroyed, or removed to Paris.’ There are also frequent comments like this one, on Venice: ‘The Library, in the Piazza di S. Marco, has been spoiled by the French of its most valuable contents.’

In passing, I note that the best inn in Venice was Petrillo’s (of which Arthur Young also approved), which appears to be the inn of Pietro Mira (who, in one of those you-couldn’t-make-it-up moments, was the retired court jester and musical factotum of the king of Poland, friend of Gluck, Metastasio and Farinelli), situated next to the Ponte dei Dai between Piazza San Marco and Campo San Luca. (One source has its location at San Giovanni Grisostomo, just to make things more confusing.)

The books made Mariana famous, going into many editions. Her mother having died, she moved to Exmouth in Devon and in 1811 published The Beauties of Carlo Maria Maggi: Paraphased – translations of a seventeenth-century Italian poet to which she added some sonnets of her own. The title page has: ‘Exeter: Printed for the author, by S. Woolmer … and sold by Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, London, by Upham, and also by Barratt, Bath’. It does not engage (or not me, anyway) …

But in 1820, having revisited Europe in 1817–19, she published with John Murray Travels on the Continent, which was followed by Information and Directions for Travellers on the Continent (1824), and finally an enlarged edition of the latter, Travels in Europe (1832). She makes it plain that she has taken the opportunity to update all her practical information for the post-Napoleonic world (she made further tours in 1824–5 and 1827–30), is anxious to reassure her readers that the banditti of southern Italy are not as black as they are painted, and notes where artworks plundered by the French have been restored.

Beware of imprudence …

All of these books went into many editions and (the ultimate compliment) were pirated by (among others) Galignani, the London-based European publishing house. Starke was also, she wrote to Murray, threatened with assassination by professional guides in Rome whose extortionate profits her books were undermining. As well as writing, she seems to have derived income from her travels by acting as an agent for British purchasers who wanted their artworks shipped home: see this fascinating article about her dealings with a Surrey gentleman which reveals how the famous painting of Shelley by Amelia Curran, now in the National Portrait Gallery, was sent back to Mary Shelley in England.

Murray’s famous series of ‘Handbooks for Travellers’, begun in 1836, owed a great deal to Starke’s model. She died in 1838, aged 76 and clearly still game, in Milan while en route from Naples to England. Sadly, no portrait of this energetic and enterprising woman seems to have survived.


This entry was posted in Art, Biography, France, History, Italy, Museums and Galleries, Uncategorized, Venice and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Mariana Starke

  1. So interesting to read this. I’ve actually done vastly more research on Mariana than I’ve written up for my website – I think I’ve read all her surviving letters and have even completed a full-length ‘history mystery’ in which she stars. Doesn’t that sound enticing? Elizabeth


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