The Death of a Son: “An Irreparable Loss”

father and son

Sometime in mid-February, 1763, Lord Bath wrote to Elizabeth Montagu to explain why he had neglected to visit her the night before. He confided that he had received a letter from Madrid, telling him his dear son was ill with a “violent fever”; this news completely destabilized Bath, who reported that according to the letter his son had been,

attacked . . . with a violent headache, and vomiting, attended with a feverish disorder. Upon this they gave him a vomit, and soon after blooded him, taking away about 14 ounces. His fever, which was now confirmed obliged them to send for a Physician who gave him a draught, and afterwards blooded him again, in short in five days he was blooded six times, twice on the arms once in the foot twice in the legs, and once on the back of his hand, a way they often practised in Spain; they blistered him likewise on both legs, and now his fever is brought to intermit, so that they have given him the Bark, and now declare him out of all manner of danger. This, tho pretty satisfactory, is not sufficient to allay my alarms, til I hear once more from Madrid” (MO4411).

Montagu’s response was cheery, upbeat, and clearly designed to allay Bath’s fears. She wrote that she was not “at all alarm’d” since the circumstances “shew me so plainly that the disorder has spent itself.” She reported that she “read your Lordship’s letter ten times, and the oftener I read it the more I was satisfied about the person for whom you are so tenderly interested” (MO 4579). But Montagu’s optimism was misplaced, and Bath’s fears were realized when they eventually learned that Viscount William Pulteney (a Lieutenant-Colonel returning from service in the 7 Years War) had died of a fever at Madrid on the 12th of February 1763.

Lord Bath didn’t receive word of his son’s death until almost 3 weeks after its tragic occurrence. And this time lag gave me pause as I was reading through these letters. I have long known that William Pulteney junior died at 32 years of age — a bachelor, despite his father’s attempts to find him a good woman! But I have dreaded reading about that death. I dragged my feet through the preceding series of letters, procrastinating, and hoping that if I could not magically change the distant past, I could somehow keep Colonel Pulteney alive by not reading him into death. Despite my deliberate sluggishness, though, death slouched towards me one letter at a time, until it could no longer be avoided. And then, suddenly, it was all over; and I found myself on the other side of the epistolary wall of grief. It took me less than half an hour to read my way through the sparse correspondence from the beginning of February to the 21st of April, when the Viscount’s body arrived back in England to be interred in Westminster Abbey.1 But for Bath, this must have been an interminable stretch of telescoping time. If the three weeks between the Colonel’s death and Bath’s receipt of the news was the common amount of time it took for a letter to travel from Spain to London, then it is quite possible that his son was already dead when Bath first received word of his illness. Perhaps this explains Bath’s extreme anxiety — that mysterious parental intuition, like a silvery transparent thread that stretches from the body of the parent to the body of the child, and that gives a jolt, a charge, or a certain sensation of silence and emptiness when it is suddenly severed. Perhaps Bath felt this while reading the first letter, and perhaps he knew – even though he might have hoped. Living in the age of instant communication, I can’t quite imagine that time lag, that strange, liminal space where your son is dead, but not yet dead to you — and yet, until quite recently, so many, many people must have stood in that odd space of suspended animation.

When Bath finally received the news he had dreaded, it devastated him. He informed Montagu of his son’s death in a note that ended by explaining that Bath would leave London to grieve at his country home, but began with a brief and wrenching statement that, even 250 years later, carries with it a force of grief that sucks the air from the room: “Madam: I have suffered an irreparable loss, and am most miserable and unhappy, Pity me, and pray for me” (MO 4413). The single sentence is spartan — unadorned and almost terse–void of everything except the glaring fact of loss. I think it’s the nakedness of this statement, written by a man of wit and bad puns who clearly took so much pleasure in language, that somehow signals the overwhelming and unspeakable grief of a father for his son. In this note, Bath himself stands bare and vulnerable and empty.2 In grief, the famous orator was almost silenced; his busy pen was stilled.3

There must have been much grief of this kind in the eighteenth century, when death was an unwelcome yet often present and sometimes persistent force. Elizabeth Montagu, herself, had lost her only son many years earlier when “Punch” (John) died, suddenly, from a fever he developed while teething. Like Bath’s, Montagu’s grief then was signalled by her silence — a stark absence of letters — her usual stream of words blocked by a suffocating lump of grief. Linda Payne tells us that fevers, diseases, illnesses and accidents caused the deaths of about 30% of children before the age of 15 during the period between the 16th and the 18th centuries (“Health in England“). And there is some suggestion that the prevalence of death and the high rate of childhood mortality hardened 18th-century parents, and even taught them to be less attached to their children than they might other wise have been;4 but there is no evidence of this hardening in the grief expressed by Montagu for her very young son, nor later by Bath for his adult child. There is, instead, the indelible mark of deep love and unimaginable loss, so clearly visible and visceral, even after centuries have passed.

Bath’s grief was such that on the 22nd of March, he refused to attend the celebrations marking the end of the Seven Years War: “This morning,” he wrote, “the Peace is proclaimed. Perhaps you may have curiosity enough to go with Mrs. Carter to see the show; I shall be most dismally entertained at home, with considering the various distresses and calamities which war has brought upon us all, in which no body has suffered more than I have done” (MO4417). And when his son’s body was interred in the family vault, Bath again absented himself from the occasion, vowing to stay out of London so that “the melancholy ceremony of the interment of my son in Westminster Abbey may be over, before my return to town” (MO4421). Lord Bath never really rallied from the loss of his son, and he carried the heavy burden of his grief through the final year of his own life.

At the time of his son’s death, Bath was almost 83 years of age; his wife (about 12 years younger than he) had died 5 years earlier, and his first-born child — a daughter– had died when she was about 15 years of age. At 83, the man who once must have assumed that he would spend his final years cared for by wife, son, daughter, and perhaps by their families, found himself very much alone. And in Bath’s state of lonely grief, Elizabeth Montagu became even more important to him. In a letter he sent to Montagu from his country seat of mourning, he wrote: “I rather wish you would be more careful of your self, and less attentive to the pleasure of one who wishes you all manner of prosperity and happyness, and . . . I can safely say (now I have lost my son) there is no one in the world I esteem and love more truly and more affectionately than yourself” (MO 4415).


1 for those of you curious, as was I, about how a body might be preserved for two months and during transport, Benjamin Bell’s A System of Surgery Volume 6 (1788) provides a detailed description of contemporary embalming practice: “Of Embalming”.
2 strangely, Bath’s brief statement makes me think of Ben Jonson’s more poetic response to his young son’s death (Benjamin, 7 yrs old):

  • Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
  • My sinne was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy;
  • Seven yeeres tho’ wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
  • Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
  • O, could I lose all father, now. For why
  • Will man lament the state he should envie?
  • To have so soon scap’d worlds and fleshes rage,
  • And, if no other miserie, yet age?
  • Rest in soft peace, and, ask’d, say here doth lye
  • Ben. Jonson his best piece of poetrie.
  • For whose sake, hence-forth, all his vowes be such,
  • As what he loves may never like too much.

3 This letter is made even more poignant if you’ve previously read Bath’s note to Montagu from the 10th of January, where he explained his absence at Church that morning. It seems that Bath’s household celebrated his son’s birthday, even if his son was miles and miles away. As Bath explained to Montagu: “I have scarce one servant in my house out of bed. My servant that dresses me is exceedingly ill and cannot get up. They have all rejoyced so much on Lord Pulteney’s birthday, that they are at present very sorry and very sick. I played with the Doctor and several others, very quietly at quadrille, while all this rioting was going on in my house” (MO 4388).

4 See, for example, Philippe Ariès, Centuries of Childhood and The Hour of Our Death and “The Sentimental Revolution” Wilson Quarterly 6.4 (Autumn 1982): 46-53 where Ariès reconsiders his earlier book on Childhood. See also Linda McMahon’s “‘So Truly Afflicting and Distressing to Me His Sorrowing Mother': Expressions of Maternal Grief in Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia” Journal of the Early Republic 32 (Spring 2012): 27-60.

5 comments on “The Death of a Son: “An Irreparable Loss”

  1. Bon says:

    These old letters and the similar accounts that exist of the Darwins’ or Lincolns’ grief in the 19th century deaths of their children are fascinating to me, as is the memento mori tradition of early photography. There are few cultural touchstones today for parents whose children die, only the pervasive reductionism of “no parent should have to bury a child.” But for those who do, there is a form of erasure that occurs in contemporary company, because the topic has become unspeakable, and those of us who experience it anachronisms, of a sort.

    I remember the first time I saw one of these stories, how powerful it was. In another time, there would have been grandmothers and aunts, perhaps, to guide me on that particular path of mothering. In my own time, none. And so when I needed them, these old words made me far less lonely.

    • jlmag says:

      Wow; I thought of you, Bon, while writing this post, and somehow knowing you and a little of your story made reading Bath’s experience all the more harrowing, and I continue to find it fascinating that historians have suggested that the commonness of child loss hardened parents to the experience in the early modern period. I think, today, of miscarriage–an extremely common event, a known “risk” of pregnancy; yet every single woman I know who has suffered that loss (so early in pregnancy) was DEVASTATED–and several felt oddly guilty about their grief because “miscarriage is so common; I knew it could happen.” A friend of mine miscarried years ago in an Inuit community, and her experience was one of community grief, loss–of being cradled by other women in that community—not that awful silence familiar to us in the south.
      And on the Memento Mori–in reading around this topic, I came across a fascinating article by Kate Redford: “A death in the family: Posthumous Portraiture in Eighteenth-Century England (2010) which documents the odd practice of including children who have died in family portraits.

      • Bon says:

        funny you mention the Inuit community…shortly after i joined FB, i connected with an old friend who had taught with me in the North 10-12 years before. suddenly, because her children were born there and had family ties to the community and she was still embedded within those networks, my old students all came out of the woodwork and friended me after a decade without contact. it was wonderful, and touching to be remembered and to reconnect. my students had been high school students, many close in age to me, and most of them parents long before i was. one girl was 30 by the time we reconnected on chat: turned out she was still with her high school boyfriend (i’d taught them both) and the daughter she’d had while they were in my class was THIRTEEN. but they’d had three more girls, and she explained that one had died a couple of years before, right around the time Finn had. we stayed on chat for an hour, just being…with each other, finding out about each others’ children, living and gone. it was kinda beautiful.

  2. “Madam: I have suffered an irreparable loss, and am most miserable and unhappy, Pity me, and pray for me.” I think any parent who has lost a child would understand this with deep empathy. It’s no wonder that his letters were few following this death. There is no more devastating loss.

  3. Sonja Boon says:

    What a beautiful post! I know I find myself thinking of grief and how it was expressed – for Suzanne Necker, it was visceral – her body felt, in its bones, the suffering of a close friend. For Madame de La Ferte-Imbault, a salon woman in Paris, grief caused her to lose all appetite; she sought the solace of death, even as death had claimed the child she so loved. And yet, as you say, death was all too common. Many children died well before the age of five. And it makes me wonder then, if those that survived those crucial first years were perhaps even more missed if they died – at 10, at 20, at 30. Because by surviving past five, they became invested with hope, with desires, with futurity…and with all the love that could not be shared with those that died.On the other hand, I also know, from the letters I’m currently working with, that grief after miscarriage was also intense for some women… it needs more poking through and poking at, all of this grief business.

    And then also struck by the idea of time – and how we mark time today in relation to how time was marked and understood in the past. My mother’s family has relied heavily on intuition and ‘sparks’ of energy to connect themselves across enormous geographic distances. So it was, that in the late 1960s, when my mom lived in England and my uncle in Surinam and my aunt in Holland, that my uncle phoned my mother in the middle of the night and said: “Something’s wrong with X [my dutch aunt]. I can feel it.” A few days later, they found out that she’d been diagnosed with TB and sent to a sanitorium. He wouldn’t normally have called; it cost an arm and a leg then. But the intuition was too strong. Had communication followed its usual course, he would have found out three or four weeks later, when letters finally arrived in Surinam.

    I think the time lag aspect of lettes is fascinating. One imagines and understands oneself and one’s relationships very differently when there’s distance – both physical and chronological – between correspondents. I’m going to spend the next couple of weeks just thinking epistolarity and this post is already reminding me of some of the things that I need to ‘make strange’ for myself in order to return to the c18.

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