Helen Blackwood, Baroness Dufferin and Claneboye

Helen Blackwood, Baroness Dufferin and Claneboye

Helen Selina Blackwood, Baroness Dufferin and Claneboye, later Helen Selina Hay, Countess of Gifford, born Helen Selina Sheridan, (1807–1867), was a British song-writer, poet, and author. As well as being admired for her wit and literary talents, she was a fashionable beauty and a well-known figure in London society of the mid-19th century.

Childhood and marriage

Helen Sheridan came from a literary and theatrical family with political connections. Her father, Thomas Sheridan (1775-1817), an actor, soldier and colonial administrator, was the son of famous Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and her mother was Caroline Henrietta Sheridan(Callander) (1779–1851), a novelist. In 1813, Thomas took Helen and his wife with him to a post at the Cape of Good Hope, where he died four years later. Helen then lived in a Hampton Court Palace "grace and favour" apartment with her mother, four brothers and two younger sisters. The sisters' beauty and accomplishments led to them being called the "Three Graces". Caroline was known as the wittiest of the girls and later developed into a talented writer, and Georgiana, considered the prettiest of the sisters, later became the Duchess of Somerset.

At seventeen, Helen was engaged to Commander Price Blackwood, the future Lord Dufferin, although his parents wanted him to marry more advantageously. After their London wedding in 1825 they went to live in Florence, but returned two years later with their baby son Frederick. Helen Blackwood's sisters introduced her to fashionable circles where she mixed with prominent figures of the time, notably Disraeli, who in later life said she had been "his chief admiration".DNB 1897 edition] In 1839 she became Lady Dufferin when her husband inherited his title. He died in 1841; Helen continued to spend her summers at his family estate at Clandeboye in Ireland, which now belonged to Frederick.


From childhood Helen had written poems, songs and prologues for private theatrical productions. After she and Caroline jointly brought out a "Set of ten Songs and two Duets", she started to publish her verse, sometimes set to her own music. Her name was not usually printed at first, but she did not stay entirely anonymous.

One of her most popular ballads was "The Irish Emigrant", which was published in New York and Boston as well as in London. In this and in other work written around the time of the great Irish famine"The Emigrant Ship", for example] she shows some understanding of "the destructive impact of the famine on love and the family" despite her "social distance",Schirmer, "Out of What Began"] though one critic believes the Irish people's suffering is merely "hinted at" in this "ballad for the English middle class".Derek Scott, "The Singing Bourgeois" (Ashgate 2002) quoted in "Home Sweet Home? The 'Culture of Exile' in Mid-Victorian Popular Song" by Phil Eva in "Popular Music" vol. 16, May 1997] Alfred Perceval Graves, writing in the early 20th century, was more enthusiastic: "…her warm heart beats in such close sympathy with her peasant neighbours that… she writes as if she were one of themselves, while her sense of fun floats through her Irish poems with a delicate breeziness."A. P. Graves, "Cambridge History of English and American Literature"]

In 1863 a play of hers was staged, and in the same year she published an account of her travels up the Nile with her son. This poked fun at writing by lady travellers; the title "Lispings from Low Latitudes, or, Extracts from the Journal of the Hon. Impulsia Gushington" echoed Frederick's book "Letters From High Latitudes". Her play, "Finesse, or, A Busy Day in Messina", produced at the Haymarket Theatre with John Baldwin Buckstone as one of the actors, was a success, but the writer did not go to any of the performances, nor acknowledge her authorship.

Later life

Lady Dufferin was for many years a close friend of George Hay, Earl of Gifford (1822–1862) but had always refused to marry him. After he had a serious accident in 1862, she agreed "at his earnest request". [DNB 1897] She explained to his father that this would allow her to devote herself to him, bring him comfort in the last few weeks of life, and then mourn him openly.

She died of breast cancer on 13 June 1867 at Dufferin Lodge in Highgate and was buried in Friern Barnet with her second husband. Her son Frederick, who had always had a close and affectionate relationship with his mother, published a volume of "Songs, Poems, & Verses by Helen, Lady Dufferin" with a memoir in 1894. Earlier he had named the village and railway station built on his land Helen's Bay, and he dedicated Helen's Tower on the Clandeboye estate to her. The tower inspired poems by both Tennyson and Browning who compared this Helen favourably with the beautiful Helen of Troy of

Like hers, thy face once made all eyes elate,
Yet, unlike hers, was bless'd by every glance.

Poems online

* [http://www.bartleby.com/41/574.html "Lament of the Irish Emigrant"]
* [http://bodley24.bodley.ox.ac.uk/cgi-bin/acwwweng/ballads/image.pl?ref=2806+c.15(333)&id=13432.gif&seq=1&size=1 "Terence's Farewell"]
* [http://womenshistory.about.com/library/etext/poem1/blp2_sheridan_love_language.htm "Love hath a language", from "To my Son"]
* [http://www.love-poem.co.uk/page8.htm "The Charming Woman"]


*Alfred Perceval Graves, "Anglo-Irish Literature", in [http://www.bartleby.com/224/0907.html vol. XIV of "The Cambridge History of English and American Literature"] (New York 1907–21)
*Gregory A. Schirmer, "Out of What Began: A History of Irish Poetry in English" (Cornell 1998)
*"Oxford Dictionary of National Biography" articles on Helen Selina Hay, Caroline Henrietta Sheridan, and Thomas Sheridan, by A. Norman Jeffares, K. D. Reynolds (2004 edition) and W. F. Rae (1897)

Further reading

* [http://www.nls.uk/broadsides/broadside.cfm/id/14889 19th century illustrated broadsheet of "The Irish Emigrant" with commentary]
* [http://www.hebeonline.com/files/freepart/a10001/a10040.pdf "They bid me forget thee!": music by Helen, words by her sister Caroline]
* [http://www.sonnets.org/browninr.htm#300 "Helen's Tower" by Browning]
* [http://whitewolf.newcastle.edu.au/words/authors/T/TennysonAlfred/verse/tiresias/helenstower.html "Helen's Tower" by Tennyson]
* [http://www.proni.gov.uk/records/private/dufferin.htm#helen Helen's Bay, Helen's Tower and Lord Dufferin's papers]
* [http://www.historicroyalpalaces.org/Downloads/989B4A_7112_4a%20WEBHampton%20Court.pdf Grace and Favour apartments at Hampton Court]

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  • Lady Dufferin — may refer to anyone with the title Baroness Dufferin and Claneboye or Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava.Some notable women who have been known as Lady Dufferin are:*Helen, Lady Dufferin (1807–1867), or Helen Blackwood, Baroness Dufferin and… …   Wikipedia

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