Govion Broglio Solari, Catherine (Marchioness) née Hyde (or Hyams), c.1755—1844
by Benjamin Colbert
Catherine Hyde (or Hyams) Solari’s origins and life story are disputed. Her posthumous memoirs, published works, and letters to the committee of the Royal Literary Fund (1821-1841) together compose her self-authorised account of one with roots in the English aristocracy moving in exalted circles in pre-Revolutionary France, then Italy, before losing everything and grubbing for a living in England through literary work, supplemented by charity and, in some of the accounts, a small annuity from the Austrian government in lieu of Italian properties confiscated by Napoleon.
In her version of events, Hyde describes her father as the natural son of Lord Hyde Clarendon and a Polish princess. Brought up on the Continent, George Augustus Hyde courted the Countess Branizky, a married sister to Count Stanislaus Poniatowsky, the future King of Poland. Pregnant with Hyde’s child before she could obtain a divorce, she travelled to England in 1755 or 1756 where the future author was born, lodgings having been obtained with Moses Hyams, son of the Countess’s Jewish servant. Called back to Poland, the Countess left her child in Hyams’s care who raised the infant as one of his own (substituted, it would seem, without Mrs Hyams’s knowledge for her own infant, who had died before she recovered from her laying-in). Both of Catherine’s parents dying soon after, the ruse became established nearly as fact, but for Catherine’s patronage by wealthy friends of her true father.
Internal inconsistencies in this story are legion (e.g. Solari dates her grandfather’s Polish sojourn after 1745, which would make him aged 10 or 11 when Solari’s father was born) and there is no independent confirmation that either her father or grandfather existed. According to a memorandum (itself not yet authenticated) written in the 1860s by Moses Hyams’s great nephew, the Lieutenant-Governor of Louisiana, Henry M. Hyams (1806-1875), Catherine was his father’s sister, born in Dublin (not England) and therefore the daughter of an Irish Jew rather than an English nobleman.
Whatever the truth of her parentage, there is much to suggest that subsequent events in her life might also be a blend of fact and fiction, a skilful admixture that not only enhanced her memoirs and travel writing, but also promoted her case when appealing for financial assistance from the Royal Literary Fund and the National Benevolent Institution – two of her principal benefactors – later in life.
The story she rehearses is that at the age of 11, she was sent to Paris by her patrons to complete her education in a convent, and convert to Catholicism. Her musical talents attracted the attention of Marie Antoinette and her confidante, the Princess Lamballe, for whom she became a Maid of Honour. Entrusted with the Princess’s journals (later lost), Solari travelled to Italy at the outset of the French Revolution, learning of her patrons’ executions second hand. In Italy she met a Venetian nobleman, the Marquis Antonio Solari, who became her husband, but who lost his fortune after the French invasion of Italy and Napoleon’s subsequent abolition of entailed estates. Separated from her husband by Napoleon’s persecutions and exiled from Venice for a year, she toured Sicily and the Greek Ionian archipelago (this portion of her story independently confirmed by the survival of letters from the period in the British Library).
At some point, probably in 1814, Solari journeyed alone to England, leaving her husband in Venice. Although they corresponded thereafter she was never to see him again. Solari’s various statements to the RLF and her memoirs suggest that she lost her remaining capital in a shipwreck at Boulogne, arriving in England virtually penniless, and supporting herself through her literary efforts. These included a collaboration with her husband on an encomium to Wellington, comprising a poem by Antonio and a treatise by Solari, published as Wellington. Poemetto del Marchese A[ntonio] Solari, Venziano. And Wellington Proved to Be the Greatest Warrior of Ancient and Modern Times. By Catherine Hyde Solari (1820). Her travel account, Venice under the Yoke of France and Austria, followed in 1824, and she went on to write a series of secret histories and memoirs based upon her early experiences among European courts, real or fanciful, from 1826 to 1827.
Profits on these works were scant; Solari’s first petition to the Royal Literary Society in 1821 followed her imprisonment for debt as a result of her failure to pay the printer for Wellington. Over the next 21 years her continued appeals to the RLS catalogued further setbacks of this nature as well as her increasing infirmities of age and failing eyesight. In 1832, her cause was taken up by Barbara Hofland (1770-1844), who acted as amanuensis for Solari’s successful appeal to join a ‘nephew’ in New Orleans (possibly her brother, Samuel Hyams, in her parallel life history). Whatever happened there, Solari was back in England three years later, promising a travel book (never written) about her American experiences and peppering the RLS with appeals until 1842, two year before her death.
Govion Broglio Solari, Catherine Hyde, Marchioness. Letter to Frederick North, fifth earl of Guilford. 28 Oct. 1814. Add MS 88900/1/11. British Lib., London.
Letters of the Marchioness Broglio Solari[,] One of the Maids of Honour to the Princess Lamballe[,] Author of ‘Memoirs of the Princess Lamballe’ Etc. Etc. Containing a Sketch of Her Life, and Recollections of Celebrated Characters with Notes. London: William Pickering, 1845. Print.
Pollard, A. F. Rev. of Secret Memoirs of the Royal Family of France during the Revolution, by a Lady of Rank. English Historical Review 10.39 (Jul. 1895): 588-91. Print.
Royal Literary Fund. Registered Case No. 435, Vol. 12: La Marchesa Cattarina Hyde Broglio Solari. MSS. BL Loan 96 RLF 1/435. British Lib., London.
|Venice under the Yoke of France and Austria||1824|