Amelina Petit de Billier
Amelina Petit de Billier was born in Paris in 1798. In 1820, she moved from France to England to join the Feilding family as their governess at Lacock Abbey.
The Feilding family consisted of Charles Feilding, his wife Lady Elisabeth (previously Talbot, nee Fox-Strangways), their two daughters Caroline and Horatia, and Lady Elisabeth's son William Henry Fox Talbot. Amelina was a similar age to William and not much older than the two girls, so she seemed to live as part of the family even though she was originally engaged to be their governess. She enjoyed her life with the Feildings very much, remaining close to the family and actually was buried in the same plot as William Henry Fox Talbot.
Amelina’s life in Lacock is known through some detailed journals, which are not part of our collection at Lacock although in another collection we do have photocopies of all the journals and a few transcripts. She wrote her diaries mainly in French or Italian, mostly French, over many years and these give an excellent insight into her life at Lacock and the family she lived amongst. She travelled a lot with the Feildings and met interesting people connected to Captain Feilding. They took her to the opera and to plays, and she saw many sights. She wasn’t much older than Caroline and Horatia Feilding, the two daughters of Lady Elisabeth and Charles, and was also close in age to William. She moved into Lacock with the family when they took the abbey back after a lease ended in 1827, and experienced the joys of living in a grand estate, regularly visiting Lady Elisabeth’s sister Louisa who had married the Marquess of Lansdowne and became the mistress of Bowood.
Amelina seems to have enjoyed politics and current affairs, noting interesting political events in her diaries, and had a lot of knowledge about them. Living closely alongside William Henry Fox Talbot, who was to become an MP, must have been fascinating to her.
She left Lacock in 1828, returning briefly to Paris and then came back to England but went to live with the Hopwood family at Hopwood Hall near Manchester. She did not enjoy life with the Hopwoods, always wishing she could return to her friends at Lacock, although she again seemed to live an interesting life, visiting many esteemed circles. When she fell ill in 1831, she returned to Lacock to recuperate. Whilst there, Caroline Feilding married the heir to the Earl of Mount Edgcumbe at Bowood, and she became completely absorbed in that wedding and the future of her Lacock friends.
In 1833, having returned to Hopwood after again visiting France, she was invited by William Henry Fox Talbot to join him and his new wife Constance on a tour of the continent. Although she did not remain with the family permanently, she continued to be a constant in their family life, becoming a companion to Constance and the children, business agent for William when he was starting marketing his developments in photography and perpetual family friend. She is mentioned in Matilda Talbot’s book "My Life and Lacock Abbey" and Matilda remembers her fondly as being a key part of family life at Lacock. She writes, “I only saw her once, but all the same she was an influence in my life. I remember her in her armchair, with a soft white wrap round her shoulders, sitting in what is still called the Upper East Bedroom at Lacock Abbey, and I noticed her bright dark eyes and very white hair. She first came to Lacock through some friend of our great-grandmother, Lady Elisabeth, to teach my grandfather’s half-sisters, Caroline and Horatia Feilding, and they both owed a great deal to her. She had a fine voice and played both the piano and the harp; her harp is still at Lacock. ... When Caroline and Horatia were both grown-up and married, she returned to Paris for a time, but the family at Lacock greatly missed her, and when my grandfather’s children were old enough to need a governess, he persuaded her to come back to teach them, and she remained at Lacock for the rest of her life.”
Amelina was buried in the Lacock churchyard alongside William Henry Fox Talbot and his close family, and was mourned like a member of the family would be by the Talbots and local friends.
Sheila Metcalf and Trudy Wallace recently published extracts from Amelina’s journal and their introduction provides most of the short biography I have just given of Amelina. She is represented in the Lacock archive but more indirectly. William Henry Fox Talbot was the executor for her will when she died, so there are various legal documents associated with costs. The book of extracts is out for you to look at today. Collection 2221A is a recently deposited collection of the photocopies of the journals and some background information on Amelina, and is worth having a look at. She certainly was a privileged woman who enjoyed her life in an estate with such good friends, and her happiness comes across in her journals.