Literary battles with Junius: who was Modestus?

As they continue to do today, people in the 1700s wrote to the newspapers using an alias to hide their true identity, and needless to say there was much speculation as to who these people were.  We came across such a name during our book research, someone using the pseudonym ‘Modestus’ who engaged in literary battles with the great Junius. Over the centuries there has been much speculation as to who Modestus was; many people claimed it was Sir William Draper and more recently John Cleland, author of the novel Fanny Hill has been mooted. The true identity of Modestus was actually none other than Grace Dalrymple Elliott’s father, Hugh Dalrymple. But to find out why we know that Hugh was Modestus, you’ll have to read our book, where all is revealed.

Sir William Draper by Gainsborough
Sir William Draper by Gainsborough

Modestus penned a very interesting letter in the January of 1771, which jars with the topics of his previous letters and could, just possibly, be about his celebrated daughter Grace before her marriage and infamy. In fact, we’re not at all sure that this letter was actually written by Hugh, as it is of such a change of topic than his others. We have more than a sneaking suspicion that it was perhaps his namesake eldest son who might just have penned this one, using his father’s pseudonym. We do know he later wrote to the newspapers on occasion, using his father’s alias.

Trompe l'oeil with Writing Materials by Edwaert Collier
Collier, Edwaert; Trompe l’oeil with Writing Materials; Paintings Collection

This letter is very different from the others which had mainly been political. This one stands out and knowing that Hugh had a daughter who was about the same age as the one in his letter, who married in London later that year, it is extremely tempting to suggest that this may be a sighting of Grace Dalrymple and Modestus a vengeful father or brother.

The letter from Modestus, addressed to the committee for conducting the free-press, appeared in the Public Register newspaper (based in Dublin) on the 1st January 1771.


Your readiness to insert every Thing conducive to the publick Good, assures me you will not refuse the following Fact a Place in your Paper, as it may prevent a Repetition of an Action, both infamous in its Nature, as well as repugnant to every Rule of Good-breeding.

And you will oblige,

Your constant Reader and Admirer, MODESTUS.

Some few Nights ago, as a young Lady was returning from an Evening Visit, attended by a Servant, she was, opposite to Capel-street Play-house, sallied out on by some young Ruffians of the Military, by their Uniforms seemingly Officers of the _th Regiment, who wantonly drew water on her, to the infinite Terror and Amazement of the helpless young Creature.  Had the Gentlemen Reason enough to consider (which I much doubt) the unmeaning Barbarity of their behaviour, they would never have committed an Action, warranted by nothing, but the lustful Instinct of Dogs, whose Nature it is to turn up at every Post.

We’re sure you can imagine just what the soldiers might have been doing when they ‘drew water’ on the poor young lady!

View from Capel Street looking over Essex Bridge, Dublin, after Malton, James (d.1803) Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014
View from Capel Street looking over Essex Bridge, Dublin, after Malton, James (d.1803)
Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014

There was indeed a theatre on Capel Street, but in Dublin.  Is it Grace at all and if so, was she in Dublin just a few months before her marriage to Doctor Eliot? Unfortunately, with no further information, not even the number of the regiment involved, it is fruitless to pursue this further and it must remain as merely a possible tantalising reference to Grace.

Header image: Trompe l’oeil, Letter Rack; Edwaert Collier; Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow

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