Don’t lock up the wife

E.S. Turner

  • A Monkey among Crocodiles: The Life, Loves and Lawsuits of Mrs Georgina Weldon by Brian Thompson
    HarperCollins, 304 pp, £19.99, June 2000, ISBN 0 00 257189 7

Prison does nothing for the complexion, but spells in Newgate and Holloway, combined with a rackety way of life, had left unravaged the face of Mrs Georgina Weldon, whose radiant likeness appeared on the London buses in the year of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. An accompanying legend ran: ‘I am 50 today, but thanks to Pears Soap my complexion is only 17.’ London’s favourite jailbird and troublemaker had joined the immortals – the society ladies who, for a consideration, were willing to tell the world how they kept blackheads at bay. There had been times in Mrs Weldon’s life when a crate or two of Pears Soap delivered to the scruffy orphanage she was half-running could have been put to better use than fostering what ad-men call longer-lasting loveliness.

Mrs Georgina Weldon is not, as the jacket of this book says, ‘one of the great undiscovered eccentrics of the 19th century’. She enjoyed far more than fifteen minutes of fame, even though it did not get her into the usual reference books. She was the subject of a biography, in 1959, by Edward Grierson, Storm Bird: The Strange Life of Georgina Weldon, which Brian Thompson commends in his bibliography as ‘genial and entertaining’. His own book is as genial as the subject will allow, often extravagantly entertaining, and as shrewd as it is well-written. After forty-odd years Mrs Weldon was well worth a second look. It is a pity the publishers give us no other picture of her than the one which was plastered over the buses. ‘Spy’ had a fine full-length study of her in Vanity Fair (it appears, with a short biography, in the recently reissued In ‘Vanity Fair’, by Roy Matthews and Peter Mellini).[*] When she was 20 she was painted by G.F. Watts, who was besotted with her and called her his Bambina. At the height of her notoriety she was caricatured in Punch and elsewhere. In her last days she had a deathbed photograph taken of herself, all shrunken-faced in a nightcap, which Thompson has seen.

Georgina Weldon was like one of those express trains which used to shriek through stations sucking all the newspapers and magazines from the bookstalls, leaving curses and fist-shaking in their wake. She was not just an empowered woman but a seriously overpowered woman. Vested with all the more exasperating attributes of Florence Nightingale and the Pankhursts, she lacked their organising skills. If she could not bend men to her will, she was ready to libel them or call for them to be horsewhipped. Though she looked on herself as a monkey among crocodiles, there were times when she was a crocodile among monkeys. Feminists have been in no hurry to find her a decent niche in their Pantheon, though she exposed the lunacy laws which made it too easy for husbands to put away their tiresome wives, and showed how a spirited female could exploit the Married Woman’s Property Act. Brian Thompson, whose book was inspired by a chance-found set of her memoirs, pays tribute to her colossal energy, linked with an emotional, unthinking fervour for the ‘worthy’ and ‘elevated’: ‘She also had a tremendous physical presence. Nothing daunted her, no challenge was too great. Part of her gift was never to see the absurd in life … But not to see the absurdity in things was more of a strength than a weakness. It absolved her from ever being wrong.’

She was born Georgina Thomas, in the year of Queen Victoria’s succession, to parents who were howling snobs. Morgan Thomas, her father, who had failed to win Coventry for the Tories, made no secret that he intended to match her with a suitor worth £10,000 a year, for the greater social advancement of the family. Until she was ripe for the market the family lived in Florence, for cheapness sake, and later in Brussels. Georgina turned out to be very different from the typical pouting, lisping English miss who, as Byron complained, always smelled of bread and butter. She was both beautiful and bold in manner, almost hoydenish, and early aware of how to tickle the lusts of elderly gentlemen without satisfying them. Her good soprano voice gave her, and her father, the entrée to drawing-rooms which otherwise might not have received them. Though conscious that she was her father’s commodity, Georgina married an impecunious officer of hussars, Harry Weldon, son of a coal merchant, and could hardly have been surprised when her father, who had now changed his name to Treherne, cut her off penniless. Weldon turned out to have a happy knack for attracting legacies, one of which included a parcel of coal-bearing land which, by a splendid irony, made him about as rich as his father-in-law would have wished.

And so to Tavistock House, in Bloomsbury, where the Weldons lived in some style in Dickens’s old house. Here, with 12 pianos, Georgina conceived the idea of founding a singing academy which would train international artists, but she lacked the capacity and social influence to see such a grand scheme through. The academy degenerated into a singing orphanage, with ill-trained and unruly pupils ferried to small-time concerts in a converted milk-float inscribed ‘Mrs Weldon’s Orphanage’, an enterprise which failed to endear her to the ground landlord, the Duke of Bedford. The neighbours had to suffer a morning hour of organised yelling, designed to let the children ‘get the wickedness out of their systems’.

The absurdity to which Georgina was blind now took over. At a social event she ensnared the composer Gounod, in temporary exile from Paris. He was married and 19 years her senior, but he moved into Tavistock House and played a supposedly lustless, but far from listless, role in a ménage à trois which lasted three years, a set-up ill-calculated to advance the Weldons in society. Throughout Gounod behaved like a Frenchman in a stage farce. When he complained that his wife had ruined his digestion Georgina subjected him to the cold-baths-and-wet-sheets cure advocated by the hydropathists of the day; he was lucky not to be packed off to Malvern, where sickly intellectuals were pole-axed by 20-foot cataracts. Harry Weldon seems to have been unnaturally tolerant throughout, but he had a hobby in heraldry and a mistress in a houseboat at Windsor.

Scandal was intensified when the ménage à trois broke up in acrimony and Harry at last began to distance himself. Georgina, a hopeless judge of men, and especially of Frenchmen, handed over control of her affairs and the occupancy of Tavistock House to a confidence trickster called Anarcharsis Menier, whose scheming wife Angele wormed her way into Georgina’s bed (in her memoirs Georgina denied that she was guilty of ‘a vice of which one cannot speak’). Menier’s speciality had been selling slices of the Sahara to all comers, but he was a talented blackmailer too. In due course he began to spread rumours that Georgina poisoned her children for £1000 a time and buried them in the garden. It is all too much to bear. Then one day a crazed Welshman called Waddy knocked at the window and said he was Cadwalladwr, the authentic Prince of Wales, and demanded to carry Georgina off to become Queen of the Orient, which would have solved many problems. Still the preposterous characters multiplied. There was fishy Major-General Sir Henry de Bathe, against whom all doors except those of the Garrick were closed. There was a private detective ideally named Uriah Cooke. And Harry Weldon – a surreal touch – was now Rouge Dragon Pursuivant, a luminary of the College of Arms. Georgina’s father, who had become a landed proprietor in Mayfield, Sussex, was off his head. We are told that he had achieved local notoriety by setting spring guns against poachers, but as spring guns were banned in 1827 he was surely pushing his luck laying them down thirty years later; perhaps, like other bloody-minded squires, he merely erected warning signs as frighteners.

After the Gounod episode the long-suffering Rouge Dragon decided it was time to have his wife locked up. How this enterprise was set in motion is the most gripping part of the book, and should fascinate anyone who has ever seen modern sectioning in action. It was a day when private asylums run by mad-doctors were pullulating, and by a sort of Parkinson’s Law the number of insane patients expanded steadily to fill the space available. Georgina did not suspect what was afoot when two male strangers dropped in unexpectedly to have a chat about spiritualism, in which characteristically she had become caught up. When two more strangers arrived on a similar mission she cottoned on. Her ordeal at the hands of devious mad-doctors was not as excruciating or as prolonged as that of the young Lady Mordaunt, whose father sought to prove her insane in order to save the Prince of Wales from scandal. But it was a bad day for Georgina when a sinister black landau pulled into Tavistock Square with a medical snatch squad. It would not be correct to say that ‘with one bound Georgina was free’ but escape she did. Thereafter she lent vigorous support to the campaign to reform the lunacy laws. Her triumph was to haul Lord Shaftesbury into the witness box in her case against one of the mad-doctors. For the high-minded Shaftesbury, Chief Commissioner of Lunacy, it was a huge embarrassment, because Georgina, conducting her own case, was able to expose much that was wrong with the law. She was awarded £1000. That was a modest sum compared with the £10,000 award she secured against Gounod for unpaid rent and other wickednesses, real or fancied. Sensibly, Gounod skulked in Paris and never paid up.

The Married Woman’s Property Act, passed in 1882, prevented a married man from using his wife’s money to maintain his mistress, or from pocketing automatically the earnings of a wife who wrote novels, or designed hats. But it also gave wives the right to sue in the courts and Georgina was fired with excitement at this discovery. In no time the ‘new Portia’, as Vanity Fair described her, had launched 25 actions against those who had crossed her path; in seven years the total had reached a hundred. Much of her plotting went on in a rogues’ kitchen in Red Lion Court off Fleet Street, where a struck-off solicitor called Chaffers coached her in the law. What Brian Thompson does not tell us is that Georgina may well have done as much as Chaffers to pave the way for the 1896 Act against vexatious litigants, which restricted the immemorial right of everyone to sue anybody else at the surfacing of a grudge. Thompson gives the first name of Chaffers as William, but this must be the disreputable Alexander Chaffers who, by losing 47 cases out of 48, and paying costs in none, drove an exasperated Lord Chancellor to introduce his restrictive measure. The records show that Alexander Chaffers sued everyone from the Master of the Rolls and the Lord Chancellor to the Speaker of the Commons and the Speaker’s butler, who had denied access to his master. He also sued the Prince of Wales and the Archbishop of Canterbury, as trustees of the British Museum, for withdrawing his Reading Room ticket. Obviously a man after Georgina’s own heart.

Georgina’s spells in prison were the result of criminal libel against a concert promoter, Jules Rivière, under whom she sang the ‘Sands of Dee’ at a Promenade concert in Covent Garden and received a standing ovation, a tribute as much to her notoriety as to her fine voice. It looked as though a late career as a popular singer might take off. But her vigorously propounded ideas for concerts with enormous choirs were blocked as commercial nonsense by Rivière and another beautiful friendship – with another Frenchman – quickly foundered in contumacy. The London mob acclaimed Georgina each time she was freed from custody and on the second occasion hustled her to Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, where she addressed an enormous throng. Inevitably she appeared on the music halls.

In 1889 Georgina withdrew to France, which had already seen a haphazard diaspora of some of her orphans. With a mixed assortment of pets, including a monkey called Titileehee, she descended on a small hospice at Gisors, where she spent the next 12 years writing her memoirs. She paid her bills, but her behaviour lacked the restraint expected in a religious house and her disorderly archives encroached on holy space. In any event this was hardly the place to be putting together a ‘forest of libels’, as Thompson describes the end-product. No English publisher in his right mind would have touched Georgina’s manuscript, but incredibly she was able to interest a French one. Summoning up her indifferent French she poured out her passion in six volumes. When the Mémoires came out in France in 1901 Georgina returned to England in the hope of drumming up publicity. This was the year in which her husband, now Acting Garter King-of-Arms, played an important part in organising the funeral of Queen Victoria and the accession of Edward VII. The last thing Harry would have wanted to see was his wife’s face all over the buses again, but luckily her publicity campaign failed utterly and the Mémoires were still-born. She died in Brighton in obscurity in 1914. A year later Harry, now Sir Henry Weldon, Clarenceaux King-of-Arms, married the lady from the houseboat.

[*] Quiller, 275 pp., £30, 30 November 1999, 1 899163 59 x.