It Just Sounded Good

Bernard Porter

  • Star of the Morning: The Extraordinary Life of Lady Hester Stanhope by Kirsten Ellis
    HarperPress, 444 pp, £25.00, August 2008, ISBN 978 0 00 717030 2

She was a wonder, a legend. The writer Alexander Kinglake said that when he was a child in the 1820s Lady Hester Stanhope’s name was as well known to him as Robinson Crusoe’s, though he thought Crusoe was more believable. A century later, her table-talk (retailed in six volumes by her doctor-companion, Charles Meryon, and first published in 1845-46) was still being studied for the School Certificate. Admired as the intrepid Englishwoman who ‘conquered’ the East, even the male-chauvinist parts of it, by the force of her personality, her intelligence and especially her conversation, she was also vilified for her unconventionality (wearing male Arab dress and riding astride); the sexual liberties she took, with several male partners, none of them proper husbands (she claimed men had been created by God to arouse women); her views on English society and Christianity, both of which she came to loathe; her temper; her huge debts (which she expected the British government to settle); and her supposed madness. It was hard to dismiss the last, in view of her much publicised belief in the imminent collapse of the world into chaos, as a prelude to the coming of the Messiah (either Jewish or Muslim: she wavered on this), whose triumphant entry into Jerusalem she would accompany as his ‘Queen’, riding a white horse and up to her waist ‘in blood’. Hence the dominant image of her as ‘poor mad Hester’. Successive biographers – and there have been a number of them, though curiously Kirsten Ellis doesn’t mention the last and best, Lorna Gibb – have struggled with this.

Ellis concedes most of her oddities, and makes a claim for her as a powerful mind on Middle (then ‘Near’) Eastern matters, even if there was little to show for it. In any case, many of Stanhope’s eccentricities no longer seem very eccentric. Serial lovers, for example, are hardly problematical today – and Stanhope seems to have been pretty faithful to each of hers in his turn. The way she expressed her scorn for Christianity can still perhaps shock, but not (surely) widely offend.

I asked ‘What is it for that I am to eat the body and drink the blood in Christ?’ and they told me it was to show our love for our Redeemer. I remarked that I loved my poor mother who was dead but I was not going to show it by digging her up and eating a bit of her flesh and drinking her blood. And as I would not do it out of love, I am sure it must be a disgusting thing to do for anything else.

The idea that Britain was ruled by ‘monsters’, its political system ‘doomed’, doesn’t seem unreasonable now, when applied to those dangerous and repressive years between the end of the French Wars and the beginnings of Reform. And if things were bad in general, they were worse for women. When a visitor to her in Syria suggested Stanhope might like to return to Britain, she asked what would he have her do: ‘Knit or sew like an Englishwoman?’ (Ellis thinks she was an ‘instinctive’ feminist, expressing the contemporary views of Mary Wollstonecraft ‘by her actions’.) Of European nations, she always favoured the French over the British. But the East topped even France. Her admiration for Arab cultures, especially Bedouin, Sufi and Druze, was genuine, not I think Orientalist in the Saidian sense of the word, or incipiently imperialist. Indeed, she came to see the East as a source of purification for the ‘rotten’ West.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in