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.

Most men were bowled over by her. The Younger Pitt (her uncle and a bachelor) chose her to be his companion and society hostess during the final years of his life. (She started her travels after he died.) Women were less taken by her, but then she was less interested in them – understandably, if all they had to talk about was knitting and sewing. In the East her gender seemed to matter less; a European woman dressed in male ‘Turkish’ attire, armed to the teeth and outriding most of the local men (she was a terrific horsewoman), was clearly so startling as to push aside the feelings they would have had if any of their own women behaved in this way. Stanhope thought her sex was a boon, giving her ‘every advantage which belongs to both Man and Woman, having sometimes passed for one, sometimes for other’. In fact she was proud that the Arabs looked on her as neither, ‘but as un être à part’.

She found herself fêted on all sides. Her entry into Palmyra in 1813 was greeted by pretty girls singing and throwing rose petals at her as if she were their ancient heroine, Queen Zenobia, returned. All kinds of flowery names were bestowed on her: not only Star of the Morning, but also (as she recalled) ‘the sun . . . the pearl, the lion, the light from Heaven, and the Queen, which all sounds well in its way.’ And all this quite apart from the Queen of the Jews soubriquet that was first conferred on her by a mad millenarian back in England in 1795 (when she was 19), and which may have fed into her messianic fantasies later on. In her defence, it is worth pointing out that she wasn’t blind – or not all the time – to the fact that these might be delusory. But, as she wrote to Meryon in 1818, ‘Here without any stir on my own part, there come from various quarters, dervishes, priests, rabbis, Druzes and all descriptions of people saying I am the Messiah or the forerunner of him. Am I a fool to admit of the possibility to wait to see what it all means?’ Difficult not to let all this adoration go to one’s head.

The delusions grew worse. With time she began to believe that ‘God has given me the extraordinary faculty of seeing into futurity,’ as well as magic powers, which she was loath to demonstrate in case it made God cross. Meryon thought the magic and messianism were also à part, and didn’t affect her mental state in any other way. This was probably because he was so hugely impressed with the qualities of her mind, as exemplified in her conversation, as was just about everyone else who was privileged to hear it. Even the misogynistic Byron, who met her in Athens in 1810, didn’t deny it, though it seemed only to confirm his disapproval of ‘that dangerous thing, a female wit’. What was so remarkable about her conversation? Apparently, she talked interm-inably – for six to eight hours non-stop. Visitors claimed they were never bored, but from the surviving records of her conversation – certainly the examples quoted by Ellis – it is difficult to understand why not. Meryon was no Boswell (Lytton Strachey characterised him as ‘a poor-spirited and muddle-headed man’), but one would have thought that in his six biggish volumes at least a glimpse of her brilliance might have shone through. He was troubled by this himself. Looking through his transcriptions, he saw how much flatter her speech read than it sounded. There was a reason for this. ‘The flexibility of her features,’ he explained, ‘the variety of her tones, her person, her dignified manner, her mimicry – all contributed towards the effect.’ In which case it seems at least possible that she wasn’t really saying very much; it just sounded good.

Of course, her conversation would have had some substance. She was refreshingly open-minded, at least in some areas; and transgressive in her thinking as well as in her conduct. She had wide knowledge in two particular fields: British politics in the time of Pitt, and Middle Eastern culture and politics. This gave her what one observer (a lover, admittedly) called ‘a perfect insight into the history of the times’. She was also reputed to be a good judge of character, including those of the great men she had met while in Pitt’s employ.

There were limits to all this, however. Her proto-feminism wouldn’t pass muster today – she thought wives should defer to their husbands, or at least pretend to. On matters of class and race she was very much a creature of her own social position, despite her father’s renunciation of his aristocratic title in line with French revolutionary doctrine (he took to calling himself Citizen Stanhope), and her own early support for the campaign against slavery. She was profoundly undemocratic, deferring to royalty, both European and Eastern, and below that level tolerating only people who flattered or submitted to her. In England she despised what she called the ‘swinish multitude’. In the East she treated her Arab servants abominably – Meryon claimed she chose to live on a hilltop, surrounded by wolves and jackals, during her last years, in order to prevent their escaping, despite which all of them tried to at one time or another – and latterly kept African slaves, who she thought were subhuman (‘these nasty black beasts’) and responsive only to the whip. Ellis omits most of this. Maybe she has reasons to distrust Meryon, but if so she doesn’t give them. So far as judging character is concerned, most of Stanhope’s assessments seem to have been coloured by the way she felt she had been treated by the people she was judging (she accumulated a great number of grievances over the years, and spent most of her later letters giving vent to them). A remarkable letter in Meryon’s memoir tells him what to look for in some servants she wanted him to recruit:

Wrinkles at the eyes are abominable, and about the mouth. Eyebrows making one circle, if meeting, or close and straight, are equally bad . . . Eyes long, and wide between the eyebrows; and no wrinkles in the forehead when they laugh, or about the mouth, are signs of bad luck and duplicity. Eyes all zigzag are full of lies. A low, flat forehead is bad; so are uneven eyes, one larger than the other, or in constant motion.

And so on. And that was only the face. A page later we come on to the feet. You could read character in them too.

Her political opinions were of much the same superficial stamp. Throughout her life she was fascinated by conspiracies: the revolutionary plots that she thought were responsible for all the French upheavals, the Freemasons, British and French intrigues in the East etc. ‘I have been bred in the work of revolutions since I was first with Mr Pitt. How many plots did he crush . . . of which not a syllable was ever known!’ Early on she contemplated becoming a double agent herself, in order to assassinate Napoleon. (Her Jacobin father would give her credibility.) In Syria she saw conspiracies everywhere, most of them directed against her. As a result, she corresponded with Meryon in code. On the broader political front, she harboured ambitions of being an Eastern spymistress herself, a significant actor in the Great Game; but only on her own terms: ‘I will be no man’s agent.’ Even her servants got to know about her ‘feverish greediness’ for intelligence about plots; so that, according to Meryon, ‘there was not a fellow in her establishment who did not return home every night with some cock and bull story’ to feed it. So far as she was concerned, this was the way the world worked. This, too, was typical of her class.

Meryon credited her with ‘the most enlarged political views’, but they aren’t evident in his memoir, or in Ellis’s book, and maybe didn’t exist, given that she read almost nothing that might have added any depth to her thought. This may have been partly her father’s fault. In obedience to Rousseau’s ‘natural’ principles of education (as he understood them), he actively discouraged book-learning in his children, and instead (the story goes) sent Hester off to mind turkeys. Meryon claimed that the only books she looked at were a Bible, a peerage, a volume on domestic cookery, and a couple of medical works. She refused to read history because it was ‘all a farce’. Hence what even Meryon perceived as her ‘narrow views of general policy, of the rights of mankind, in fine, of politics and ethics in the abstract’. It was all just political (and religious) chit-chat; entertaining so far as it went (it is what fills the political media today), but without substance.

Stanhope may have been aware of this herself. She knew that ‘superficial knowledge and flash’ were not enough when it came to her young lover Michael Bruce’s preparation for what she hoped would be a career in British politics. She excoriated travellers’ tales of the East that only scratched surfaces, including Lamartine’s celebrated Voyage en Orient (1835), the book that was largely responsible for romanticising her. For much the same reason she destroyed her own writings before her death, ordered Meryon to burn those he had, and roundly forbade him to write the memoir he was clearly contemplating: ostensibly because she didn’t think he was up to it, but possibly also because she realised the intrinsic weakness of the material. (Meryon of course disobeyed.) She repeatedly announced plans to write accounts of her own: ‘a manifesto, which will be superb, and open people’s eyes in all directions’, together with ‘a great book against Christianity’; but they never came to anything.

The same self-knowledge may have lain behind the frustration of many of her other bold plans: to found ‘an association of literary men and artists’ to study the Ottoman lands; to find hidden cities and buried treasure; to make ‘sublime and philosophical discoveries’; to lead an Arab revolt; to find a cure for the plague; and to prepare the way for whichever Messiah happened to come along. Hence her failure to turn her undoubted knowledge of and sympathy for the Arabs to any substantial end. The one exception – a major one – was the asylum she afforded to hundreds of Druze refugees, fearful for their lives, during Ibrahim Pasha’s siege of Acre in 1831-32. On the other side of the picture, she is also reputed to have exacted a terrible revenge for the murder of a French friend of hers: the slaughter of perhaps three hundred mostly innocent people in thirty Syrian villages, many of them beheaded. All that showed what she might have done, on a larger scale, and for good or ill, had she been more single-minded; less imperious; more willing to work with other people; less distracted by all that millenarian nonsense; and possibly – though Ellis doesn’t mention this either – less partial to datura, a local drug that induced delusion and delirium. Maybe it was this that made her seem mad.

It was some time after she died in 1839 before Stanhope’s body was discovered in her mountain redoubt: pale and serene according to Ellis, decomposing by other accounts – which seems more likely, in that heat. Her last days were terrible. Almost more terrible, in view of her feelings on these matters, was the insult afforded to her afterwards, when her body was given a Christian burial by a visiting American missionary. No one saw her die, so Ellis’s description of her ‘in her garden in Djoun; her body suddenly weightless, her arms outstretched, and spinning, as though the divine trance had taken hold of her at last’ must be poetic licence. Other intrepid women travellers followed Stanhope to the East over the next century, several of whom achieved more. None, however, was quite so romantic, exciting, outrageous or frankly unbelievable as Lady Hester Stanhope.