Female wit finds freedom among gaudy butterflies

Lady Hester
July 8, 2005

On one of her cavalcades through Mount Lebanon, Lady Hester Stanhope, the legendary l9th-century traveller, came upon a dilapidated monastery in the nondescript village of Joun, high above Sidon. She bought it and turned it into a delightful residence, set in a rose garden surrounded by olive groves, where she spent the final 20 years of her extraordinary life.

Today, the climb to her tomb, overlooking the sea, is a pilgrimage to the shrine of one of the most authentic Romantics, at the head of a line of great English female travellers who sought in the East the adventure and romance they craved and could not find in their own industrialised societies.

Stanhope was born in l776, lost her mother in infancy and was brought up by her grandmother. She was the favourite niece of Prime Minister William Pitt, and became his hostess in Downing Street. Although not conventionally beautiful, she was tall and elegant, with intense blue eyes and a fine complexion. Her intelligence and wit charmed the visitors, and she relished life at the centre of the political and social whirlwind. Pitt's premature death in l806 shattered her world. The Government allocated her Pounds l,200 a year, far less than was needed to keep house for herself and her half-brothers, or have a carriage, which confined her to the house. Her intelligence and wit were disadvantages - "She is that dangerous thing, a female wit", remarked Byron - and she loathed the company of society women, many of whom dropped her when she lost her position.

It was a time of turmoil, with Napoleon sweeping through Europe. Stanhope lost her fiancé, General Sir John Moore, in a battle in Spain, and her brother Charles. Feeling excluded from society, betrayed and angry, she moved to Wilmer Castle in Wales, and turned it into "a perfect marvel of beauty". But fate was against her: she fell madly in love with Granville Leveson Gower, who led her on but did not return her feelings and finally left her. It was time to give up on England: "There is a longing for the East, very commonly felt by proud-hearted people, when goaded by sorrow," wrote Alexander Kinglake, who visited her in Joun towards the end of her life.

Stanhope's first stop was Gibraltar, where she arrived with her companion, Charles Meryon, a young doctor who was to spend many years loyally serving "the best lady who ever breathed". Here, Stanhope met Michael Bruce, a young man from a banking family l2 years her junior, who decided to follow her wherever she would go. Stanhope loved him passionately and selflessly, knowing that one day he would leave her for a younger woman. "I most solemnly declare that I never had or ever will have further claims upon your son than any woman he might have picked up in the street", she wrote to his father, who feared their liaison would jeopardise his son's chances, and she magnanimously refused Bruce's offer of marriage.

The journey to Constantinople, through Malta, Corinth, the Ionian Islands, was fraught with mishaps, including a shipwreck in which Stanhope lost all her jewellery and clothes, and "what little there was in her of nicety and propriety", and was "exposed to all the horrors of famine". But once in Turkey she was in her element: she plunged into Turkish life, avoiding contact with the Europeans. She dressed in male Turkish clothes and sported a sabre stuck into her belt. She visited harems and hammams, where women "are gaudy sparkling butterflies", and attended a public execution where she was handed the severed head of a Pasha, "passed round like a pineapple".

A "prophet" in her youth had predicted that Stanhope would go to Jerusalem "and lead the Chosen People... become the Queen of the Jews". So she left Turkey and travelled through Egypt to Palestine and Syria, then provinces of the Ottoman Empire. In Egypt she was befriended by the redoubtable Mehmet Ali Pasha, who ruled almost independently from the Ottoman Sultan, while the Pasha of Damascus sent her an invitation, but asked her to enter the city veiled for fear of hostile crowds. Instead she dressed in male attire and rode in to public cheers. She travelled around the country and became the first woman traveller to cross the desert to the ancient city of Palmyra. Finally she settled in Lebanon, but, as she had foreseen, Bruce left her and returned to Europe.

In Lebanon she was plagued by lack of money. Even Queen Victoria was alerted to her predicament. Yet the Government and her brothers did not help, hoping that poverty would force her to return home. They underestimated her. "If they were to give me Pounds l00,000 a year to live among the boot-whipping, silly, visiting people of England I would not do it. Here, if I sit under a tree and listen to a camel driver at least I hear good sense." And so she stayed, "her bosom corroded by the neglect of her friends", she confessed. She dressed in flowing robes and a huge turban, dabbling in "Eastern mysticism" and astrology, prey to local charlatans. Her fame spread through Europe, and she was visited by European travellers who were invariably impressed by her intellect and charmed by her conversation. "She has features which age cannot alter... I found that no chord was wanting in her high and strong intellect," wrote Alphonse de Lamartine. Lorna Gibb's lively and highly readable biography brings this unique Romantic woman to life.

Shusha Guppy is the author of The Blindfold Horse: Memories of a Persian Childhood .

Lady Hester: Queen of the East

Author - Lorna Gibb
Publisher - Faber
Pages - 0
Price - £14.99
ISBN - 0 571 21753 2

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