Hester Stanhope: The Early Years

The heroine of my novel, Lydia Spark, lives a pretty outlandish life.  Lydia runs away at seventeen on a visit to Cairo, marries a bandit, and moves into his harem.  Seven years later she returns to England as a widow only to discover, as the saying goes, that she can't go home again.  Her experiences have changed her too much. I went out of my way to keep Lydia's character tethered to reality.  Believe it or not, I wouldn't let Lydia do anything that real women of her time (the novel is set in 1838) weren't willing to attempt.

One of my models for Lydia was Hester Stanhope.  Hester's story reads like a Greek tragedy - she broke all the rules, and she suffered for it.

I plan on doing a few posts about Hester.  This one will just cover her early life.  Hester did some amazing things, but she only left England because she no longer felt welcome there.  Like my heroine, Lydia Spark, pain spurred her to adventure.

Hester Stanhope hit the genetic jackpot...sort of.  She was the eldest child of Charles, the Earl of Stanhope, and granddaughter to William Pitt, Earl of Chatham and two-time Prime Minister of England.  On the downside, her mother died in childbirth while she was still a girl and her father devoted his life to science and revolutionary politics.

Her father styled himself Citizen rather than Earl, dubbed his ancestral home Democracy Hall, and tested his political theories on his family.  He dressed his children coarsely and placed them in trade – he sent Hester off to feed geese, and apprenticed one of her brothers to the local blacksmith.  All six of his children escaped at the nearest opportunity; Hester took refuge with her uncle, William Pitt.

Hester idolized Pitt, and he spoiled her.  She installed herself as his hostess and housekeeper, and when William Pitt began his second and final stint as Prime Minister in 1804, Hester found herself in a position of great social and political prominence.  Especially once he became ill and Hester took to screening all of his visitors.

The political female par excellence of the mid-century was Lady Palmerston, who accomplished quite a bit by throwing parties and organizing dinners.  Thanks to her careful selection of guests, Members of Parliament were known to swing their votes in exchange for invitations.  Most political wives followed in Lady Palmerston’s footsteps, adapting a traditional role to serve their own ambition.

Hester Stanhope couldn't have been more different.  She had no sense of common courtesy and no tact.  She recommended that the Princess of Wales take a bath “to remove the smell of stale sweat” from her body.  She mimicked the Prince of Wales’ waddle and lisp.  She invariably called Castlereigh, one of England’s most prominent statesmen, “His Monotonous Lordship.”[i] When William Pitt assigned his niece the task of designing a medal, Lord Liverpool – then home secretary and later Prime Minister - wanted a say in the choice of ribbon.  Hester tells the story like so:

That, she said…as a young woman, she might have been allowed to settle; but Lord Liverpool, being an old woman, was jealous, and sent her four thousand yards – she positively affirmed that – four thousand yards of different ribbons at the expense of the public, which he proposed to examine in conjunction with her for the purpose of fixing on the most suitable.  She sent them back with her compliments, saying she...could see no use whatever for the ribbons, except to make braces for supporting his Lordship’s culottes, which she had observed were always weighed down by the heavy official papers in his pockets.”[ii]

When Pitt died in 1906, Hester reaped the reward of all her candor: ostracism.  All the enemies she made as the Prime Minister's niece (read: pretty much everyone who was anyone) snubbed her.  Hester reacted by refusing offers of aid and driving off the few friends she had left.

She possessed too much pride to eat the plateful of humble pie she'd been served, and she fled.

Hester spent the early years of her exile traveling around the Mediterranean,  flaunting her affair with a younger man.  She met Michael Bruce at the age of thirty-four.  He was twenty-three, eleven years her junior.  And no, Hester never married, not before, during, or after this period.

One charge that dogged feminists throughout the nineteenth century was that emancipation went hand in hand with sexual license.  For better or worse, traditionalists had fodder with which to fill their cannons: Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, had several affairs out of wedlock, botched several suicide attempts, and bore an illegitimate child.  Mary Shelley, her daughter, began an affair with Percy Bysshe Shelley literally atop her mother’s grave before running away with him to Europe and leaving his wife to kill herself.  George Sand idealized the feminine while making a habit of wearing men’s clothes and dallying with prominent poets and musicians.

At the start of her affair with Michael Bruce, Hester wrote to his father to request his approval.   She promised to exert a positive influence on Michael and to give him up when the time came.  As she explains, “whilst loving him to distraction, I must look forward to the time that I must resign him to a thrice happy woman who is really worthy of him.”[iii]

That very same letter concludes: “Do not however Sir mistake the tone of humility I have adopted thro’ this letter, which proceeds in fact from my being one of the proudest women in the world, so proud, as to despise the opinion of the world altogether”[iv] That's pretty much her worldview.  When the letter arrived recalling her lover, Hester kept her word and let him go but losing him broke her heart.  She spent the rest of her life living up to her final boast, and ended up queen of her own little fiefdom in Lebanon, solitary, autocratic, and a little insane.

[i] The Duchess of Cleveland, The Life and Letters of Lady Hester Stanhope (London: John Murray, Albemarle Street, 1914). 48.

[ii] Cleveland, The Life and Letters of Lady Hester Stanhope.  61.

[iii] Ian Bruce, The Nun of Lebanon; the Love Affair of Lady Hester Stanhope and Michael Bruce; Their Newly Discovered Letters (London: Collins, 1951). 64.

[iv] Bruce, The Nun of Lebanon; the Love Affair of Lady Hester Stanhope and Michael Bruce; Their Newly Discovered Letters. 64.