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.



The Friday Fugs & Pieces links over at Go Fug Yourself are always worth clicking on - even the links that sound boring end up being interesting or funny.  Today they sent me to an article about Lady Mary Wortley Montagu over at Millicent and Carla Fran, about an 18th century traveling lady who, amongst other things, visited a Turkish bathhouse.

Hammam (Deleted Scene)

Once upon a time, The Orphan Pearl began in a Turkish bath. I liked this scene so much because I lived it.  Anyone lucky enough to travel to Istanbul should put a visit to the hammam on their itinerary.  The old baths are gorgeous, and (personally) I like the public nudity too.  I always start out nervous and paranoid, afraid that people will stare and think unkind thoughts, and I always leave feeling very calm and body-positive.  Somewhere along the way I stop worrying, chill out, remember that bodies are bodies and we're all odd in some ways and beautiful in others and that's how it ought to be.

Oh, and the detail about the sticky ropes of skin?  That's real too.  You might think I included it just because Lydia and Zohra are so very dirty after fifty days of hard travel (and they are), but I've walked into a hammam a few hours after taking a shower and still seen the skin ropes.  Not just me, either - most people with exemplary bathing habits have the same experience.  They're really gross, but the final result is worth it.

Click through to read the deleted bath scene.

“Will you get my back?” Lydia asked, turning to provide free access to the part in question.

“If you’ll do mine.” Zohra took Lydia's wet bathing cloth and scrubbed like a country girl attacking a load of dirty laundry.

They were both naked, and surrounded by many other naked women: great haunches of hip and belly crowded next to meager shanks of thigh, slow grey-haired ancients side by side with proud-breasted young brides. Children of both sexes scampered between sheltered booths, skidding on the wet marble floor. A mother or older sister occasionally pulled one of the little ones from the fray with a hooked arm, then used the other to apply slick-stinging soap while the child squirmed. Lydia caught a few curious glances directed her way; a woman as pale and blonde as she was always attracted attention.

When she was done, they changed places. Zohra dragged her thick black hair out of the way, and Lydia set to mercilessly. They hadn’t bathed for weeks, and it showed. The dead skin sloughed off in dark, sticky ropes.

When she was done, Zohra’s back glowed bright pink. Lydia handed Zohra her rag and picked up a cake of rose-scented soap. She worked up a thick lather, massaging the foam into her foot and inching on up. Her leg, once slim and shapely, looked stringy. The past two months had been hard on her body, harder on her soul.

It had been fifty days since her world collapsed. Fifty days since a swarm of Russian soldiers converged on Rustem’s compound. Outnumbered and outgunned, Rustem stayed to fight while Lydia and Zohra slipped away in the dark. She’d lingered long enough to see him die, crumpling to the earth in front of the villa, the plaster walls behind him cratered by the spray of bullets.

They ran from the raiders that night, and they’d been running ever since. It had been a long, hard journey.

“Are you thinner, too?” Lydia asked Zohra.

“Not like you.” Zohra answered, assessing her friend’s body openly.

Lydia reached for an empty bucket and carried it to the nearest spigot. The water came out burning hot, so she blended it with cold from a separate faucet. Finding just the right temperature was part of the ritual. She tested the mixture with two fingers, sloshed some of the water over the rim of the bucket and added more cold. Satisfied, Lydia balanced on one leg so she could take one foot, and then the other, into her hand, thread her fingers through her toes and rinse out the soap that collected between them.

Star-shaped windows in the dome overhead let in the afternoon sun. Thick steam trapped the light, preventing it from spreading evenly throughout the room – instead, spears of white pierced the opaque mist. The extravagant marble floor and copper fixtures were only found in city baths, built by kings and princes. Lydia knew she might never enter another Turkish bathhouse again, and she was glad her last excursion was such a special one.

Lydia returned to her mat and picked up the soap again. This time she slid the lather between her thighs, over the flat surface of her belly, and up the shallow curve of her waist.

“What if nobody recognizes you?” Zohra asked, casting another frank glance at Lydia's hardened figure. While she spoke, Zohra slicked one hand along the rounded contours of the opposite arm. Zohra always started from the top and worked her way down.

As they inched closer to Constantinople, Lydia had begun to consider the possibility that they might actually make it to England. There were so many things she missed about her homeland – strawberries and willow trees and rain, just to name a few.

And yet she dreaded her homecoming. Only fear for her life sent Lydia back to her father’s doorstep. Nothing else was worth the humiliation.

“They’ll recognize me,” Lydia answered calmly.

“But your family will find your marriage to a Muslim shameful,” Zohra said.

Lydia nodded. They’d had this conversation before.

“What will we do if they abjure you?”

It would be a disaster. They needed her father’s protection. What would they do if he wouldn’t give it? Die probably. Or…Lydia shrugged, “There’s always America.”

“Yes, that’s right, why don’t we just run for the rest of our lives?” Zohra snapped, then stood and grabbed the bucket with a violent swipe of her hand.

In the changing room, Lydia put on a clean set of underclothes. A silk tunic that reached to her knees and a pair of loose trousers made up the first layer. After that, she had to make do with dirty outer garments – a heavy wool tunic, embroidered around the collar and cuffs, followed by a heavy satchel she carefully positioned against her belly. The sack disappeared under the loose black robe that came next. Finished, Lydia glided over to the mirror to stand behind Zohra, who was using a fingernail to tug a ribbon of glossy black hair out from under her veil to sweep in a gentle curve across her forehead. Kohl rimmed her slanted almond-shaped eyes.

“A veil masks a woman’s face, but like all masks, it communicates as much as it hides,” Luke Benton wrote in In the Footsteps of the Crusaders. She’d read those words long before she set foot in the Orient, and Zohra was living proof. It didn’t matter how much fabric she draped over her body, Zohra was a walking challenge to all mankind.

Lydia could see herself in the mirror too. She looked, as she always did when she was troubled, serene as a porcelain doll. Her face remained frivolous and innocent, no matter how dire the circumstances.

Satisfied with her appearance, Zohra turned away from the mirror. She took Lydia's tightly clasped hands in her own and gently pulled them apart.

“I won’t follow you forever, Mihrimah.” Zohra said, her first words since the outburst.

“What would you rather do?” Lydia met her friend’s gaze without flinching. “Do you want to stay in Constantinople? We could make it happen.”

“I can’t stay here any more than you can.” Zohra dropped Lydia's hands. “Put on your headscarf. We should go, it’s humid in the bath.”

Lydia focused on her veil, tugging the silk into loose folds that covered her hair completely and cast her face into light shadow. Unlike Zohra, she didn’t want to attract attention.