You really couldn’t make up the life story of Margaret Power. Born in 1789 to a small, Catholic, landowning family in County Tipperary, she was the ugly duckling in a handsome family, and barely educated, though a neighbour taught her to read and write, and instilled in her a love of story-telling.
Before she was fifteen, her family was pressuring her into marriage with one or other of two suitors, both officers in the same regiment. She drew the short straw, acquiring as husband a Captain Farmer, whose outbursts of temper bordered on insanity. After three months of wedded bliss, Margaret refused to accompany her husband when he was ordered to return to his regiment; he later fell out with his colonel, sold his commission and went to India. She never saw him again: in 1817, his life ended suitably melodramatically (according to the ODNB) ‘during a drunken orgy in a fall from a window in the King’s Bench Prison’ (where, incidentally, Lady Hamilton was also imprisoned for debt after Nelson’s death).
Margaret returned to her parents’ house, but hardly to their bosom. Either the shame of a daughter who had left her husband (even if she was fifteen and he was a drunken psychopath), or annoyance at the return of a hungry mouth to the nest, led them to treat her like a stranger. After three years, she made her way to Dublin, and came ‘under the protection’ of a Captain Thomas Jenkins, with whom she went to live in Hampshire. Through him, she met the earl of Blessington, a wealthy Irish landowner. Lawrence’s luminous portrait of her, painted in 1822 and now in the Wallace Collection, shows that she had outgrown the ugly duckling stage, and Blessington was so smitten that – deeply romantically or not, depending on your point of view – he effectively bought her from Jenkins, paying him £10,000 for the expenses he had undertaken in keeping her in clothes and jewellery. And, Reader, four months after the death of Captain Farmer, she married him, inheriting four stepchildren (two legitimate, two born before Blessington had married his first wife) and a title. She took the opportunity to leave behind her first name as well as both her previous surnames, exchanging Margaret for the more euphonious (?), European (?), or glamorous (?) Marguerite. So Cinderella from Clonwit, Co. Tipperary, found herself reinvented as a noted beauty (the ‘most gorgeous countess of Blessington’) with a town house on St James’ Square to which the intellectual elite of London flocked.
This fairy-tale outcome was not, of course, the end of the story. Marguerite, the literary hostess, had become a published author when in 1821 the French count d’Orsay, twenty years old and (in the opinion of some) the handsomest man in Europe, was introduced to her salon: they remained closely involved until her death, though the exact nature of the involvement is unclear. (In a grotesque replay of Marguerite/Margaret’s first marriage, in 1827 d’Orsay married her fifteen-year-old stepdaughter, Lady Harriet Gardiner: by 1831, she had left her husband…)
Marguerite’s great claims to fame among her contemporaries were her beauty, wit and charm, which held two generations of literary London in thrall. Thomas Moore, Bulwer Lytton, Disraeli, Dickens (and John Forster) and the American Nathaniel Parker Willis were among the habitués of her salon. But her legacy probably lies in the books which arose from an eight-year-long stay in Europe, during which she met, and got on famously with, Lord Byron. Her Conversations with Lord Byron, published in serial form in 1832–3 and as a book in 1834, and her two travel works, The Idler in France (which has an engraving of the Lawrence portrait on the cover) and the three-volume Idler in Italy, are elegantly written, humorous and self-deprecatory, and all were hugely popular when first published, but before then the idyll had come to an abrupt end. The earl of Blessington died of apoplexy in Paris in May 1829, and his widow was left with an income of £2,000 a year, an expensive lifestyle and many dependants. (Comparisons are difficult, but the earl’s annual disposable income in the first years of their marriage was in the region of £30,000; and in the 1840s the value of her jointure was destroyed by the Irish famine.)
Returning to England in 1830, she resumed her salon (in Park Lane rather than St James’) and started writing for money (Dr Johnson would have approved…). As well as her various memoirs, she produced novels, ‘gift-books’ – annuals with titles like ‘The Book of Beauty’ and ‘The Keepsake’ – and fiction and non-fiction articles and verse for periodicals. But the wolf was not kept from the door; annual income was always exceeded by annual expenditure, and in 1849 she fled to Paris, to escape her creditors. (D’Orsay had gone ahead of her.) Two months later, she was dead of a stroke: she was buried at Chambourcy, and d’Orsay erected a mausoleum over her grave, in which he joined her three years later.
Twenty-seven days after that, the widowed Lady Harriet (who had apparently paid d’Orsay’s creditors £100,000 upon their separation in exchange for his not claiming any part of the Blessington estate) married Charles Spencer Cowper, a nephew of Lord Palmerston. They had a daughter, who lived for only a year, and in the baby’s memory, she had the parish church on her husband’s estate ‘beautifully and diligently restored’. He later sold the estate to the then Prince of Wales, so next time you see the royal family on the telly emerging from Sandringham church, remember the ‘most gorgeous countess of Blessington’ and the ups and downs of her life.