The Queen of the Desert

3D front cover of Travels of Lady Hester Stanhope Volume 1 by Charles Lewis MeryonThis post could have been sponsored by Lemsip and Kleenex, but even without a brain stuffed with cotton wool I have to confess to having been very confused by the Memoirs and Travels (each in three volumes) of Lady Hester Stanhope.

I started off at a disadvantage, because I get Lady Hester and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu confused, on the rather feeble ground that they were both English aristocrats who travelled to the Exotic East (and only a century apart, after all). But this multi-volume account of the life of Lady Hester (1776–1839), published in 1845 and 1846 by her personal physician Charles Meryon, begins at the end and works its way back to the beginning (sort of). Moreover, Meryon has a rather odd way of endearing his subject to the reader: he describes how ‘chagrin and disappointment had soured Lady Hester’s temper and put her out of humour with all mankind’, and his subsequent lengthy quotes from her letters and her conversation fully illustrate this judgment.

Lady Hester’s heyday was short – as the favourite niece of Pitt the Younger, she acted as his hostess from 1803 until his death in 1806, and was thus at the absolute centre of London life.  However, she was already making enemies with her caustic tongue and haughty manner, and the disappearance of her role on Pitt’s death left her with nothing to do, no friends, and a mostly alienated family. Parliament had voted her £1200 a year (say £35,000 in today’s money?) at Pitt’s request, and after a few frustrated and miserable years she left England in 1810, taking Meryon (not yet formally qualified as a physician) with her. Travelling east through the Mediterranean, at Malta she met one Michael Bruce, eleven years her junior, who was wealthy and doing an extended Grand Tour. According to the ODNB, they conducted a passionate love affair for the next three years: unsurprisingly, Meryon discreetly refers to him only as ‘Mr B.’, who undertook to escort Lady Hester ‘in the perilous journey which she had resolved to make through European and Asiatic Turkey’.

After a stay in Constantinople, Lady Hester went to Cairo, where she was received in great style by the Ottoman ruler; she then travelled north through the Holy Land to Syria, defying local custom by dressing in Turkish male costume without a veil (as seen on the cover of the Memoirs). Perhaps the apogee of her travels was her arrival on horseback in Palmyra (the first European women to do so) in March 1813, surrounded by admiring Bedouin tribesmen, who, she later wrote, acclaimed her as ‘queen of the desert’.

Later that year she dismissed Bruce back to his family, and thereafter lived in relative isolation in Syria, becoming more eccentric as she fell ill and into debt, but continuing to entertain in style the occasional European traveller or savant who made it across the desert to her (increasingly crumbling) castle. The Memoirs volumes begin with a very brief history of Meryon’s first involvement with her, and almost immediately jump ahead to his second journey out east (with wife and children), which with various false starts took nearly three years (letters to and fro taking about four months). Meryon was despatched back to England in August 1838 to attempt to raise money on her behalf (her pension had been stopped by the government to pay her various debts), and she died in June of the following year.

The Travels, published a year later than the Memoirs, provide a detailed account of the early wanderings, with much information not only about the countries visited and sights seen, but also about encounters with other western Europeans criss-crossing the Mediterranean at the same time. Hobhouse was among the many travellers in Malta; Lord Byron visited at Athens; at Nazareth, Burckhardt turned up, in his Arab guise as Sheikh Ibrahim (Lady Hester did not like him); and much later, at Acre, Lady Hester is lent a tent ‘of vast magnitude’, under which the Princess of Wales had previously slept, on her journey to and from Jerusalem. Meryon helpfully supplies a sketch, because ‘part of the alleged misconduct of that princess was said to have taken place beneath it’, which ‘excited some discussion in the House of Lords’. He also provides a sketch of a Lebanese ‘midwifery stool’, which leads him (wearing his physician’s hat) to a disquisition on the relative ease of giving birth experienced by ‘primitive’ peoples as opposed to the ‘polished nations’, and how quickly primitive women recover from the ordeal. (A footnote about the tying of the cord and expulsion of the afterbirth is given in Latin, to spare the susceptibilities of his female readership.)

The Memoirs, by contrast, consist much more of Lady Hester’s letters and ‘conversation’ – though the word ‘conversation’ is inaccurate here if it implies any sort of dialogue: there are monologues on every topic under the sun, often degenerating into rants about her ill-usage (as she saw it) by the British government, or into long rambles on astrology and the occult, which came increasingly to obsess her. Meryon ends Volume 3 of the Memoirs with an apology both for his subject and himself: ‘My object has been to vindicate the fame of a persecuted lady, whose memory I honour, and most of whose actions have been misinterpreted… if any persons should feel hurt at any of the disclosures of this work … they will do no wrong in considering all the acrimonious passages they may detect in these pages as merely a scene out of Timon of Athens – a burst of spleen against mankind, produced by a long series of mortifications, wrongs and disappointments.’


This entry was posted in Archaeology, Biography, History, Travel and Exploration, Uncategorized, Women's Writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Queen of the Desert

  1. Pingback: Inspiring Women | Cambridge Library Collection Blog

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