“I have nothing to fear… I am the sun, the stars, the pearl, the lion, the light from heaven” – Lady Hester
Lady Hester: Queen of the East, by Lorna Gibb
From having sex in tents to chatting with mass-murderers, nothing fazed this adventurous aristo
By Patricia Duncker Sunday, 1 May 2005 The Independent
Who was Lady Hester Stanhope? If you were taking your School Certificate in 1934 you would have known. This was the year that Joan Haslip's biography appeared and extracts from the volumes produced by Lady Hester's physician and assiduous Boswell, Charles Lewis Meryon, Memoirs of Lady Hester Stanhope (1845) and Travels of Lady Hester Stanhope (1846), were set texts. She inspired Picasso; Lytton Strachey was rude about her, W H Auden paid tribute to her courage, James Joyce saluted her in Ulysses, where she has a walk-on part as Molly Bloom's girlfriend. Now she's back, dressed in male Turkish attire, sitting scandalously astride her Arab horse, in Lorna Gibb's gripping and readable new biography.
Born in 1776, Lady Hester was an aristocrat whose lifestyle and expectations always exceeded her limited income. Her early life was spent on the family estate in Kent where her father, an English Jacobin, made everybody miserable with his rages. Hester was a niece of the long-serving Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, who took an interest in his witty, strong-minded relative. She enjoyed a powerful position as a society hostess in Downing Street during his years in power and on his death was awarded a state pension. It was never enough to cover her extravagance. In 1810 Hester left England and set out for the Orient.
The arrogance and assertiveness of her class was a crucial factor in her success. She commandeered other people's houses; demanded audiences with the Pashas, Beys and Emirs of the East, often famous mass murderers, and conversed with them as equals. She adopted male Eastern costume and negotiated that strange intermediate territory a foreigner can often occupy with panache in a culture that expects a rigid division between the sexes. She behaved as if she were free from all restraints of gender, and could therefore sit with princes or bathe in the hamam with their wives. Hester Stanhope expected admiration, obedience and homage; if she was thwarted or denied she either flew into ungovernable rages or simply refused to comply. The only places where she could be censured were the drawing rooms of English high society. And the sexual freedom she claimed for herself meant that she could never return to England.
On her journey to the East she took a lover much younger than herself, one Michael Bruce, glamorous, rich and fickle, on his Grand Tour, and she made no secret of the fact that she slept with him in a sequence of excessively uncomfortable tents or local houses in the Lebanon where the roofs gave way in the rainy season. In letters of extraordinary candour, she wrote to Michael's father and promised to give up her love should he return to England and propose marriage to another younger woman.
Gibb's biography is peopled with cameos of the mad who sought Hester out and solicited her patronage. One of these was the prophet Richard Brothers, who had been confined to Bedlam by the time he was able to gain Hester's ear and pour out his conviction that she was destined to lead the chosen people and to become a queen of the East. The other was a Bible-carrying Frenchman, General Loustennau, who prophesied greatness for Hester. She took him into her household and supported him; his prophecies clearly suited her own grandiose sense of self. There is a mysterious and fascinating gap of 13 years between Meryon's departure from the Lebanon in 1817 and his third visit in 1830. By the time the doctor returned to her monastic fortress in Joun, the remains of which are still visible today, Hester was addicted to the local drug, the Datura flower, and quite convinced that the messianic Muslim figure, the Mahdi, was due at any moment and that she was destined to ride at his side, heralding a new era of harmony and civilisation in the world. She had become a religious crank, a recluse who bullied her servants, beat them when she lost her temper, and indulged in long, rambling, self-important monologues.
When she found herself in the midst of a savage civil war, where all the factions will be familiar to everyone who followed the most recent civil war in Lebanon, Hester's courage in offering sanctuary to the oppressed and the persecuted led to her own downfall. She borrowed enormous sums from Syrian moneylenders to finance her benevolent and dangerous political activities. Her death was terrible, alone and destitute in the ruined fortress of Joun; her stinking body decomposing by the time it was found, and her rooms overrun by yowling, feral cats.
Lorna Gibb's biography is an elegant, scholarly production, all the notes and sources are present and correct. There are some useful condensed passages of explanation concerning unfamiliar sects and customs, such as the religious practices of the Druze, the people to whom Hester offered help and protection. Gibb has a talent for vivid, detailed descriptions of places and climates. Hester was a gardener, and the descriptions of the gardens she made, both in England and in her last home in the mountains of Lebanon are among the treasures of this book.
Kirsten Ellis is the author of Star of the Morning: The Extraordinary Life of Lady Hester Stanhope. The hardback of ‘Star of the Morning’ was published on 18 August 2008. It tells the dramatic story of Lady Hester Stanhope – a wilful beauty turned bohemian adventurer – who left England as a young woman, becoming the greatest woman traveller of her time and created her own exotic fiefdom in the Lebanese mountains where she died in 1839. It has already been described as ‘non-fiction that reads like a novel – evocative, exciting and compelling.’ It draws on previously unused and overlooked material from three continents to give readers the full story of Hester’s exotic life – a story which till now, has never been properly told. This is a story about a passionate, pioneering woman born before her time, who was criticized and abused for her independent spirit. It will appeal to readers of history, biography and travel literature – Hester’s life combined all three. This is Kirsten Ellis’s first biography. Researching this book took her back to Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey from the south of England where she now lives with her husband and their young son.
‘As Kirsten Ellis vividly shows, Hester Stanhope’s story is one of brave (and often foolhardy) triumph over the straitjacket of Regency attitudes and the even more hidebound conventions of Islamic society. Stanhope was the subject of a recent study … but Ellis has unearthed startling new aspects of this remarkable woman’s life, such as Hester’s relationships with no fewer than three Napoleonic spies. Ellis’s enthusiasm for her heroine makes Star Of The Morning a fascinating study with some trenchant points about the position of strong-minded women in male-dominated societies.’
Barry Forshaw, Daily Express, 29 August 2008
‘What is it about ‘the east’ that seems to attract powerful Englishwomen? … Each of them, however, was following in the footsteps of Lady Hester Stanhope, first among equals, and the subject of this spirited new biography … Star Of The Morning is a fascinating and atmospheric biography of a truly remarkable woman. Kirsten Ellis has left no stone unturned in this admirable book, doing some mean travelling of her own in the process’
Katie Hickman, The Daily Mail, 23 August 2008
‘Kirsten Ellis…is keen to take her subject out of the category of “benign but barking” to which single women travellers were often confined. The ground has been well covered in earlier works, but Ellis has unearthed fresh material, and retells the story with idiosyncratic panache… Ellis is a vivid narrator with an eye for detail: the perfumed dinners attended by naked female slaves; the dusk return of the swallows to the Umayyad mosque.’
Sara Wheeler, The Daily Telegraph, 23 August 2008
Review from The Independent: Star of the Morning, By Kirsten Ellis
Drama queen of the desert
Reviewed by Robert Irwin
Friday, 31 October 2008
In the conclusion to her life of Hester Stanhope, Kirsten Ellis praises her for "being an icon of liberation and for daring to be a woman apart", and for devoting enormous energy to leading her life in her own way. Though this is a fair judgement, practically all of Hester's projects came to nothing, and the self that she was true to was in many respects quite unpleasant. Born in 1776, she was the daughter of an eccentric pro-Jacobin peer and inventor. She was also the granddaughter of Pitt the Elder and niece of William Pitt the Younger.
As a young woman she acted as her uncle's housekeeper and hostess. After his death in 1806, parliament awarded her a pension. In her youth she was attractive and witty and entertained a string of affairs, or at least tendresses, for handsome men with promising careers. At one stage it seemed possible that Hester might marry General Sir John Moore, but after his death at the Battle of Corunna in 1810, she started travelling and never returned to England.
In Malta, Constantinople and Cairo, she conducted an affair with Michael Bruce, 11 years younger and destined for a career in politics. Bruce returned to England and Hester ended up in Lebanon, part of the Ottoman Empire. In 1813 she made a triumphal entry into the ruins of Palmyra where, she liked to believe, she had been crowned Queen of the Desert by the Bedouin. Though settled in a remote village, she maintained a voluminous correspondence and received many visitors.
Her celebrity should be seen in the context of Regency Orientalism – the rediscovery of Palmyra, Petra, Abu Simbel and the Alhambra; the passionate interest in Pharaonic history; the cult of the noble Bedouin; Byronic tales of abduction and revenge set in the Ottoman Empire. Since Oriental travel was not cheap, the Middle East was the playground and dressing-up box of British aristocrats, inclined to treat the Arab tradesmen and fellaheen with the same disdain that they treated shopkeepers and peasants back home.
In the Lebanon, Hester ran up huge debts maintaining a large household, including a young doctor, Charles Meryon. After her death, Meryon produced a six-volume life of Hester; his biography has been followed by many others, including Lorna Gibb's in 2005. Ellis has used a wider range of source material and has followed Hester's footsteps in the Middle East.
Though she writes well, it is not clear that her subject deserves so much devotion. During communal strife, Hester sheltered refugees and could be generous, but more often she was mean. She was also histrionic, superstitious, malicious and vainglorious. One has to rid oneself of the romantic trappings in order to see Hester Stanhope as what she became before her death in 1839 – a batty and embittered old English expat living on tick. There are thousands like her all over the world today.
Producer Gareth Unwin and screenwriter David Seidler (The King’s Speech), are teaming up for another period drama, this time an adaptation of Kirsten Ellis’ biography of Lady Hester Stanhope, an enigmatic, eccentric lady who pushed the boundaries of her time. Like The King’s Speech, the in-development project is a historical drama about royalty challenging the social stigmas that stand in their way. (Because why mess with success?) Titled The Lady Who Went Too Far, the film is based on the non-fiction book “Star of the Morning: The Extraordinary Life of Lady Hester Stanhope” by Kirsten Ellis, and is being adapted by The King’s Speech writer David Seidler (Tucker: The Man and His Dream). Reuniting with Seidler is producer Gareth Unwin, who was one of Speech‘s many backers. Speech director Tom Hooper (The Damned United), meanwhile, has also expressed interest in helming the film, should everything come together as planned. Learn more after the break.
Lady Hester Lucy Stanhope (12 March 1776 – 23 June 1839), the eldest child of Charles Stanhope, 3rd Earl Stanhope by his first wife Lady Hester Pitt, is remembered by history as an intrepid traveller in an age when women were discouraged from being adventurous.
Early life and travels Lady Hester was born and grew up at her father's seat of Chevening until early in 1800, when he sent her to live with her grandmother, Hester Pitt, Countess of Chatham, at Burton Pynsent. A year or two later she travelled abroad, but her cravings were not satisfied until she became the chief of the household of her uncle, William Pitt the Younger, in August 1803. In his position as British Prime Minister, Pitt, who was unmarried, needed a hostess for his household. Lady Hester sat at the head of his table and assisted in welcoming his guests; she became known for her stately beauty and lively conversation. Although her brightness of style cheered Pitt's declining days and amused most of his political friends, she also made enemies unnecessarily. Lady Hester possessed great business talents, and when Pitt was out of office she acted as his private secretary. She was also the prime initiator of the gardens at Walmer Castle during his tenure as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. She was with him in his last illness, and his dying thoughts were concerned with her future, but he had no reason to worry. The nation, grateful for his qualities, awarded his niece a pension of £1200 a year, dating from shortly after his death in January 1806, which Lady Hester Stanhope enjoyed for the rest of her days. On Pitt's death she lived in Montagu Square, London, but life in London without the interest caused by associating with the principal politicians of the Tory party frustrated her, and she went to live in Wales, leaving England for good in February 1810 after the death of her brother. A romantic disappointment is said to have caused her decision to go to a long sea voyage. Among her entourage were her physician and later biographer Charles Meryon, her maid, Anne Fry, and a young man called Michael Bruce, who became her lover. It is claimed that when they arrived in Athens, the poet, Lord Byron, dived into the sea to greet her. From Athens they traveled to Constantinople, capital of the Ottoman Empire, and intended to proceed to Cairo, only recently emerged from the chaos following Napoleon's invasion of Egypt and the international conflicts that followed.
Journey to the Near and Middle East En route to Cairo by sea, the ship endured a storm and was shipwrecked on Rhodes. Stanhope's party lost all their clothes and had to borrow Turkish costumes. Stanhope refused to wear a veil and dressed as a Turkish male, in robe, turban and slippers. When a British frigate took them to Cairo, she bought a more elaborate version of the costume: purple velvet robe, embroidered trousers, waistcoat, jacket, saddle and saber. In this costume she went to greet the Pasha, who received her with awe. From Cairo she went on to journey in the Middle East. Many Turkish sheikhs received her with respect . She refused to wear a veil even in Damascus, which was reputed to be a particularly anti-Christian city. In Jerusalem, the governor received her; when she announced she wanted to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the doors were especially closed and reopened in her honour. By now Lady Hester had begun to believe she had a destiny. She claimed to have heard omens from various sources, from fortune-tellers to prophets, that her destiny was to become the bride of a new messiah therefore she tried to make matrimonial connection with Ibn Saud, the great chief of the Wahabies. She decided to visit the city of Palmyra, even though the route went through a desert with potentially hostile Bedouins that is Fedhan. She dressed as a Bedouin and took with her a caravan of 22 camels to carry all her baggage. Local Bedouin sheiks were apparently impressed by her courage and visited her particularly the Emir Mahannah el Fadel, who received Lady Hester with every testimony of respect and joy for her safe return. In Palmyra, people knew to expect her and she was crowned in a celebration. She became known as "Queen Hester". In 1815 she obtained a 'map' in which a treasure was indicated among the ruins of Ascalan (modern Ashkelon) on the Mediterranean coast north of Gaza. She persuaded the Ottoman authorities that she can excavate it for them and they might share the spoils. They agreed and ordered the governor of Jaffa, Abu Nabbut (Father of the Mace) to assist her with workers. This resulted in the first 'archaeological excavation' ever carried out in Palestine. A headless ancient marble statue was discovered, later smashed to pieces.
Life amongst the Arabs Having grown tired of wandering, Lady Hester Stanhope settled near Sidon, a town on the Mediterranean coast in what is now Lebanon, about halfway between Tyre and Beirut. She lived first in the disused Mar Elias monastery at the village of Abra, and then in another monastery, Deir Mashmousheh, southwest of the Casa of Jezzine. Lady Hester's cherished companion, Miss Williams, and her trusted medical attendant, Dr Charles Meryon, remained with her for some time; but Miss Williams died in 1828, and Meryon left in 1831, only returning for a final visit from July 1837 to August 1838. When Meryon decided to return to England, Lady Hester moved to a more remote abandoned monastery at Joun (also transliterated Joon, Djoun, جون), a village of seven hills eight miles from Sidon, where she lived until her death. Her residence, known by the villagers as Dahr El Sitt, was on the tip of one of these hills. Meryon implied that she liked the house because of its strategic location, "the house on the summit of a conical hill, whence comers and goers might be seen on every side"; the road from Joon to the cities of Sidon, Beirut and Deir el Qamar goes into lonely mountains full of jackals and wolves. At first she was greeted by emir Bashir Shihab II, but over the years she gave sanctuary to hundreds of refugees of Druze inter-clan and inter-religious squabbles and earned his enmity. In her new setting, she wielded an almost absolute authority over the surrounding districts. Her control over the natives was enough to cause Ibrahim Pasha, when about to invade Syria in 1832, to seek her neutrality, and this supremacy was maintained by her commanding character and by the belief that she possessed the gift of divination. She kept writing to important people and spent money at an alarming rate. She still received curious visitors who went out of their way to visit her. One French officer stayed with her until his untimely death; she temporarily buried him in the grave she had prepared for herself. She mounted an expedition to search for buried treasure in the city of Ascalon and wanted the British government to pay the bills—neither attempt succeeded. She found herself deeply in debt and, by Lord Palmerston's order, her pension from England had to be used to pay off her creditors in Syria. She unsuccessfully complained to Queen Victoria. Lady Hester was known for her hospitality. Dr. Charles Meryon records that she "received me with great apparent pleasure, kissing me on each cheek, ordering sherbet, the pipe, coffee, and a finjan [small cup] of orange flower water; all which civilities, at meeting, are regarded in the East as marks of the most cordial and distinguished regard."
Death and legacy In her lonely Joun residence, a house "hemmed in by arid mountains", and with the troubles of a household of some thirty servants only waiting for her death to plunder the house, Lady Hester Stanhope's strength slowly wasted away, and she died there. The disappointments of her life, and the necessity of controlling her servants as well as the chiefs who surrounded Joun, had made her haughty and bad-tempered. She became a recluse and her servants began to take off with her possessions because she could not pay them. She would not receive visitors until dark and then would only let them see her hands and face. She wore a turban over her shaven head. After her death, the British consul arrived from Beirut to settle her affairs and found her quarters full of junk. In 1845, some years after her death, Dr Meryon published three volumes of Memoirs of the Lady Hester Stanhope as related by herself in Conversations with her Physician, and these were followed in the succeeding year by three volumes of Travels of Lady Hester Stanhope, forming the Completion of her Memoirs narrated by her Physician. They presented a lively picture of this extraordinary woman's life and character, and contained many anecdotes of Pitt and his colleagues in political life for a quarter of a century before his death.
Remains In 1988 the International Committe of the Red Cross in Lebanon were approached by an un-named individual who claimed to be in possession of Lady Hester's remains, said to have been removed from her grave which had been damaged during the civil war. The ICRC passed this on to the British Embassy in Beirut who eventually came into possession of the remains. The Embassy then made contact with the Chevening Trust (through the Near East and North Africa Dept of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office) who offered to pay for her reburial in the garden of the Ambassador's Residence.