Lady Hester: Queen of the East, by Lorna Gibb

From having sex in tents to chatting with mass-murderers, nothing fazed this adventurous aristo
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

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.

Buy any book reviewed on this site at Independent Books Direct
- postage and packing are free in the UK