The oxygen of passion;

Jane Digby was a serial bride who inspired Balzac. By Rebecca GowersA Scandalous Woman: The Life of Jane Digby by Mary S Lovell Richard Cohen Books, pounds 18.99
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Jane Digby was born in 1807, and brought up in great luxury at Holkham Hall in Norfolk. She was considered immensely beautiful, and married in succession an English lord, a German baron, a Greek count and a Bedouin sheikh. In between, she had notorious affairs with two kings, a prince and an Albanian mercenary. Her life became truly scandalous from the time of her first divorce, in 1830, in which procedure she colluded (illegally) with her husband, Lord Ellenborough. At the time, a man could divorce a woman on the grounds of adultery, but it was an expensive and deeply shaming business. A woman could not divorce her husband on the same grounds, but could use evidence of her husband's adultery to prevent him from divorcing her. Despite the fact that she and Ellenborough were equally culpable, Jane Digby offered no defence. She wanted the ambiguous freedom to behave exactly as she pleased.

She was the subject during her lifetime of eight novels, including one by Balzac, many memoirs, and numerous paintings, and she was memorialised in many more books after she died in 1881. She left a large number of drawings, journals and letters, and a set of lists covering decades, apparently marking every single purchase she ever made and what it cost. Ellenborough and various members of her family together equipped her with an annual income which would be worth approximately pounds 100,000 in today's money. With the power this provided, her life became a crescendo of scandal which ended extraordinarily in the deserts of Syria, where she spent her last 30 years. "Being loved is to me as the air I breathe," she wrote, and intense passion stands as the key to her career.

Digby would appear to be a biographer's dream. Unfortunately, despite extensive new research, Mary S Lovell's A Scandalous Life leaves its subject unreal and fantastical. Lovell's grasp of Digby's historical context is desperately flimsy, and her understanding of her own authorial position is, if possible, even weaker. In her preface, Lovell speaks of finding out what Digby's "rationale" was, describing her as a woman who "a century ahead of her time was completely free of any form of racial or cultural prejudice''. This remark is so preposterous that it is almost embarrassing to try to refute it. It is not surprising to find that, as well as bridging several cultures in a quite remarkable fashion, Digby in fact carried with her many of the preconceptions of her upbringing. More blinkered than Lovell's view of Digby, though, is her implied belief in her own freedom from prejudice, since her remarks about the Bedouin are breathtaking: ''Honed by harsh living over the centuries, only the finest of their race survived to breed;'' or, ''like all Bedouin Arab of pure stock, Sheikh Medjuel was short in height - about five feet, six inches.'' We later discover that, if Lovell sounds here as if she is talking about horses, it is in part because she is paraphrasing Lady Anne Blunt, a Victorian stud owner, who in 1878 wrote, ''The Bedouin Arab of pure blood is seldom more than five feet six inches high.'' Lovell's lack of discretion in absorbing her sources only adds to an awful impression of naivety. Meanwhile, as a stylist she is capable of the worst sort of slush - ''But it dawned on her that the glow she felt whenever the Prince was near was love. Gradually her affair with George became as a candle to the sun of the emotions she began to experience.''

When Lovell talks of Digby making a visit to England late in life and being once more amongst ''people of her own kind'', she is surely begging the very question that makes Digby so intriguing: what was ''her own kind''? A Scandalous Life is too narrow to provide an answer; and yet having said all of this, the subject is so tremendous that Lovell's work does seem to be worth reading. One can only hope that Digby's next biographer will resist an attack of the Georgette Heyers, and attempt to write a book that is as interesting in its own right as the woman who inspires it.