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.
Robert Irwin's new edition of 'The Arabian Nights' is published next month by Penguin Classics
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