Stanhope, Hester Lucy (DNB00)
|←Stanhope, George||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 54
Stanhope, Lady Hester Lucy
STANHOPE, Lady HESTER LUCY (1776–1839), eccentric, the eldest daughter of Charles, viscount Mahon (afterwards third Earl Stanhope) [q. v.], by his first wife, Hester (1755–1780), the clever sister of William Pitt and elder daughter of the great Earl of Chatham, was born at Chevening, Kent, on 12 March 1776. Hester and her sisters received a rambling kind of education. Their mother was absorbed in her coiffure and in the opera, while their father was too abstracted to take much notice of his household. Hester grew up a beauty of the brilliant rather than the handsome order. She was early distinguished by invincible cheerfulness and force of character, which enabled her to exert a complete ascendency over her sisters. Her home was not congenial to her, and from 1800 until 1803 she lived mainly with her grandmother at Burton Pynsent. Her skill in saving her brothers and sisters from the results of their father's experiments first attracted to her the attention of her uncle, William Pitt, and in August 1803 Pitt asked her to come and keep house for him. She soon became his most trusted confidant, and when in bewilderment at her dazzling indiscretions the minister's friends questioned him as to the motives of his niece's conduct, Pitt would answer, 'I let her do as she pleases; for if she were resolved to cheat the devil she could do it,' to which the lady in telling the story appended the rider, 'And so I could.' She corresponded with Pitt's friends, including Canning and Mulgrave, to whom she once retorted à propos of an unfortunate remark upon a broken spoon at the table, 'Have you not yet discovered that Mr. Pitt sometimes uses very slight and weak instruments to effect his ends?' In 1804, upon one historic occasion, she succeeded in blacking the premier's face with a burned cork, and for the next two years she arranged the treasury banquets and dispensed much official patronage. On his deathbed, in January 1806, Pitt gave her his blessing: 'Dear soul,' he said, ' I know she loves me.' His death involved the extinction of all her ambitious prospects and aspirations.
Pitt desired that 1,500l. a year should be settled upon her, but, after certain deductions, the amount of the pension was reduced to 1,200l., a sum on which Lady Hester declared her inability to maintain a carriage. Her equanimity was further sorely tried in 1808 by the death at Coruna of her favourite brother, Major Stanhope, and of Sir John Moore, for whom she is known to have cherished an affection. She retired for a time to Wales; but, becoming more and more intolerant of the restrictions of ordinary society, she left England for the Levant in 1810, and never again saw her native land. She took out with her a Welsh companion, Miss Williams, an English physician, Charles Lewis Meryon [q. v.], and a small suite, which gradually grew in numbers as she progressed eastwards. She set sail in the Jason frigate on 10 Feb. 1810. After suffering shipwreck off Rhodes, she made a stately pilgrimage to Jerusalem, traversed the desert, and presided over a vast Bedouin encampment, amid the ruins of Palmyra (January 1813). She finally settled down, in the summer of 1814, among the half-savage tribes on the slopes of Mount Lebanon. The pasha of Acre ceded to her the ruins of a convent and the village of Dahar-June (Djouni or Joon), situated on a conical mount and peopled by the Druses. She there built a group of houses surrounded by a garden and an outer wall, like a mediæval fortress, and occupied herself in intriguing against the authority of the British consuls in the district (for whom as commercial agents she had a supreme aristocratic contempt), in regulating and counteracting the designs of her slaves, in stimulating the Druses to rise against Ibrahim Pasha, and in endeavours to foster the declining central authority of the sultan. Though with the lapse of time and the waning of her resources her prestige suffered considerably, for a few years she exercised almost despotic power in the neighbourhood of Lebanon, and in time of panic, as after the battle of Navarino (20 Oct. 1827), Europeans fled to her from all sides for protection. Her fearlessness and her remarkable insight into character, combined with her open-handed charity in relieving the poor and distressed, caused her to be regarded with superstitious veneration as a kind of prophetess, and, if she did not share the idea, she seems to have done all in her power to encourage it.
As time went on she insensibly adopted Eastern manners and customs. Though always complaining of neglect, she had upwards of thirty personal attendants, and after Miss Williams's death, in 1828, none of these were Europeans. Her standard of demeanour was rigorous, servants not being expected 'to smile, or scratch themselves, or appear to notice anything.' Syrians were preferred because, though thievish and dirty, they were completely obsequious and required no definite or stated hours for repose. In spite, however, of much vigorous language and frequent blows from a mace, which she was in the habit of wielding, the household slaves became more and more incorrigible. Her physician, Meryon, in the course of his visits, importuned her to send 'the worst of them away, for they were only a torment to her.' 'Yes, but my rank!' was the characteristic answer. Similarly she maintained on the premises enormous numbers of cats and other animals. She had a strange regard for horses, devising a kind of superannuation scheme for those in her employ, and she was a devout believer in the transmigration of souls and in judicial astrology, which she practised upon the least provocation.
Many distinguished Europeans sought interviews with her. Lamartine visited her on 30 Sept. 1832, and described her religious belief as a clever though confused mixture of the different religions in the midst of which she had condemned herself to live. Kinglake gives a more commonplace account of her when describing his pilgrimage to Djouni in 1835. He was struck by her extraordinary appearance, her penetration and power of downright expression. Her talk was full of sparkling anecdotes of Pitt and his circle. Dr. Madden and Prince Maximilian of Bavaria were among other personages to whom she accorded interviews. Poujoulat and Michaud traversed Syria for the purpose, and were then refused admittance at Djouni upon some trivial pretext. Dr. Bowring was another traveller disappointed of an audience.
In haranguing her visitors there is no doubt that Lady Hester found the greatest happiness of her life. She frequently talked for an hour or more without stopping, and prolonged her remarks until two or three in the morning. She liked her hearer to stand, while the slaves filled the pipes or knelt around in postures of oriental humility. 'Thus she fancied herself an eastern princess.' 'I have known her,' says Meryon, 'lie for two hours at a time with a pipe in her mouth (from which the sparks fell and burned the counterpane into innumerable holes) when she was in a lecturing humour, and go on in one unbroken discourse, like a parson in his pulpit.' She harangued one unfortunate Englishman for so many hours, without respite, that he fainted away from fatigue. On summoning the servants to his assistance, she remarked quietly that he had been overpowered in listening to the state of disgrace to which his country was reduced by its ministers (this was in 1819). She could not bear to be alone, and scarce an evening passed without her summoning the worthy physician, who seems to have served her at first from self-interest, afterwards spellbound by her commanding personality, latterly from a chivalrous feeling towards an old woman in precarious health, poor, saddled with innumerable debts, and preyed on by thieves. He became, indeed, almost indispensable. She frequently abused him, and persistently refused to receive Mrs. Meryon. But he stayed with her during the spring of 1831 and the summers of 1837 and 1838, and, with an almost Boswellian power of self-effacement, he listened to and recorded her views on such themes as the superiority of the vices of high-born people to the virtues of low-born ones, of the concubine to the. wife, the fraudulent attempts of the middle classes to disguise their real character by education, and the proper place of doctors as the upper servants of noblemen. He himself became, indeed, little more than her apothecary. To the last she insisted on physicking and cutting out garments for all those with whom she came into close contact (a droll reference to this last peculiarity is given by Southey in the 'Doctor').
Ever since she had settled on Mount Lebanon, Lady Hester's profuse prodigality had involved her in an accumulating weight of debt. Up to 1836 it is a remarkable proof of her talents that she prevailed upon various Levantine usurers to advance her large sums upon her note of hand. But finally this resource failed her, the creditors became clamorous, and in February 1838 Lord Palmerston felt himself justified in appropriating the bulk of her pension to the settlement of their claims. Matters were not improved by abusive letters to the foreign secretary, or by a presumptuous epistle which Lady Hester thought fit to address to the queen. Some of the newspapers in England sympathised with her 'grievances,' but she failed to obtain any redress, and in August 1838 she shut herself up in her castle with some five of her retainers, walled up the gate, and refused to see any visitors. Untamed by the miseries of her later years, she died as she had lived, in proud isolation, on 23 June 1839, with no European near her. On hearing of her illness, Niven Moore, the British consul at Beyrout, rode over the mountains to see her, accompanied by William McClure Thomson, the American missionary. They arrived just after her death, and found the place deserted. All the servants had fled as soon as the breath was out of the body, taking with them such plunder as they could secure. Not a single thing was left in the room where their mistress lay dead, except the ornaments upon her person. At midnight her countryman and the missionary carried her body by torchlight to a spot in the garden and there buried her. Sketches of her fortalice and her grave are in Thomson's 'The Land and the Book' (1886).
A portrait drawn on stone by R. J. Hamerton is bound up along with some memoranda and an autograph letter in 'Collectanea Biographica' (vol. xcv.) in the print-room at the British Museum.[The chief authorities are Meryon's Travels of Lady Hester Stanhope (1846) and his still more entertaining Memoirs of Lady Hester Stanhope (1845), each in three volumes and illustrated by lithograph portraits of Lady Hester in costume. See also Gent. Mag. 1839, ii. 420; Stanhope's Life of Pitt; Phipps's Memoirs of Robert P. Ward, 1850, i. 143; Russell's Eccentric Personages, 1864, i. 105-15; Caroline Fox's Journals and Letters, ed. Pym, p. 34; Thomson's The Land and the Book; Lamartine's Voyage en Orient; Michaud et Poujonlat's Corresp. d'Orient, 1833, v. 530 sq.; Madden's Travels, 1829, letter xxxv.; Kinglake's Eothen, chap. viii.; Warburton's Crescent and Cross, chap. xix.; Wolff's Travels in the East, 1860; Quarterly Review, Ixxvi. 430 sq.]