Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Blessington, Marguerite

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BLESSINGTON, MARGUERITE, Countess of (1789–1849), authoress, was born at Knockbrit, near Clonmel, co. Tipperary, 1 Sept. 1789. She was the second daughter and fourth of the seven children of Edmund Power, only son of Michael Power of Curragheen and Clonea, a small landowner descended from an old catholic family of some repute in co. Waterford. Her mother, Ellen, daughter of Edmund Sheeny, also came from an ancient catholic stock in co. Tipperary. Marguerite was chiefly noticeable when a girl as the one plain member in a singularly handsome family. Her father being dissolute, her home was miserable. Miss Anne Dwyer, a friend of her mother's, out of compassion imparted to her the first rudiments of education. Yet her precocity was such that by improvising stories for her brothers and sisters she became the wonder of the neighbourhood. Her father moved his family from Knockbrit to Clonmel. There, in 1797, he was appointed a magistrate, both in Waterford and Tipperary. When the revolt began, he, with the help of a troop of dragoons, resolutely hunted down the insurgents, on one occasion shooting with his own hand a young peasant, Joseph Lonnergan, son of a poor widow at Mullough. He provoked hatred all round. Besides engaging in business as a corn merchant and butter buyer, he started a newspaper. But as proprietor of the 'Clonmel Gazette or Munster Mercury' he began to sink money rapidly. An attempt to redeem his fortunes by entering into yet larger mercantile speculations with a trading firm in Waterford also failed. Impending ruin infuriated his natural irascibility until he came at last to be a terror to his wife and children. Arrayed like a dandy of the period in buckskins and top-boots, he flaunted about then so constantly in lace ruffles and white cravat, that he was habitually spoken of among the Tipperary bloods as ‘Shiver-the-Frills’ or ‘Beau Power.’

In 1804 Marguerite, being then a child of fourteen and a half, was proposed for by two officers of the 47th regiment, then stationed at Clonmel. Her parents forced her to marry one of these, Captain Maurice St. Leger Farmer of Poplar Hall and Laurel Grove, co. Kildare, a man who indulged in such ungovernable outbursts of passion as to suggest insanity. Three months after their marriage, on 7 March 1804, upon Captain Farmer being ordered to join his regiment, then encamped on the Curragh of Kildare, Marguerite resolutely refused to accompany him, and returned to her father's house at Clonmel. In 1807 she was at Cahir, and in 1809 at Dublin, and at eighteen her beauty had become so conspicuous that her portrait was painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence. In 1816 she was in Manchester Square, London. There she was still residing when, on 21 Oct. 1817, Captain Farmer was killed during a drunken orgie by falling from a window in the King's Bench prison. Four months afterwards his widow, on 16 Feb. 1818, was married at the church in Bryanston Square to Charles John Gardiner, second Viscount Mountjoy, and first Earl of Blessington. Seven years her senior and a widower, this nobleman drew from his estates in Ireland an annual income of thirty thousand pounds. This fortune he squandered on every whim. Upon his first wife's funeral four years earlier he had expended 3,000l. Upon his new bride he lavished every luxury. Their town mansion, 11 St. James's Square, was fitted up like the palace of a Sybarite. Under the influence of Lady Blessington it soon became a centre of social attraction. Early in 1822 she published anonymously her first work, ‘The Magic Lantern, or Sketches of Scenes in the Metropolis,’ 16mo. In 1822 she also published ‘Sketches and Fragments,’ 12mo. On 22 Aug. 1822 Lord and Lady Blessington started upon a continental tour. They were attended by the youngest sister of the countess, Mary Anne Power, afterwards, in 1832, married to the Baron de St. Marsault; by a young architect, who became famous as Charles Mathews the light comedian, and by Alfred Count d'Orsay, proverbially the handsomest man of his time, and a very Crichton in his accomplishments. With him the Countess of Blessington, down to the close of her life, was thenceforth most intimately associated.

At Genoa in 1823, for two months together, from 1 April to 1 June, the Blessingtons were in daily intercourse with Lord Byron. Before Byron parted from the Blessingtons, his acquaintance with whom had so rapidly ripened into intimate friendship that he did so with a passion of tears, he had sold his yacht Bolivar to the earl, and had written not only a jeu d'esprit, but one of the last of his minor poems to the countess.

Early in Lord Blessington's Italian tour his only legitimate son by his first wife, Luke, Viscount Mountjoy, died in his tenth year. Some time before its close the earl's only legitimate daughter, Lady Harriet Gardiner, then a girl of fifteen, was married on 1 Dec. 1827, at Naples, to Count d'Orsay. Towards the end of 1828 the whole party moved homewards, and on arriving in Paris took up their residence in the Hôtel Maréchal-Ney. There, on 23 May 1829, the Earl of Blessington died from a stroke of apoplexy at the age of forty-six. The earl's estate had diminished from 30,000l. to 23,000l. a year. Upon his death all his honours became extinct. The countess remained in Paris during the revolution of 1830. Towards the close of 1831 she took a house in Seamore Place, Mayfair, where she resumed her old social pre-eminence. She in some measure, however, shared the honours of fashionable supremacy with the Countess of Charleville, Lady Holland, and for a while with the Dowager Countess of Cork, down to the latter's death in 1840 at the age of ninety-four. ‘Everybody goes to Lady Blessington,’ writes Haydon in his ‘Diary’ at this period (iii. 12). N. P. Willis, shortly after this, on calling in upon her at Seamore Place, speaks of her, in his ‘Pencillings by the Way’ (p. 356), as ‘one of the most lovely and fascinating women I have ever seen,’ and of Count d'Orsay (p. 355) as ‘the most splendid specimen of a man, and a well-dressed one,’ he had ever beheld. Lady Blessington's income after the earl's death was restricted to her jointure of 2,000l. a year. Besides living expensively she had dependent upon her seven or eight members of her own family. To maintain her position she took to authorship. In 1833 appeared her first novel in 3 vols., ‘Grace Cassidy, or the Repealers.’ She then also began writing industriously for the periodicals, for annuals and magazines. Her house in Seamore Place, in the summer of 1833, was broken into and robbed of plate and jewellery to the value of 1,000l. In 1834 she began her many years' editorship of the ‘Book of Beauty,’ to which she was herself the most industrious contributor. That year also she republished, from the ‘New Monthly,’ her ‘Conversations with Lord Byron,’ 8vo. In 1835 appeared her novel, in 3 vols., ‘The Two Friends,’ descriptive of society in the Faubourg St.-Germain. In 1836 were published her ‘Flowers of Loveliness,’ 4to, and her ‘Confessions of an Elderly Gentleman,’ illustrated by Parris, 8vo. Early in that year she moved into Gore House, Kensington, where for thirteen years she gathered around her the most distinguished men of intellect of that time. In 1837 she published ‘The Victims of Society;’ and in 1838 the ‘Gems of Beauty,’ and the ‘Confessions of an Elderly Lady,’ illustrated by Parris, 12mo. ‘The Works of Lady Blessington’ were issued from the press in a collected form in 2 vols. 8vo in 1838 at Philadelphia. In 1839 she produced ‘The Governess’ and ‘Desultory Thoughts and Reflections,’ besides two volumes of the most successful of all her writings, ‘The Idler in Italy.’ A third volume of that work appeared in 1840. In that year she also published, in a quarto volume illustrated by Chalons, her story in verse, ‘The Belle of a Season.’ In 1841 she produced her ‘Idler in France,’ and began her ten years' editorship of ‘The Keepsake.’ By that work in 1848 she was a loser to the extent of 700l. through the death, in a state of bankruptcy, of Charles Heath the engraver. In 1842 appeared, in 3 vols., her ‘Lottery of Life and other Tales,’ and in 1843, in 4 vols., ‘Strathern, or Life at Home and Abroad: a Story of the Present Day.’ From this work, although only four hundred copies of it were sold, she realised nearly 600l., it having first appeared as a serial in the ‘Sunday Times.’ When the ‘Daily News’ was started, in January 1846, the Countess of Blessington was engaged to contribute to it, at the rate of 500l. a year, ‘exclusive intelligence.’ At the end of six months, however, she withdrew from that engagement. In 1846 she published her novel, in 3 vols., ‘The Memoirs of a Femme de Chambre,’ and (edited by her) ‘Lionel Deerhurst, or Fashionable Life under the Regency.’ In 1847 appeared, in 3 vols., her novel founded on fact, ‘Marmaduke Herbert, or the Fatal Error.’ One other work only appeared from her hand, and that posthumously in 1850, her novel in 3 vols., ‘Country Quarters.’ For nearly twenty years she had been earning an income, according to Jerdan (Autobiography, iv. 320–1), of between 2,000l. and 3,000l. a year. Her annual expenditure at Gore House, however, exceeded 4,000l., and from 1843 her pecuniary difficulties were perpetually increasing. In 1845 the potato disease seriously affected her jointure, which, after rapidly dwindling, in 1848 finally disappeared. Count d'Orsay, meanwhile, who but a few months after his marriage had been separated from his young wife, had for the last dozen years been living at Gore House with the Countess of Blessington. In April 1849 the long-impending crash came upon both. To escape arrest Count d'Orsay, on the night of the 1st, fled to Paris, taking with him his valet and a single portmanteau. On the 14th Lady Blessington followed him thither. From the auction which took place at Gore House on 10 May 1849 less than 12,000l. was realised. Within a month from that time, on 4 June 1849, the Countess of Blessington died very suddenly in her sixtieth year in her apartments in the Rue du Cercle, near the Champs-Elysées, from an apoplectic seizure, complicated by heart disease. She was buried at Chambourcy, near St.-Germain-en-Laye, the residence of her most intimate friends during many years, the Duke and Duchess de Grammont.

[Memoir prefixed to Country Quarters, vol. i. pp. iii–xxiii, 1850; Madden's Life of the Countess of Blessington, 3 vols. 8vo, 1855; Chorley's Authors of England, pp. 28–30, 1861; Grantley Berkeley's Recollections, vol. iii. ch. x. ‘Gore House,’ pp. 201–31, 1865; Jerdan's Autobiography, iv. 320–1; C. Mathews's Autobiography, i. 60–165; Annual Register for 1849, pp. 245–6; Gent. Mag. August 1849, pp. 202–3; Morning Post, 5 June 1849; Athenæum, 9 June, 1849, p. 599; Illustrated London News, 9 June, 1849, p. 396.]

C. K.