A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, July 17, 2014

"The Mad Nun of Lebanon": the Strange Case of Lady Hester Stanhope, Part I

Lady Hester Stanhope
 "I think you are another of these desert-loving English: Doughty, Stanhope, Gordon of Khartoum. No Arab loves the desert. We love water and green trees, there is nothing in the desert. No man needs nothing."
— Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness) to T.E. Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) in David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia
These words are probably a scriptwriter's creation, but delivered by Alec Guinness in what would later be recognized as the authoritative voice of Obi-Wan Kenobi, they seem full of meaning. Probably most viewers of the movie, however, if they recognized any of those names, would know Gordon of Khartoum.  They certainly reflect a reality: the English adventurer who "goes native" and adopts not just the Middle East, but the most exotic or traditional aspects of it, and plunge themselves into the most bedouin or tribal aspects thereof. Lawrence was, of course, just such a "desert-loving English," at least in one stage of his self-creation. Sir Richard Francis Burton also comes to mind, and in later generations, Wilfred Thesiger and St.John Philby.

The other names above may be less familiar. Gordon, of course, is well remembered as the Governor of Sudan, killed by the Mahdi's forces before the relief expedition reached him. Charles M. Doughty was the author of Travels in Arabia Deserta, one of the great travel books of all time, but written in an antique, pseudo-Spencerian or Elizabethan style that puts off readers (though T.E. Lawrence wrote an introduction to later editions and claimed to try to emulate the style in Seven Pillars of Wisdom). There is a wonderful field for research here: all these "desert-loving English" were a bit eccentric. Doughty's eccentricities were mainly linguistic (plus the fact that he wrote a six-volume epic poem on The Birth of Britain which he hoped would be remembered when Arabia Deserta was forgotten: he was wrong).

Of the others, all can be described, at the very least, as eccentric. Few were well-adjusted in modern eyes. Gordon of Khartoum has been the subject of psychological speculation since Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians  in 1918, and T.E. Lawrence has fascinated biographers since even before his death, fueled and perhaps challenged by his own frequent self-reinventions. Burton is also a much-studied character, another man who invented an image of himself which may or may not be the real one, but which was aimed at shocking the Victorian age.

The name least likely to be recognized in the quote above is "Stanhope." Lady Hester Stanhope, the only woman in the group (though we should probably add Gertrude Bell as well) and the earliest of them in time (1776-1839) is also most likely the most eccentric of all, if not something rather more, earning her the soubriquet: "the mad nun of Lebanon." (Mad, perhaps. Of Lebanon, certainly. But "Nun" probably refers to the fact that Lady Hester never married and had extreme religious beliefs, and sequesered herself from the world in later years.  In fact, however, she was apparently an enthusiastically liberated woman both sexually and in social roles. She has become something of a proto-feminist heroine, a role marred slightly by the "Mad" part, such as her belief that she was destined to be the bride of the Islamic Mahdi. But more about that later.)

In an earlier era she was well-known. A blogger notes:
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.
A Romanticized Lady Hester
I haven't tracked those references down; I'm just reporting them, though both Picasso and Joyce apparently viewed her as  forerunner of sexual liberation. And remember, she was more a child of the Enlightenment than a Victorian; she was in her 40s when Victoria was born, and died only two years into her reign.  But she also dominates Chapter VIII of Alexander Kinglake's Eothen, once a famous travel work of a visit to the East. And Lord Byron is said to have called her, "that dangerous thing, a female wit."

Lady Hester came of a most distinguished background. Her father was Charles, 3rd Earl of Stanhope, while her mother was Hester Pitt, daughter of William Pitt the Elder, First Earl of Chatham, and sister of William Pitt the Younger. So in addition to being the daughter of an Earl, Hester Stanhope was granddaughter and niece of the two greatest Prime Ministers of the age. In 1803 she became the hostess of her uncle, the Younger Pitt, then Prime Minister and unmarried and in need of an official hostess. When Pitt died in 1806 he left her a moderately comfortable (for her class) annual income of £1200.

I's pretty clear that (see Byron above) she made an impression, positive or negative, on society, and on men.  Her portraits do not show her as unattractive, by any means, but despite her rank she was widely considered not a great beauty but an intelligent, independent, and freethinking woman when none of those attributes were praised at her level of society. But her succession of lovers apparently were attracted to precisely those qualities.

But that wouldn't get her remembered, or onto this blog.  Like he others mentioned, she was attracted to the East, though the "Queen of he Desert" title is ridiculous: we're talking about Palestine and Lebanon. Like Gordon of Khartoum, she had curious religious notions, usually including messianic fantasies. And like Burton, she appears to have had a certain enthusiasm about sex. But she was also a pioneering Biblical archaeologist.

Though she never married, she was apparently no aristocratic maiden but an early liberated woman, though as usual for the era it is hard to document those who merely fell in love with her and those who may have been physical lovers. When General Sir John Moore died at Corunna in the Peninsular War against Napoleon in Spain, his last words to  her brother Charles). were reportedly, "Remember me to your sister, Stanhope." She his said to have kept his bloodstained glove for the rest of her life. And he had not been her first romance.

In 1810 she decided to visit the exotic East to explore Biblical sites and whatever else might lie before her. And there began her nearly 30 years in the Middle East. Stay tuned.

Sources used in the above post and in future parts (some only partially consulted):

Wikipedia, Lady Hester Stanhope.

 [Charles Louis Meryon], Memoirs of the Lady Hester Stanhope as Related in Conversations with her Physician, online versions, Vol. I, Vol. II, Vol. III.

 [Charles Louis Meryon], Travels of the Lady Hester Stanhope, Forming the Completion of Her Memoirs, Vol. I, Vol. II, Vol. III.

The Life and Letters of Lady Hester Stanhope, by her Niece,the Duchess of Cleveland (online)

Frank Hamel, Lady Hester Lucy Stanhope: A New Light on Her Life and Love Affairs (PDF from microform)

Saudi Aramco World, September/October 2970, "'Queen of the Desert': Lady Hester Stanhope"

Mail Online, 22 August 2008, "Wild Life of a White Warrior Goddess." (Okay, the title alone would have told you it was The Daily Mail, but it's really a review of Kirsten Ellis' Star of the Morning: The Extraordinary Life of Lady Hester Stanhope, which I haven't used.)

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